With a microphone, a stool and a guitar, Vivek Shraya tells us How to Fail as a Popstar, presented by Canadian Stage. Dressed in a simple, elegant one-piece and sparkly sneakers—a glittery gold robe on standby for some fabulous flair—she’s a warm and captivating presence as she relates her adventures in the music industry.
Shraya takes comic aim at that industry and it would seem almost satirical were it not for the unguarded sincerity. Her identity as Brown, queer and trans informs so much of her journey—sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse, always significant. Her reluctance, despite coaxing, to “embrace the sitar” is a particularly cute recurring joke.
From her humble talent show beginnings in the malls of Edmonton to a jet-setting lifestyle in Paris and New York, Shraya peppers her show with self-aware nods to “A Star is Born” narrative clichés. She pays loving tribute to family (specifically her mother), friends and industry supporters who have had her back along the way. And despite the unrewarded time, money and energy it has cost her, she conveys even her most frustrating experiences with record producers with a generosity of spirit.
Never glib or inordinately self-mocking, Shraya’s demeanour throughout is buoyant and jovial. Her voice is steady and alluring. A proficient storyteller, she consistently finds telling details to bring colour and vitality to the people and places she conjures.
And when she sings, it is dreamy!
In his sound design, James Bunton gives Shraya a very pronounced reverb when she breaks out in song. It’s the sort of effect I wouldn’t expect to like. Used indelicately, it can be gimmicky, though it feels very authentic here and lends a heightened significance to her vocals, coding the act of singing itself as transcendent. It feels right. From the devotional bhajans of her childhood, that spiritual element, though somewhat removed from explicit religious practice, has remained a defining feature of her relationship to music.
And then there is the “failure” at the core of her story, a painful admission which she leaves for the end. Given the jaunty quality of everything that came before, the final note she plays is somewhat jarring. All playfulness aside, she takes on a sober, confessional tone to confide in us a darker, less flattering truth.
With my own frustrated artistic aspirations festering in my gut, I related strongly to her in these final moments. And yet, something didn’t sit quite right with me. I think the emotion was overplayed. I don’t doubt the authenticity, but this being a thoroughly crafted show, the tears are performative—an artistic choice, and not necessarily the strongest one.
Her pragmatic acceptance of the fact that she did not become a popstar—selling out stadiums full of cheering crowds—and her vulnerable admission of just how not over it she is: that is moving enough on it its own, without overt emotionality. As is her comprehensive list of potential reasons for that failure. Bouncing from frivolous to self-deprecating to socially perceptive: any or all of them could be significant or irrelevant, but all are real to us because they are real to her.