Friday, October 07, 2022

How To Fail As A Popstar – a Canadian artist explains why a star isn’t born (Belfast International Arts Festival at The MAC until Saturday 8 October) #BIAF22

The Indian child on The Mickey House Club wasn’t given the same prominence as the white kids who launched themselves off the Disney TV extravaganza’s springboard into big careers on stage and screen. Instead, Vivek Shraya tried out for local Edmonton talent shows, paid over the odds to record an album that showed off the producer rather than the talent, and spent time in Toronto and Paris sliding down the greasy pole of showbiz stardom instead of ascending to greatness. Not that being the opening support act for a north American Tegan and Sara tour isn’t a pinnacle beyond the reach of most people in this evening’s audience at the MAC.

How To Fail As A Popstar is a show about naming failure, owning up to unfulfilled ambition and reflecting on opportunities lost, taken and swerved.

Dressed in a short black jumpsuit accessorised with a shimmering golden cloak, Shraya spends much of the 95-minute show performing inside a circular stage whose circumference is marked out by LED rope lights. A guitar is picked up and strummed just a couple of times. Some well-crafted soundscaping is built into the show’s choreography to set the mood, dropping in some amusing musical gags, and adding a lush reverb to some of the singing (though it’s noticeably missing at other times).

For a show about failing to break into the stratospheric heights of true pop stardom, the musical interludes are surprisingly short. Plenty of two line riffs, a verse sung here and there, but no three minute ballads to demonstrate to the audience that Shraya actually had what it might to have taken made it big in Canada and beyond.

Instead, the show relies on the spoken word. Brendan Healy’s direction gives Shraya distinct places to gaze for each beat of the somewhat overwritten script. At times the delivery feels manufactured, having lost the sense of raw emotion and vulnerability that clearly underlies the incredibly personal tale. It has much more of the feel of a play than a confessional piece, as if Shraya wrote a great script and then Healy auditioned a completely different actor to perform the role.

Some great one-liners tickle the audience funny bones throughout the show. Shraya is also a great mimic of his friends and ex-colleagues. The final list of 40 reasons why Shraya failed as a popstar is the clear zenith of the show. The delivery is unhurried. The lights are brought up over the audience to remind us that we too will be living with our own lists of excuses. It’s a moment of surprising reflection. Understated yet moving.

Growing up queer. Finding a tribe. Escaping a hometown. Wrestling back control from disappointing producers. Overcoming the lack of leather pants. Shraya may know how to fail as a popstar, but she’s also learned to step out of the circle and move on.

There’s a final opportunity to hear Vivek Shraya’s story on Saturday evening in The MAC as part of Belfast International Arts Festival. Check out the preview post from a few weeks ago to find out what else the festival is serving up between now and 6 November.

Photo credit: Dahlia Katz

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