Interview: Vivek Shraya on HOW TO FAIL AS A POPSTAR's Journey From the Stage to the Page

How Shraya has kept busy in a year where the theater landscape has changed drastically, and her hopes for a future where she can take to the stage again.

By: Feb. 27, 2021
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Interview: Vivek Shraya on HOW TO FAIL AS A POPSTAR's Journey From the Stage to the Page

It's been a little over a year since Vivek Shraya's one-woman show HOW TO FAIL AS A POPSTAR debuted in front of a live audience. In that time, she's released a novel, an anniversary edition of her 2010 collection of short stories 'God Loves Hair', and is just days away from the release of her latest project: a book adaptation of 'How to Fail as a Popstar,' written by Shraya and published by Arsenal Pulp Press.

While writing a book wasn't new for Shraya, the task of bringing a story she had always meant for the stage to the written word proved to be an exciting challenge. "I'm certainly familiar with plays being published, but i didn't really understand why. Like, what would be the point of publishing a play? This is a live experience, how can a book translate that? My understanding is that a lot of it is for academic reasons. It's a way for plays to be studied in schools, and also for archival reasons."

Shraya's initial hesitation towards translating HOW TO FAIL... from the stage to the page changed as time went on and lockdowns continued. "It started to look like, who knows if I'll ever get to perform the play again? Suddenly the book format felt a lot more appealing to me partly for that archival purpose. I love that theater is ephemeral, I love that the people who saw it got to see it; but I think for me personally, a book allows it to exist beyond the stage. The big thing for me was that if we're going to do a book, it can't just be the play in a book form-I appreciate that that's the route some artists take when they publish their work, but...if we're going to do a book, how do we modify the story for the page?"

Thankfully, her background and experience helped her move forward with telling the story of HOW TO FAIL... in book format. "My hope is to draw a wider readership than just being studied in theater class, so we reformatted the whole text. Like, what does this look like on the page?" Shraya notes a scene at the end of the show where she recites a list of all the reasons for her not breaking out in the music industry. Performed live, it's a gripping and almost haunting moment, and one that makes it easy to understand her initial reluctance to adapt HOW TO FAIL... for other mediums.

"The list at the end, for me it was like-how do you move something like that, where the lights come up and you're making eye contact with people? It's point by point, it's slow, it's meditative, it's painful, and so (when adapting the list for the book) I decided to put one line per page. Suddenly, the book slows down and you kind of have to flip page by page to read all forty lines. Those were some of the decisions I made to make it less like 'here's the play on paper,' and more like 'this is the book version of the play.'"

"Let's face it, the book won't ever be the same as the live experience - but I didn't set out for it to be that way. I think it's trying to do the play as much justice as possible, while also respecting the format of the book and what the book can do. I think it's about letting go in some ways."

While Shraya might have intended on telling her story on stage, she explained that the initial inspiration behind creating the work came from her experience reading music autobiographies. One important distinction she makes is that while they both tell the stories of artists, it's in how they tell them that sets HOW TO FAIL... apart.

"I refer to it as an anti-music biography, or an anti-success story, because music biographies often require the artist at hand to be enormously successful. When you read about Joni Mitchell writing 'A Case of You', we all know what that song is, and you already have those sort of cultural touchpoints whereas with my music story you don't. That's one reason why I went for a play and not a book. It's kind of funny, and it feels very full circle to come back to the book format, because initially I was like 'no, this is not a book, this is a play!' and now here it is-as a book," Shraya laughs.

"So many of these music biographies subscribe to this idea of 'I always knew I was destined for something greater,' that sort of language, and that's wonderful. But I think for every person that believed, or just knew that they were going to be successful, there are thousands of people who also believed and weren't successful."

"That, to me, was what was special about 'Popstar'-in some ways it was really trying to create space for the failure of dreams. I think what we're so used to reading and consuming are these success stories, but for every one person that makes it into the music industry, there's thousands of us that don't. It feels sad, sometimes, to think about the people who have tried to be successful and those stories that we never hear."

As important as telling the story is to Shraya, she didn't jump on board with streaming the production once lockdowns started and entire theatrical seasons were cut short, rescheduled, or cancelled entirely.

"That definitely came up. At the time, I would come out of doing 'Popstar' every night and in a room full of people so doing something just felt like there was no way in hell I was gonna do it," Shraya laughs. "When I think about the experience of doing that show two days in a row, and singing my heart out, it feels like one of the best times of my life. So any conversations around virtual versions of the play felt way too reductive, and way too diminishing of the experience both for me and the audience."

Part of not wanting to stream the work came from her questions around how the work would be defined, or received, if it were streamed online instead. "If we just film something and put it on the internet, is it still theater? And do audiences even want this?" Shraya asks. "Does it make sense that organizations want to do this sort of stuff, and artists want to do this sort of stuff, but it's not clear to me whether or not audiences want to sit and watch a ninety-minute play online."

Shraya's reluctance to turn HOW TO FAIL... from a stage-to-stream work didn't mean that she flat out refused to shift to video. Instead, she and director Brendan Healy took the last eight minutes of the play and gave them the full pop treatment: a music video. In it, Shraya recites the list of reasons why she failed as a popstar as slowly and emotionally as she did on stage. By the time she's hit the final reason, the video cuts to her in glam pop attire to deliver "Showing Up," the ballad that she had closed HOW TO FAIL... with on stage.

"(The music video) felt contained, and it felt like a different iteration-it didn't feel like we were just gonna do the same thing, stick a camera on and stream. That did not interest me in any way, but creating a music video that felt a little more like an artistic angle on this one particular moment felt more interesting and stimulating to create." While the music video gave her the flexibility to convey a part of the show in a filmed format, Shraya didn't want to lose the impact of other scenes and stories in her work in order to fit the new normal of digitized theater. "I think it's about the intention of the piece. If 'Popstar' was written to be streamed online then (streaming) makes sense, but the intention was to be live in a to just throw it up onto the internet feels like robbing it of that."

"I don't know. Maybe I'm just not cut out for the next phase of the world where we move into this virtual landscape totally and officially, but for me it feels so hard to let go of that live experience."

With all the changes we've seen in the last year as to how art is created and how audiences experience it, and given the importance of a story like HOW TO FAIL... in a world where success stories are the norm, is a return to the stage something Shraya would consider in the future?

"It's funny, because I often talked about how I was loving the theater experience and Brendan (Healy) kept making jokes where he was like, "You know, once you go theater you never go back!" I'm finding myself very loosely starting to imagine things like, what would a future play look like? If I wanted to move forward and continue in the realm of theater and performance, what might that be? So I think that between the hope of performing 'Popstar' a few times again in the near future and thinking about a future play, theater is stuck with me."

Despite the cut-short-too-soon run of HOW TO FAIL AS A POPSTAR and the uncertain future of live theater in the face of ongoing lockdowns, she's still able to look back at the experience fondly. "'Popstar' really feels like a career highlight-the creation of it, the performance of it, and just the way it really allowed me to bring together my various artistic interests and skills into one I continue to have-against the odds-" Shraya laughs, "hope that i'll do it again."

"I'm so grateful to anyone who saw it and was there because it's like, 'See? It's real, it happened, it wasn't just my imagination.'"

For more information on, or to order Vivek Shraya's 'How to Fail as a Popstar' published by Arsenal Pulp Press, visit

Image Credit: Heather Saitz