Shishir Kurup

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Los Angeles, CA

Playwright accepts commissions.

Bio

Shishir Kurup is an actor/writer/director/composer born in Bombay, India raised in Mombasa, Kenya and the U.S. His one-man shows Assimilation and Exile: Ruminations on a Reluctant Martyr (the latter a commission from Highways Performance Space) have been seen in countless cities and universities nationally and internationally including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Austin, London and Manchester, England. His essay “In-Between-Space”  appears in “Let’s Get It On: The Politics of Black Performance”  published by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Assimilation is published by Rutgers Press in the anthology “Bold Words: A Century of Asian American Writing.”  He was profiled in author Mei Ling Cheng’s book: “In Other Los Angeleses-Multicentric Performance Art.”  His play Merchant on Venice was a Kennedy Center new play award winner. His latest solo performance piece Sharif Don’t Like It examines the fallout from the USA Patriot Act and the disappearance of over two thousand South Asian and Arab Muslims and will be seen in this years National Asian American Festival in October in NYC.

Shishir is an ensemble member of the nationally renowned Cornerstone Theater Company and was nominated for an Ovation Award for acting in Cornerstone’s, Malliere.  He has also written over a hundred songs for Cornerstone, winning Garland and Dramalogue Awards for music composition in “Los Vecinos”  and “Candude” (the latter directed by him and nominated for an Ovation Award for Best Musical of the Year) and for Acting in Twelfth Night, MedeaMacbethCinderella and Los Biombos, directed by Bill Rauch, Tracy Young and Peter Sellars, respectively. His play On Caring for the Beast opened in New York in April 2001 at the Currican Theater and was the inaugural production of DISHA Theatre Company. He was composer for Cornerstone’s adaptation of The Good Person of New Haven at the Long Wharf Theater and for a subsequent MedeaMacbethCinderella production at the Yale Rep. In 2006 he composed songs for Cornerstone’s production of As You Like It: A California Concoction at the Pasadena Playhouse and Co-composed songs for and directed Cornerstone’s twentieth anniversary show, Demeter in the City, at Redcat in Disney Hall written by Macarthur Fellow Sarah Ruhl. Shishir was also one of only six people nationwide to receive the TIME (Time for Inspiration, Motivation and Exploration) Grant from the Audrey Skirball Foundation in recognition of his body of work. In 2006 he was a Herb Alpert Award nominee for theater.

For Cornerstone, he has also written and directed Ghurba with the Arab-American community in the Los Angeles Festival, and written, directed and composed An Antigone Story , a multi-media, Rock ‘n’ Roll hijack of Sophocles’  classic at The Getty Center and The Subway Terminal Building (the latter production coinciding with the Democratic National Convention of 2000). He also co-directed (with Bill Rauch) and composed songs for Everyman in the Mall, and was playwright and composer for Sid Arthur and Birthday of the Century.

As Vishnu Dreams, Shishir’s meditation on the Ramayana, completed a highly successful run in 2004 at East West Players with critic’s choice from both the LA Times and LA Weekly. In June 2007 he directed the sold out run of Los Illegals, by Michael John Garces, which kicked off Cornerstone’s three year Justice Cycle. Shishir is nearing completion of his first feature film with Cornerstone of Sharif Don’t Like It, and will be looking for distribution around the country and abroad.

Elsewhere, he directed Sung Rno’s, “Cleveland Raining” at East West Players and Ten Angry Clowns at the Delle Arte School as well as several productions at the Los Angeles Theater Center where he was a part of the Artistic Staff running the Asian American Theatre Project. Shishir is a Princess Grace fellow. He is a California Arts Council Grant and Kennedy Center, Roger. L. Stevens Award recipient for his modern verse adaptation, Merchant on Venice, set in the South Asian community in and around Venice Boulevard in Culver City. Merchant was picked for the first annual South-Asian Diaspora festival at New York’s Lark Theatre. It also received an NEA/TCG Extended Collaboration Grant for further development workshops in Los Angeles and New York; at EastWest Players and The Lark respectively. Merchant performed at the Mark Taper Forum’s New Plays for Now Festival at the Kirk Douglas Theater in the Spring of ‘05 to a sold out house. In the Fall of ‘07 Merchant premiered at The Silk Road Theatre Project in Chicago to unanimously stellar reviews and the Best of 2007 List of the Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times and Time Out Magazine as well as other publications. Merchant was recently published in the anthology Beyond Bollywood and Broadway: Plays from the South Asian Diaspora from Indiana Press, compiled and edited by Neilesh Bose.

Shishir’s many acting roles have included Macbeth, Feste, Azdak, and Trigorin. He played “The Director”  in Alison Carey’s For Here or to Go? at the Mark Taper Forum. His many film and television credits include: Coneheads, Trigger Effect, City of Angels (film and TV series), In Good Company, Numb3rs, Sleeper Cell, Lost, Alias, Monk, Charmed, The Agency, Murder in Small Town X, Strong Medicine, Judging Amy, Off Centre, Six Feet Under, ER, C-16, etc’ ¦ recurring roles on: Chicago Hope, Surface, M.D.’s and West Wing; series regular in the Pilots: Veronica’s Video, Laugh Damnit! and The Ripples; Independent films: The Zeroes, Turbans, The Want, The Prime Gig, A Day Without A Mexican and Miss Nobody. He recurred in the first season of Heroes on NBC.

Awards and Responsibilities

  • Director of the Asian American Theatre Project at Los Angeles Theatre Center
  • Co-Artistic director with Page Leong of The Raven Group
  • Long time Ensemble and Board Member of Cornerstone Theater Company
  • Flintrigde Foundation Award- Skeleton Dance and On Caring for the Beast
  • Kennedy Center New Play Award  Merchant on Venice
  • California Arts Council Award- Merchant on Venice
  • Audrey Skirball Kenis (ASK)/T.I.M.E. Award- For body of work
  • Princess Grace Award- Performance
  • NEA/TCG Extended Collaborations Grant- Merchant on Venice
  • Herb Alpert Award Nominee
  • NAACP Image Award- Composing (w/David Markowitz)
  • Ovation Award Nominee –  Acting.
  • Garland /Dramalogue Award-Acting, composing.
  • LA Weekly Award- Acting.

Plays

Full Length Plays

An Antigone Story
Set in the near future. A play with songs.

A hijack of Sophocles’ original protest drama set in the near future following the breakup of the former United States into a loose federation of nation states, Antigone is a rocker-performance-artist-tree hugger who defies her Uncle Krayon, a media mogul who is also the Governor of the powerful nation state of CAN (California, Arizona, Nevada) when he refuses to bury one of his own nephews, Polynices. Antigone is compelled to speak truth to power despite the disastrous consequence that awaits her. Filled with songs, live video, futuristic newscasts and commercials as well as dance and rock concert spectacle. Best performed site specifically in an old abandoned warehouse or subway station.

As Vishnu Dreams
Set in a the timeless Dandaka forest as well as Ravana’s court in ancient India.

A meditation, not unlike Euripides’ Trojan Women and The Persians, on the ancient war drama of Rama, Sita and Ravana explored from the perspective of the losers of the war. Done with dance and puppetry in keeping with the traditional story telling style of the genre but juxtaposed with an anachronistic un-embedded journalistic  style of deconstructed storytelling. Told in flashback, present action and flash forwards, the piece explores the religious myth in all it complexities to tell a more modern reading of the ancient tale. Nothing is as it seems: Rama is more Hamlet than conquering hero, Ravana arguably more complex than merely villainous, Lakshmana more sociopath than stalwart and Sita more intrepid adventurer than just dutiful, wifely, perfection.

Assimilation
Set in the here and now. Various lengths. From 20 minutes to 70 minutes.

A solo exploration of the process that places demands on the immigrant to ‘become’ American. The piece focuses on the fragile line of cultural and racial identity in all its complexity. Humorous in its approach and mercurial in it’s character transformations, the play delves into issues of skin color, belonging, accent, and multiplicity of identity while trying to negotiate cultural difference and Americana through the characters of a southern 12 year old boy, two estranged Palestinians, an East African corn seller, a Thai waitress and several more all held together through the narratively fractured frame of the “assimilating” immigrant.

Birthday of the Century
Adapted from Thornton Wilder’s, The Long Christmas Dinner
Set in the living room of a family with two time portals of birth and Death. A play with songs.

Written for Cornerstone’s 10th birthday and created with the community of people who were born on June 30th the piece explores the wistful nature of life and its balancing act with death while presenting the vivid polyglot that is Los Angeles history. Characters are born, age and die in a surprisingly small period of stage time experiencing both joy and grief. Given the rare okay from the Wilder estate to make the page one rewrite/adaptation.

Exile: Ruminations on a Reluctant Martyr
Set in the early nineties and in the mind of a silenced writer. 70 minutes

A solo performance written as an exploration of the plight of Salman Rushdie during the Fatwa of the Ayatollah Khomeini but ultimately a meditation on censorship. It is also one Bombayite’s ode to another Bombayite.
A writer sits stranded in a sea of black, elevated on a love set with paper pad in lap, kabuki costume on body and make-up on face and the words of his life scribbled on strewn pieces of paper littering the space as large spires of books of all kinds jut out of the black sea. He is a victim of oppression but the oppression he suffers most greatly comes from within.

Ghurba
Set in the near future and in the now, on the timeless road to Ghurba.

A play with songs written in collaboration with members of the Arab American community of Los Angeles. Ghurba means ‘to long for home’  and concurrently ‘to feel estranged.’  An immigrant ghost story written through the lens of the migrations of Arabs to the U.S. from the turn of the last century to the present, all in the search for the promised land. Gleaned from stories from the community the piece features, onstage cooking, a stage full of eggplant and beautifully plaintive Arab folk songs.

Life and Death: A Vaudeville Show
Co-written with Susan Rubin
Set outside of time and space. A vaudeville sketch set.

A play with songs and silly dance. Set in the here and nowhere it is the exploration of the cosmic and schticky dance of Life and his sister death. A chance to explore the Lahtzi of life through vaudeville. Created for the Festival de Congresso Mundial Sobre La Muerte in Santiago, Cuba.

On Caring for the Beast
Set in San Francisco and in a Victorian House converted into three apartments.

On Caring for the Beast is about torture or rather about the obsession with healing through the quest for culpability. It is about ignorance and enlightenment, selfishness and sacrifice, fear and courageousness. Ultimately, it is about heroic love and confronting the demons of the past in order to chart a path to the future.

A newly published, “it” writer interviews a torturer for her second book.  Her landlady consults with the ouija board and communicates with demons and gods. Next door an older gay couple struggle with the crippling effects of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, (Lou Gehrig’s disease). The writer’s boyfriend fears for her physical and mental health as she gets drawn into the horrific world of her subject matter. Her subject, the torturer, becomes more and more unstable as the interviews continue, finally, leading to the climactic confrontation necessary for the flesh to pay the toll that the soul demands.

Merchant on Venice
Set in Culver City, California in the here and now.

A Tragi-comic, raucous, dark and irreverent work based on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice offering a bitingly South Asian perspective. Set in Culver City, CA where hatred and intolerance among Hindus and Muslims have grown to a boiling point. Using music, blank verse and present-day pop references, the play explores how the preponderance of power in one sector of a community can marginalize a minority and provoke reactionary and retributive responses.
Jitendra, a Hindu actor, has fled Bollywood stardom to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. To secure backing for his “India-Indie flick with crossover appeal” he schemes to marry a rich young heiress, Pushpa Shah, and in the process endangers the life of his best friend, Devendra, by becoming entangled with Devendra’s nemesis, Sharuk, a Muslim money-lender.  Pushpa, is in love with Jitendra, but as per her fatherâ s will, must marry only a man who can pass a multi-media test.

Written in an iambic pentameter replete with Indian, American and Latino jargon, Merchant on Venice reflects the many different sounds of the South Asian Diaspora as well as the polyglot crackle of Los Angeles. The play contains songs and incidental music, also by Kurup, influenced by both rock-and-roll and Bollywood movie songs further highlighting the clash/mash of culture that is so evidently the “masala” of the South Asian Diaspora. Merchant explores the nature of empathy and grace as well as blame, personal responsibility and internalized and externalized religious bigotry through the dreams, hopes and biases of the various characters as they pine and connive in the Los Angeles of the new Millennium.

Sid Arthur
Set in Watts, California in the mid nineties but could be the here and now.

A play with songs set in Watts, CA. Sid is the son of a preacher who is grooming him to be the next pastor of the influential Watts church but find that his calling is elsewhere and goes on a journey seeking what he canâ t name. Based on Herman Hesseâ s Siddhartha.

One Acts,  Short Plays, & Screenplays

The Adventures of Heeb and Saheeb in the Holographic Universe
Co-written with Jeffrey Sugarman
Set in NYC, a television set and the hereafter. A piece with songs.

Heeb and Saheeb is the performance duo of Jeff Sugarman and Shishir Kurup. The Holographic Universe is their sandbox, the place of mystery and magic, of joy and sorrow, of shtick and latzi. Of Kafkaesque, Vaudevillian, multi-mediated, performance where the sacred and the profane walk hand in hand working and re-working the perfect punchline for what is obviously a very badly conceived joke called “reality.”  A dark comedy that explores Jewish Mysticism, Hinduism and the concept of life and reality as we know it, as a hologram.

A man nearing his 45th birthday comes home to say Kaddish on the 1st anniversary of 9/11 for the people who died in the twin towers as well as for his father who died at the age of 45 and is surprised by a visitation from the hereafter.
A vaudeville of manners and mysticism.

Solstice (A screenplay)
Set on the outskirts of Reno, Nevada on the brink of the desert and yet in close enough proximity to the strip. Feature Length

Ancient shamans used the astro-convergent significance of the various dates  of the different solstices to commune with their dead ancestors. This was done in order to glean meaning and purpose on the physical plane. It connected the distant stars and planets to the fate of this tiny, blue, orb and the souls that dwelled on it. The Solstice, it was believed, provided openings or portals between the world of the known and the unknown.

A young pregnant virgin, her motel owning parents, three paranormally inclined scientists, a custodial engineer who died and came back to life and now sees vortexes, a stricken choreographer for an all male revue, a cross dressing card dealer at a low rent casino, a corrupt cop looking for a witness and a woman bent on keeping a rapist incarcerated ricochet off one another in this dark and whimsical story.

In Solstice, the film, these disparate characters that people the landscape of the Sandman Motel in the Nevada desert search for similar gleanings as the ancient shamans and find links between themselves and the planetary alignments that open doorways to their own unknowns.

Skeleton Dance
Set in an apartment in an Urban American city

Beckett meets Butoh in this darkly comic experiment in neuroses and sublimated desire. A response to the growing self-help industry the play seeks to explore the kind of  fear of menace that keeps people from ever taking a step toward their deepest wants and needs. That they’d rather drown in the safety of comfort than swim in the ragged currents of an act of volition. Not unlike the now ubiquitous boiling frog analogy. Created for the New Play Festival at the Los Angeles Theatre Center with a generous grant from the Flintridge Foundation.

Sharif Don’t Like It
Set in a single interrogation room

Sharif Don’t Like It is a piece that uses dark humor to explore the serio-comic excesses of hysteria and was created at the height of the paranoia which yielded Gitmo and Abu Ghraib as well as Maher Arar, the famous victim of Extraordinary Rendition, the practice of kidnapping alleged terror suspects, shipping them off to countries that the CIA had ties to in order to torture them with impunity. Sharif is the possible victim of this sort of incarceration.

Written as a protest to the hijacking of the US constitution by rabid, fearful, ideologues Sharif is also a way of exploring the nascent bigotry that lies just below the surface of the American and possibly most cultures veneers. The slightest scratch being all it takes for the front to ignite like flash paper. It is also a meditation on how language and rudimentary ideas of “other” cultures can manifest into the frightening notion that a little knowledge is deadly dangerous.