Reclaiming the Spotlight: Finding Community with “Is There Anybody Out There?”
The student-written jukebox musical Is There Anybody Out There?, based on A Great Big World’s album of the same name, aims to find community and understanding through the telling of stories typically excluded from the stage. At the core of the show is Norah, a South Asian Muslim-American woman, who is pursuing her musical dreams in New York City alongside Bernardo, a Mexican-American man, when a relationship between them begins to bud. Just when the audience sees the two leaning in for a kiss, Norah comes out as gay for the first time. The unexpected twist spurs the development of the rest of the show, which follows Norah’s exploration of her sexuality, Bernardo’s and Norah’s friendship, and their relationships with their families. In a pre-recorded stage reading over Zoom on April 9 and April 10, Is There Anybody Out There? explored what it means to be seen, to find community, to be in love, and to thrive when the world you live in throws you to the sidelines.
Sophomore Athena Nair is the playwright of the show and stars as Norah. She started writing the musical four years ago as a sophomore in high school after hearing the album that the musical is based on and finding that no one else had beaten her to the idea of creating a jukebox musical from the work. “I just started writing it on a whim because I have no experience writing musicals,” said Nair. The show features an all BIPOC cast, which came to Nair automatically: “A lot of my other work is very intentionally representational in thinking about queerness and people of color. But with this show, I was like, ‘Okay, I see a lead female and a lead male. The lead female’s gay, but she’s still figuring it out. She’s South Asian, the lead male is Mexican-American.’” Once at Tufts, she was encouraged by Untrue to Form, an experimental student theater group, to continue developing her work. After workshopping the show, she brought the idea to Torn Ticket II, a student-run musical theater group at Tufts.
This is Nair’s first production with Torn Ticket. She said, “I haven’t been in a Torn Ticket show officially. To be totally honest, Torn Ticket seemed very exclusive and really white.” This is the group’s first production with a full BIPOC cast, following a problematic history of Tufts productions casting white people as traditionally BIPOC characters, according to Nair. The lack of diversity in Tufts theater groups demonstrates a microcosm of a larger occurrence on the stage: in a 2020 report examining representation in New York City theater, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition found that only 18.5 percent of BIPOC performers were in roles specific to their racial identity, and only about 20 percent of those roles centered on BIPOC experiences. Nair is seeking to change this reality with her production. “This is our show. This is our space. In one way, it’s like we’re trying to infiltrate the space, make it our own and make it comfortable. Hopefully, this is the start of that,” said Nair.
This show is the first that Siddhant Talwar, a junior, has been involved in since coming to Tufts. Talwar plays Norah’s father, a computer programmer by day and a drag performer by night. Echoing Nair, Talwar said, “I don’t think a lot of other Torn Ticket productions have particularly interested me in the past because of the content.” What drew them to this show was the characters being recognizable to them. “A lot of plays and theater [are] about white folk. Often it doesn’t interest me … I would never be able to play a character who wasn’t South Asian.”
“[The show is] not a grand event of people being POC, it is also small moments of everyday life,” said Talwar. They found moments of recognition when listening to the character Norah have conversations with her mother, knowing the traditional food they eat, and catching the cultural references made between characters. In contrast to other productions that ignore marginalized experiences, Is There Anybody Out There? centers the lives of these communities onstage in gentle pursuit of exploring the complexities of identity and relationships.
Talwar emphasized how having POC spaces at Tufts, a predominantly white institution, has shaped their experience finding community. “Zooming in to the first rehearsal and then having that moment of realization like, ‘Oh, all of us are people of color,’ that was really fun,” said Talwar. “The comfort that automatically came by being in that space was really interesting. There was very little awkwardness from the start … It just felt comfortable from day one.”
Over the summer, theater communities joined the rest of the country in beginning to reckon with racism and white supremacy. Nair was in these conversations within Tufts theater groups and said she felt the toll it took onher while expending labor and energy as one of the few POC members in the predominantly white space. “I’m doing this so that hopefully other people of color can feel safer, and to make some changes, but that was really, really tough,” Nair said.
Nair emphasized the benefit of not having to explain her culture throughout production because of the diversity in casting. “It’s been really joyful connecting with other BIPOC creating art right now.” Nair made sure the cast and production team had the opportunity to bond and discuss the topics covered in the show. They recently hosted a discussion about immigration, a major theme in the show, wherein people shared their different experiences and personal stories on the subject. “[The space is] a chance for people to come together to create art. It should be joy and an expression of creativity during COVID. It’s also a way to build community,” said Nair.
Attention to identity also extends into the fashion and set, according to Mia X, a sophomore and the designer of the show. X said she was drawn to the musical because of the diversity in the story and cast that allowed room for so many identities. In designing the costumes, X said she thought deeply about how the characters’ identities manifest into their physical appearance. She explored how one character might wear a flag from their home country to note how proud they are in their identity, while another character might not dress to reflect their culture because they are timid about outwardly showcasing their heritage. “I have certain characters who are very proud of their ethnicity, so they might dress in a style that’s indicative of the contemporary era we live in, but they’ll also wear some things that remind them of their culture,” said X. “I want everyone to look unique because … everyone’s identity is different.”
X said that everything from the design to the story of the show represents an opening space for voices traditionally muffled in theater. “I want everyone to feel like they have a space in this,” said X. “I want this to feel like the people’s production. This was made by us, to be consumed by primarily us, but it’s for everybody … theater is not just a platform for white cishet students, theater is for everybody. I think that marginalized people have every right in the world to reclaim theater, to reclaim musicals, and to reclaim happiness and joy.”
Note about content
If you’d like to talk with the playwright about your own experiences with any of these identities, or any thoughts/concerns you may have about the show, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.