If Toronto-based actor Ronica Sajnani, who plays Asha in Festival Antigonish Summer Theatre’s production of A Brimful of Asha (opening July 17), looks familiar, it’s because she is.
Sajnani has a long list of TV credits including Workin’ Moms from this year, Note to Self and The Handmaid’s Tale from 2018, Black Mirror from 2017 and 2016’s American Gothic; amongst many others from previous years.
Then there are the films which include 2005’s Water and Bollywood/Hollywood from 2002.
This will be her first appearance at Festival Antigonish and it comes after she was recommended by A Brimful of Asha playwright Ravi Jain to artistic director Andrea Boyd.
“It was all kind of serendipitous and I am so pleased it happened,” Sajnani said, talking to the Casket July 3, a couple of weeks before the play opens at the Bauer Theatre.
This will be the first time actors other than Jain and his real-life mother Asha, who co-wrote the play, will take on the roles (Matt Lacas plays Ravi in the Festival Antigonish production). Sajnani agreed that can be a “daunting” task.
“I saw the play in one of its incarnations in Toronto and I didn’t realize it was a play that would get a life of its own,” she said. “And I have met Ravi and Asha. Ravi is the same age, or maybe a year older, but he and my sons were in school together. I have known him for a while and I’ve seen his career.
“First off, you have to decide if you’re going to mimic, which usually isn’t a good idea, most actors don’t do that, or whether you’re going to interpret which is, obviously, a more interesting choice. But, yes, it is daunting.”
In talking about working in both film/TV and theatre, Sajnani noted the process is completely different.
“The process of getting into a character is not, but you don’t have the gift of creating the part and spending time with it,” she said of the film work, going into more detail about how scenes can be shot out of order to accommodate locations, and the finished product coming out a lot different than visualized by actors.
“You go in, do your scene and they take a bunch of different takes. The director will say ‘OK, give me angry,’ ‘now plead,’ and then, at the end, whoever is editing and the director will come up with a film that you, perhaps in your mind, didn’t even think it was going to be.
“So it’s not easier, it’s just different and it’s definitely much shorter … really short, unless you have one of the major roles.”
She added even a major role can be a short experience since they could shoot scenes for multiple episodes, again taking advantage of a location, in a month’s time.
“No arc, no continuity, you just play your character,” she said.
“But in theatre, you have this gift; the time to talk about the character, try out different intentions, really parse the dialogue, set-up of the scene, all of that.
“It’s a real privilege to do it; and the other thing that happens is, once you do all that preparation and get on stage, it seems to take on a life of its own.”
A life which can be influenced by audience reaction, Sajnani noted.
“Even though you don’t do it intentionally, there is interaction with the audience which will bring out different aspects of a play, just depending on what the audience is reacting to,” she said.
“It’s not something you decide to do; it’s a response, automatic, sub-conscience. If you hear laughter at some point, you tend, not to play it up, but you’re aware of it, even though you’re in character. So it’s a different kind of reaction and experience [from film] altogether.
“It [audience reaction] gives you a charge, you react to it. What you’re trying to do is arouse some kind of emotion or empathy from the audience with whatever the characters are going through on stage; there is an interaction even though it’s not vocal.”
She talked about the story; a mother desperately trying to find her son a bride, even as he resists and attempts to impress on her that he is not ready.
“I see parts of my own family in it,” she said. “It’s personal because I’m Indian; I’m not unfamiliar with this at all. It happened to a lot of people in my extended family. My family specifically, especially my parents and, especially, from my mother’s side, it’s not typical.
“But, the story – every family in India has this story.”
She noted she relates too as a mother of two sons.
“Asha has two sons; what I don’t relate to is the pressure of getting your kids married. But, I do know from where it comes or the reason why it’s there. India society is superstitious – people talk. Even in a big city, communities are small, people talk to each other on the street. Usually, that’s where it all comes from. So I relate to it in that way.”
And considering it’s not only a cultural clash but a generational one, Sajnani said this is a play for everyone to relate to and enjoy.
“I wish everyone would come and see the play,” she said. “It’s delightful, fun, and it’s for the whole family. A slice of life that is not often seen.”
The play, being directed by Linda Moore, opens July 17 and runs until Aug. 2.
For more on the Festival Antigonish line-up, including purchasing advance tickets, visit festivalantigonish.com or call 902-867-3333 or 1-800-563-7529.