Cooking and theatre are a natural pair. Whether it’s a flip of a pan, the flash of fire, or the fast-talking chef behind it all, theatricality is just par for the course (pun intended).
So when Geffen Playhouse found Sri Rao, a filmmaker and cookbook author of Bollywood Kitchen, they knew a partnership had to be forged. Now, the digital theatrical experience is running as part of Geffen Stayhouse, the Los Angeles theatre’s virtual programming created in the middle of a pandemic.
Led by Rao, the show invites audiences to partake in a culinary journey from India to America as he (and ticketholders) cook dishes like chicken curry, Bollywood popcorn, and a chocolate chai affogato. Opening January 23, the show has been extended through March 6.
Click here for more information and tickets.
Below, Playbill talks the showman about his youth, his love for Bollywood musicals, and what it’s like to create a show with an all–South Asian creative team.
Is this your first theatrical production as a performer? What’s it been like creating a show for live audiences vs. film/TV?
Sri Rao: Yes, this is my first experience as a performer and, let me tell you, I have a whole new appreciation for actors! I’m particularly struck by how physically tiring the process is! We haven’t even begun performances yet, but simply preparing and rehearsing for a 70-minute show where I’m the only one “on-stage” (so to speak), makes me realize how much physical and emotional energy actors need to do their work.
What has it been like for you creating a theatrical experience centered around cooking?
SR: In a way, it’s been a savior. Cooking gives me “business” – something to do with my body during the show. And as we know, this can be what frees up an actor’s performance. If I had to just stand still and really dig deep into my emotions, I think that would be a lot harder. For someone who is new to performance, cooking allows me to get my mind off of the “acting” part of it, which would otherwise be really intimidating.
What does digital theatre add to Bollywood Kitchen versus this being an in-person production?
SR: I think it’s really exciting that people will be joining from their own homes, from their own kitchens. The idea that we will all be gathering, literally, to share a meal together – that drives home the message of the story, which revolves around my family dinners when I was growing up and the importance of that experience in my journey as a first-generation American. Because of digital theater, the audience will be able to experience what it was like for me in a visceral way – by smelling it, tasting it, and feeling it in their very own kitchens and homes.
What does your creative process with director Arpita Mukherjee look like for this production? Have you worked together previously?
SR: When Arpita came on to this project in 2019, it was such a relief for me as an artist. She immediately connected with the material and understood it in a way that none of my previous non-Indian-American collaborators were able to grasp. She instinctively understood how all the pieces could fit together – the food, the movies, the music, and the story. And the reason she was able to grasp all these layers is because she’s lived this experience herself, in her own way. She understands the languages of the show. That’s why it’s so important to support artists of color in theater (as well as film and television) – because we bring a perspective to the art that traditional white American theater artists may miss.
How did the rest of the creative team come together?
SR: We’re incredibly excited because the entire creative team is comprised of South Asian-American designers. All credit for that goes to Arpita, our director, who rallied her troops, called in a lot of favors, and assembled this brown dream team. It was really wonderful for me as the playwright and performer because everyone had their own personal connection to the material, and we all shared similar references and cultural touchpoints. As a result, each designer was able to add new layers to the piece because they were already beginning with a clear understanding of the themes and messages in the piece. We didn’t need to spend any time in the room making translations.
How would you describe the cuisine audiences will cook?
SR: This is home-cooked food, not the stuff you’ll get at Indian restaurants. And this is Indian-American food, the kind of food that I grew up eating in Pennsylvania, that all of us first-generation kids are familiar with.
What inspired you to become a culinary professional?
SR: Well, I would never call myself a culinary professional. I wrote my cookbook simply as a way to preserve my mom’s homemade recipes and to share them with the world.
How does your upbringing enjoying Bollywood musicals intersect with your profession today?
SR: Bollywood is the reason I became a filmmaker. Growing up in an all-white community, it was a colorful escape for me. Bollywood is where I learned to dream, and those dreams are what I’m creating in television, film… and now theater!
What’s one thing people know about the difference between Bollywood musicals and American musicals?
SR: I think people will be surprised by the sheer magnitude of original musicals that come out of Bollywood – close to 1,500 every year! Broadway has just a handful of new musicals each season and then has to revive stuff from the 1950’s. So for all you musical theater experts out there—I’m sorry, I may not know much about Sondheim, but that’s because I’m too busy keeping up with the hundreds of new musicals coming out of Bollywood every year!
Bollywood Kitchen is directed by Arpita Mukherjee and produced in association with Hypokrit Theatre Company. Serving on the creative team are scenic designer Neil Patel, costume designer Arjun Bhasin, lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker, sound designer Sharath Patel, and video designer David Bengali.
Multiple tiers of ticketing options allow audiences to choose their own level of participation, including a livestream viewing-only option. For audience members who prefer an interactive experience, a special “Bollywood Box” will be delivered to their doorstep in advance of the performance. Each box includes an assortment of specially curated Indian spices, recipe cards, and other items they’ll need for the show. A shopping list of perishable items that are easy to find in a local grocery store will also be included to complete the dinner menu.