How to Fail as a Popstar: a cautionary taleReview
It’s not surprising that Vivek Shraya’s debut play, How to Fail as a Popstar, is one of the most vulnerable things I’ve seen onstage. She’s like a human tapestry of things that inherently come with vulnerability: writer, performer, recording artist, queer person, brown person, trans person, person from Edmonton, AB - these are personalities that, voluntarily or otherwise, subject themselves to criticism.
And that’s exactly what you want in a one-woman show. Popstar is self-explanatory in its title; it’s an autobiography in vignettes, important memories from childhood to the present that add up to the Vivek Shraya currently in the spotlight at Canadian Stage. Hers is a story about a kid who earned positive feedback from singing in public, who had talent and a weakness for people who predicted her stardom; she did the half-brave, half-crazy thing of moving far away from home to be where the opportunities were, motivated by a hunger for success and fueled by a good dose of naïveté. She did all the scary things that are almost sure traps for someone with Shraya’s desire for popstardom: spent way too much money way too soon on her career, trusted irresponsible people, got depressed, got a big break, fizzled, trucked on, remained unsatisfied.
Shraya tells the story that’s so common it’s almost unspoken - and ironically, it makes How to Fail as a Popstar feel like a rarity. Amid performing arts circles, regardless of genre, it’s almost too raw for someone who hasn’t “made it” to discuss why they “failed”. It’s easy for us to digest wistful stories of bad producers or embarrassing live shows when they come from the super-famous, like the humbling anecdotes offered to fans by the Taylor Swifts and Lady Gagas of the world. But it’s arrestingly honest to hear it from someone like Shraya, who is not a household name, not a Grammy winner, not even a one-hit-wonder.
And it wasn’t just the script that prods at one’s own fears of rejection. In her execution, there’s scary honesty; the high kick that landed a little too low, a mic-stand move that wasn’t quite slick, a belted note that quavers. These are the physical cues of someone unsure, and by extension, someone completely familiar - definitely not the qualities of a popstar.
So, by the time Shraya reached her grand finale - a list of 40 reasons why she failed at becoming a popstar, each one delivered to a member of the audience with jarring eye contact - it was impossible not to give her an emotional hug. There’s something beautiful in knowing that much of the Canadian Stage audience was likely connected, personally or close to it, to the world of performing arts. Shraya’s “popstar” could be our “playwright” or “opera singer” or “concert pianist”. We know how much those 40 reasons weigh, we know why she tears up.
Popstar is almost a cautionary tale for the younger generation. Shraya doesn’t claim to have found any sort of second happiness, no long and winding road to inner peace, just a dull ache of wanting to be something she just wasn’t. It’s frightening to see someone who so clearly demonstrates that desire, even all-consuming desire, is sometimes just not enough.
But Shraya did stay with me, a first-time consumer of her work. I even hung around the theatre lobby after the show, wondering if she’d come down so I could…I’m not even sure. Thank her? Hug her? Congratulate her on her candour? All of those things felt patronizing, even though I really do think she’s turned “failure” into something important.