Q&A with Pooja Mohanraj

14 June 2018 | Journal


Hailing from Kerala, Pooja is an actor, director, translator, voice artist, and theatre educator. Her theatre journey started at age 10 as a member of the children’s theatre wing, Lokadharmi.

Pooja’s major productions include Egle and Cleopatra (a solo play), Andorra and Balcony. She directed her first play, Sorry Dad but I Have To, for the Collegiate Theatre Festival for New German Writing by Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller in New Delhi. In Singapore, she has performed in Pathey Nimidam, a Tamil theatre festival by Ravindran Drama Group.

After ITI, Pooja hopes to create her own theatre projects, get involved in collaborative work and work towards using theatre as a tool for social change through her new arts and cultural organisation, Talir.

Pooja is a recipient of the ITI International Scholarship.


Tell us about your journey to theatre.

After leaving school, I initially wanted to be a bureaucrat as I wanted to serve the people of my country, so I chose to leave Kerala to study Economics in New Delhi, but I eventually lost interest.

But living in Delhi, the capital city of India, gave me exposure to theatre in every part of the country and the world. I actually met people who made a living out of theatre. Theatre has been part of my life since I was 10 years old and is the only constant thing in my life I have been passionate about. So all this made me decide to take up theatre as my career.

After graduation, I went back to Kerala and did a Masters in Theatre Arts at the School of Drama and Fine Arts, Thrissur. In those two years, I became close to the theatre community in Kerala and made some good friends. I performed, directed, taught theatre in schools and other arts centres for children and adults, did short films, worked as a voice artist and gained more fluency in Malayalam in terms of reading and writing. More importantly, I got closer to the reality of my land and my people. One of the major lessons I learned in those years is that the arts field looks very utopian from the outside, but when you are in it you realise there is all the dirt, just like anywhere else. The reality of working in the arts is not so romantic, but there is still a lot of hope and goodness we can feel inspired about.


How did you decide to come to ITI?

During the second year of my undergraduate studies, I started to think of changing my discipline to theatre, and started to look for theatre programmes. Since I had been performing from a young age, I knew I wanted to be in a practice-based programme. I looked up the bios of the practitioners I found interesting and checked out the schools they trained in. One such person was Sankar Venkateswaran and I discovered ITI.

I found out there were more people from Kerala who had studied at ITI. Most of them became my friends soon enough. I was fortunate to have access to first-hand information about the training here. Since ITI's course was a professional diploma, I realised it would be harder to convince my family if I applied straight after my graduation, so I finished my masters and then applied.

Intuitively, I knew I didn’t want to surrender myself to the Western canon. Coming from a land of an infinite number of rituals and traditional forms, and being privileged enough to watch them closely from a young age, I knew there was much I could get from connecting to my roots. I had also lost interest in the Theatre of Roots movement that had been prevalent in India. I really appreciate and respect that such a thought and practice emerged so that we can reflect on it now. But somehow I felt that such theatre didn't speak to the audience. We needed to find a new way, a new aesthetic where one could stay connected to one’s roots, and at the same time keep pace with the changing times. ITI's curriculum interested me for these reasons. It was the ideal programme I was looking for, and I am glad that my time here has proved to be what I was looking for.


Do you remember what you were thinking on your first day here?

I had been stalking ITI online for 4 years before I actually came here. I used to look at the photographs posted, looking at the same ones over and over again. I knew the names of the faculty and students by heart and I read the students’ blog entries repeatedly. I still remember reading Beto's blog as soon as he joined as the new Head of Acting.

So as I entered the studio on the first day, I thought, "Wow! I am actually here." When I saw the senior students, I was thinking, "I know all their names but I will pretend that I don't." I so wanted to be here, with all those people.

I remember feeling extremely content and satisfied at heart. That feeling when you achieve something after wanting it for so long, that is what I felt. And I was extremely excited. Now writing this blog is also something I had imagined and dreamt of even before joining ITI.


What is it like to study here at ITI?

ITI is a place where everyone accepts you for who you are—for your positives and negatives, and there is always someone to pick you up when you fall (literally and metaphorically). From the colleagues to the faculty to the admin staff, everyone is there for you. ITI is a place I can easily call home. There is no teacher-student hierarchy. Being Asians, we are so used to this system of hierarchy, but here, everyone is treated equally and has a voice.

The training is tough but worth it. If you are looking for an easy, comfortable ride, then ITI is not for you. The training is tough and demands rigour. It is challenging physically but also on many other levels. What I found the most challenging was dealing with discoveries about myself. Then there came a time in training when I started accepting myself. From then on, learning became faster.

There may be times when you don't appreciate certain things. At ITI, I have learned to embrace the dislikes and discomfort and still do what is expected of me for training, throwing away my judgement. This has led to some magical discoveries that I would have never made if I had been a rock about my judgements. ITI has taught me to be open, to give, to receive, to embrace conflict and to respectfully disagree.

At ITI, we are constantly pushed to look deep into ourselves and our roots. I feel like the training here has exposed me to who I really am and helped me come to terms with it.


Any learning points from working with your classmates from various countries?

I remember a moment when some of us Indian students were shouting at each other, saying some mean things. Indians are quite loud and we are so used to being mean to our friends. Such things are just jokes. I remember some Singaporean students thought that we were fighting when we were not fighting at all. It was very interesting for me to notice that.

It is hard to define the boundaries of cultures since human beings are all unique. But you know that there is a difference. Here at ITI, we learn to embrace these differences well. I have noticed that culture spillovers happen at ITI. Everyone is constantly borrowing and giving, in terms of things like food, clothes, etiquette, festivals and language. I have also learned to be more sensitive and less judgemental.

One important lesson has been to learn from everyone. If you are too focused on yourself and are unwilling to open up to differences, it limits your training and growth. But if you are open to others, you learn more. When you look outwards, you get inspired and draw a larger wealth of practice by co-existing in this space with all our differences. Diversity offers more possibilities, so grab it.

Specifically with my cohort, we have been so in sync with each other, and I have learned more from each of their personalities.

From Lakshman: "Don't take yourself so seriously"

From Zizi: "Be positive and find joy in everything you do"

From Carol: "Precision and finding worth in working with the heart"


What are the most memorable experiences you’ve had in class?

There are so many memories filled with love and joy. Training seems to have built a relationship like a strong umbilical cord connecting all of us. I have been surprised by how quickly we can sense each other even before we can think. I remember how we played with each other in [voice and acting teacher] Jane Gilmer’s Michael Chekhov class. I still laugh a lot looking back at those days. Even if we fight, I can still say, “These three people will be my most trusted partners.”

I have been surprised by how Guillermo, our clowning teacher, can switch from the unforgiving teacher in the studio to your best buddy the moment he steps out of class. I am constantly inspired by 72-year-old [Beijing Opera master teacher] Mdm Li’s energy and commitment to arts. I cannot describe the magic of the Noh senseis every time they performed for us. I cannot put into words what I felt while walking in to perform Noh in that magnificent age-old costume. I cannot explain what I felt when [Wayang Wong master teacher] Besur took me to places within myself I had never dared to go to. I cannot explain the generosity of Beto and [movement teacher] Chin Huat. I could go on and on.

People here at ITI are a family weaving memories for a lifetime.


How has ITI training changed you as an actor?

I am a completely different actor now than I was two years ago. The way I approach work now has changed. Before, I used to be a thinking actor, and now I am a doing actor. Now, I give myself permission to dwell on the possibility of the unknown and discover the unforeseen. I think with my body. My body has been reshaped and has achieved a new sensibility. I have become less rigid and I play more now. I believe more strongly than before that you have to keep training yourself and creating, because practice is the only magic formula for transformation.

[Acting teacher] Phillip Zarrilli said once in class that the difference between a trained actor and an untrained one is the ability to let go beyond the state of control, while having the ability to return to the state of control when required. It is the ability to be on the edge. I hope to get closer to that.

I feel that I have gained more autonomy and a certain maturity as a creative artist.

I am a completely different actor now than I was two years ago. The way I approach work now has changed. Before, I used to be a thinking actor, and now I am a doing actor. Now, I give myself permission to dwell on the possibility of the unknown and discover the unforeseen.


How would you describe your ITI experience?

These have been the best years of my life.

The greatest treasures are my teachers here. Each one has been exceptionally generous. The wealth of their teaching is unparalleled. Every teacher comes with a mission to make us competent yet generous artists. None have held back in sharing their expertise. They gave me the courage to fail and taught me how failure can be used as an opportunity. I cannot thank them enough for what they have given to me. To train under them all has been the greatest blessing of my lifetime. I could go on about each of them for pages and pages but I won’t go into that, I would just say I have been fortunate.

There are many things I can do now that I thought I could never do. My entire approach to life itself has changed. Before, when I saw something challenging and skillful, I used to think I couldn’t do it. Now, I think about how can I do it. That has made a big difference in my life and practice.

I expected a sea and I got an ocean, or I expected a sponge cake and I got a Kueh Lapis—detailed, layered, deep, intricate. What I got was always beyond my expectations.

My overall experience of ITI has been extremely warm and fulfilling. Yes, there have been many struggles, but at the end of each term I have only felt content.

I couldn't ask for more. Coming to ITI has been the best decision I have ever made in my life.


Any plans for after graduation?

Firstly, I hope to continue with training and research, and I hope to develop my own practice as a performer. I plan to work with companies I have been associated with, as well as new ones. I want to create my own independent projects. I also hope to collaborate with other disciplines. Then, of course I will have to keep finding opportunities, writing proposals, applying for grants, teaching, and so on. I would also like to strike a balance between being an academic and a performing artist. I also want to work towards using theatre as a tool for social change through my newly founded arts and cultural organisation, Talir.


What would you say to someone thinking of coming to ITI?

Most people thinking of applying always grapple with the opportunity cost of spending three years on training and of entering a diploma programme. What I can tell them is, if you are a person with the intention of pursuing a career in the arts, apply. Three years will fly by. See it as an investment for a more productive career. If you have decided to be an artist, you cannot see the arts lightly. You need to train rigorously like in any other professional discipline.

Then, come with an open heart and open spirit. If you are passionate about theatre and you want to hone your skills, ITI is the place for you. There's no honeymoon in ITI, so always be ready to be on your feet.


Is there anyone you’d like to thank?

Zizi, Carol and Lakshman, for being the most generous colleagues and accepting me with all my weaknesses. I will miss working together.

Alex, for helping us complete the circle. Thanks for being one with us.

I cannot thank my teachers enough. I am truly blessed and honoured. You all have given me more than I can ever thank you for. Special thanks to Beto, Chin Huat and Sasi for guiding me constantly and for all the time you have spared for me. Thank you!

I would also like to thank all my teachers, directors and colleagues who got me hooked on theatre.

All the admin staff, especially Hannah and Su Lin - thank you for all your help and support. And Meldie, who helped me with everything when I was new to Singapore.

My doctors and physiotherapist, who healed me as I suffered through injuries and pain.

Raka, for being the extremely kind and loving friend next door.

All the ITI students and alumni, for your friendship and warmth.

My family, who never said "no" to my dreams, letting me do what I wanted and showering me with all your love. Thank you!


pooja when we dead awaken

Photos by Bernie Ng