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Prasanna Puwanarajah: ‘After the Brexit vote, I was a brown person, not a British citizen’

Prasanna Puwanarajah. Photo: Helen Murray Prasanna Puwanarajah. Photo: Helen Murray

Puwanarajah studied medicine at Oxford University and worked for the NHS before moving into theatre, film and television. He tells Giverny Masso about directing the National Youth Theatre’s production of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, about a Pakistani man’s experiences in New York following the September 11 attacks.

Why does The Reluctant Fundamentalist resonate with young people now?

Stephanie [Street, playwright] felt it would be an ideal play to make with young people because it’s about young people who find that their identities are suddenly at risk because a seismic thing happens in the world that dislodges the place they think tethers them. I think we have all slightly felt that. The day after the Brexit vote, I walked out of my flat as a brown person. Up until that vote we’re citizens of Britain and Europe, but friends, colleagues, people that I read about in the paper suddenly found themselves asking: was it all a lie, were we ever really loved, were we ever really welcomed? The play is fundamentally asking those questions.

What is your experience with NYT?

I joined when I was 18 and I was going to medical school. I think they were interested in me because I didn’t want to be an actor – I don’t think my audition was very good. I’d done two plays before that as a teenager, and I was in a nativity play in my primary school – I played Joseph. This particular youth theatre is a national treasure; its sense of community, the increasing sense that the youth theatre has to reach every corner of this country and all young people. You feel a kind of front-footed necessity of: “If we don’t say this, who will?”

Why is youth theatre so important?

Any youth theatre is a place for people who are interested in the process of making stories that you share. A youth theatre is a kind of possibility. It’s a haven, a place you might go and realise for the first time that there are people out there who share a time of life with you and potentially a sense of difference that they’ve always found they’ve wanted to cherish but never found a space that would accept that. Every young kid should see a play, go to a gig, go to an art gallery and be taken around by someone who is passionate about what is on the walls, and feel that these places are active spaces in which we can ask questions about ourselves, our relationships and our lives, and not places that are distant relics that belong to other people.

What advice would you give to others wanting to move into theatre after having a different career first?

I think the question is: “What do you want it to be for you?” I don’t really have an answer if it’s: “I want to be rich and famous.” I met an actor recently who is my age and just finished training this summer who was working at a theatre to earn a bit of extra money and looked at the work on the stage and thought: “This is incredible, this is the world I want to be in, because there’s stuff happening here that excites me.” I’m a very curious and questioning person and so I think anything that I ended up doing I would have tried to chip away and ask a further set of questions beyond the ones immediately present.

CV: Prasanna Puwanarajah

Training: National Youth Theatre (1999-2000)
First professional role: Hari Kumar in The Raj Quartet, BBC Radio 4 (2005)
Agents: Curtis Brown (film and TV writing and directing), United Agents (theatre writing and directing), Independent Talent (acting)


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