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Posted December 5, 2022

The Interview – Sarena Parmar

Sarena Parmar

Sarena Parmar is an actor and playwright. Her first play, The Orchard (After Chekhov), premiered at the Shaw Festival; Sarena was the first South Asian playwright produced in the festival’s history. The play went on to a second production at The Arts Club in Vancouver. As an actor, Sarena has performed in theatres across Canada. She is a graduate of the National Theatre School and Birmingham Conservatory. Sarena grew up on her family orchard in Kelowna, British Columbia. She now lives in Toronto.

Sarena, your first full-length play, The Orchard (After Chekhov) is based in part on your own experience growing up on an orchard in the Okanagan region of BC. The play featured a cast of thirteen, premiered at the prestigious Shaw Festival, and went on to the Vancouver Arts Club—an extraordinary feat for a novice playwright! Can you tell us a little about why and how you wrote the play and why you think it resonates so powerfully with audiences?
I grew up on our family orchard in Kelowna, BC. It was farmed by my grandparents, my mother, and my aunts and uncles. As a child, I worked in the fruit stand. About 15 years ago (time flies), my mother called to tell me my family had cut down our beloved orchard. And suddenly I understood Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard in a whole new light. My family had been farmers in Punjab, India for generations. But when we cut down the orchard, it was like our final ties to India were severed.

I shared my personal discovery with long-time mentor Nina Lee Aquino, and without hesitation (even though I’d never written a play) she gave me the seed money to begin a first draft. It took six years to write the play and I learned a lot along the way. I think it resonates so beautifully with audiences because it still carries the hallmark themes of The Cherry Orchard, like loss, family and identity. But it shines through a truly Canadian lens. A Punjabi-Sikh family struggling to save their orchard in rural Canada. I am proud it also reflects the beauty of carving a new life in a new land and the growing pains of assimilation.

Sarena, you’re a graduate of the acting program at the National Theatre School and you are well known for your acting work. (Many readers will remember you as Chandra from How to Be Indie, and fans of Pretty Hard Cases may know you as Detective Breann Chattopadhyay.) Can you compare and contrast the two art forms? What do you get from writing that you don’t from performing, and vice versa? Also, what was it like to perform in your own play?
Writing is wonderful because I can imagine the entire world. It allows my imagination to play in a bigger sandbox. The landscape is limitless. With acting, so much is already dictated by the playwright, the director, the costume designer, the set… all those creative limitations provide a kind of friction that pushes the art further.  
Acting in my own play was surreal! It was deeply moving to experience the play with the audience night after night. At the Shaw Festival the play was performed in the round, which created an even more intimate experience. Hearing and seeing the reactions of Sikh-Canadians in the audience, in real time, is one of the most profound theatre experiences of my life.

You are a working actor; your husband, Ravi Jain, is an award-winning director, and you are currently the parents of a toddler. Is it hard to carve out time to write these days? (And if you’re working on something new, can you give us a sneak peek?)

The biggest challenge of having our young son is carving out the SPACE in my HEAD! Over the last two years, I’ve found even when I did create the time, mentally I couldn’t hold onto the story like I used to. That continues to be a challenge. But slowly I’m learning to embrace a slower pace to my workflow. 

I am working on two exciting new pieces. (Thank you for asking!) The first is a play called Hunger. It is a myth about the witch trials. It is poetic, magical, sensual and political. The play is currently in development at Tarragon Theatre. The second play is a commission from Theatre NorthWest about Sikh-Canadian lumberjacks in Northern BC. The Sikh community has made huge contributions to the forestry industry and I am excited to bring those stories to light.

Obviously, you are a fan of Chekhov! Are there any other writers who inspire you?

So very many! Lynn Nottage, Ayad Aktar, and Ibsen to name a few.

Do you have any advice for aspiring playwrights?

Find the stories only you can tell. Tell them ferociously and fearlessly. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not ready.