Calgary-based trans author of colour Vivek Shraya is adapting her theatrical memoir, How to Fail as a Popstar, to the small screen. And she’ll be at the VIFF Centre in Vancouver on October 18 for a screening of the first three episodes of the series, which will be broadcast on CBC Gem.
Shraya premiered the theatrical solo show in Toronto in 2020 and also performed it at the 2022 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver. It chronicled her attempt to become a pop superstar, which didn’t pan out in the way that she intended.
“I was really thinking: what does it mean to tell an anti-success story and the importance of telling an anti-success story?” Shraya told the Georgia Straight last year. “Especially in a time of social media where everything is about, ‘Look at me, I’m amazing.’ ”
The TV series, which is available starting October 13, features Shraya as “Present Day Vivek” and “Dream Vivek”. It also stars Adrian Pavone (Star Trek: Discovery) as “Adult Vivek” and Chris D’Silva (The Handmaid’s Tale) as “Teen Vivek”.
The CBC PR team included a transcript of an interview with series writer Shraya and executive producer and series director Vanessa Matsui (Son of a Critch), which you can read below.
What is How to Fail as a Popstar about?
VIVEK SHRAYA: How To Fail As A Popstar is about a young queer brown boy from Edmonton who falls in love with music and embarks upon an epic journey to become a popstar–but doesn’t succeed! It’s a story about owning one’s failures.
VANESSA MATSUI: How to Fail as a Popstar is a short series based on Vivek Shraya’s misadventures on her way to almost pop stardom, it really beautifully explores the waves that her career went on and why it didn’t happen the way she had hoped.
Where did the story come from? Is this a true story?
VIVEK: The story is based on my own experience as a musician who has struggled in the Canadian music industry. I was working on a novel in 2017, also about the music industry, called The Subtweet and was reading a lot of music biographies at the time for research. I fell in love with this genre and wondered if I could write my own music biography, but I realized quickly that music biographies require one foundational element: success. So I started to wonder how and where I could tell an anti-success story and theatre immediately came to mind. In 2020, a few weeks before lockdown, I miraculously debuted How To Fail As A Popstar at Canadian Stage for twelve nights.
VANESSA: It’s TV so you change things for dramatic purposes but the thematic core and key turning points are taken from Vivek’s life. Working directly with Vivek and having her on set was such a blessing—I could interpret the story from my own lens but having her there to share her lived experience and answer questions about details I wouldn’t know was extremely helpful.
What is different between the play and the series?
VIVEK: The biggest difference between the play and the series is that the play is a one person show, so all the characters are played by me, whereas in the series, we have amazing, talented actors bringing this story to life.
How does the show include and reflect diverse people?0
VIVEK: I’m very proud of how BROWN this show is, and also brown in ways we haven’t seen as much in media before—like featuring a queer and later, trans, protagonist or a fashionable mom who doesn’t have her hair in a bun and isn’t always wearing a sari. I also love that this show doesn’t beat the audience over the head with identity labels or trauma the way “diverse stories” often have to. The protagonist is never shown being at odds with his and her identities, and these identities (ie queer, bi, trans) are barely named. At all times, Vivek is Vivek and the people in Vivek’s life see and love Vivek for who Vivek is at that moment in time.
Is this story relatable because we all experience failure?
VIVEK: I think we all experience failure, but more importantly, we don’t always allow ourselves or each other the room to acknowledge it. There is a strong cultural tendency to celebrate and even push for immediate resilience. One of the most bizarre reactions to the title of my play has been people listing my accolades or parroting my bio back to me, to prove to me that I haven’t failed. And I do think there are good intentions at play but I also think we don’t know how to create space for disappointment, for mourning—and that’s what I wanted to create with this story.
VANESSA: Yes. Absolutely. Who hasn’t experienced failure? But what is interesting about the show is that it GOES THERE. Most biopics just gloss over the failure parts and in the end the hero gets what they want and triumphs. Without spoiling: That doesn’t happen here. I think if people are being honest about how their dreams weren’t quite realized or just how adulthood takes you into different directions, I think that this will resonate with a large audience.
What is your definition of failure?
VIVEK: Failure is having a goal or dream or task and not achieving it.
VANESSA: It’s not learning the lesson that you could from the situation. I think I’ve really reframed failure in my own life and simply put: you’re going to fail, that’s part of life. If you’re doing something that involves risk, you’re going to jump and not always land, but I think the real failure, and it’s cliché but true, would be to not even try.
What’s your relationship to music?
VIVEK: Music is the love of my life. I’m not religious but music is how I experience “god”—that feeling of something more than me, bigger than me. I’m obviously biased but I think music is the greatest artform.
VANESSA: When I was a kid I went to so many concerts! I was seeing live shows twice a week, so now I feel like I’ve concerted myself out but I’ll go to a concert if a friend invites me. But this show has been a nice way to bring music back into my life.
VIFF and Out on Screen will present the first three episodes of the CBC Gem series How to Fail as a Popstar at 7:30 p.m. on October 18 at the VIFF Centre. Vivek Shraya will speak at this event about how his theatrical memoir has been adapted. For tickets, visit the VIFF Centre website.