Amit Patil plays the part of King Dushyant in the production of Shakuntala on Saturday July 08, 2017 at Aurora Cultural Arts District. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
Puppets and people star in Shakuntala on Saturday July 08, 2017 at Aurora Cultural Arts District. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
Sushma Bagga controls a puppet during a rehearsal of Shakuntala on Saturday July 08, 2017 at Aurora Cultural Arts District. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel
AURORA | The Indian subcontinent is being thrust into the limelight in northwest Aurora this month thanks to a loyal band of volunteers, a dedicated pair of local theater aficionados and a dash of dexterity.
About half a dozen recently anointed actors will be taking the stage at the Aurora Cultural Arts District gallery on Dallas Street for the next three weekends as a part of “Shakuntala,” a local production of an East Indian folktale.
The production, named after the eponymous protagonist, is the season opener for Collective Conscious, one of the newest theater companies in the metro area. Founded just last spring, the infant company has made an effort to spotlight classic Indian stories to help satiate an artistic void in the local theater scene, according to Sushma Bagga, who co-founded the company.
“There is a substantial number of people in the Indian community who are interested in theater,” Bagga said. ”And (we realized) if we presented something … they would come.”
People born in Indian accounted for the 11th-highest foreign-born population in Aurora in 2016, according to the city’s annual demographic report. There were slightly fewer than 1,000 Indian-born residents living in the city last year, according to the data.
All of the actors featured in “Shakuntala” are of East Indian descent — a requirement on which Director Tria Xiong, who co-founded Collective Conscious with Bagga, was not willing to budge.
“It was important to me to have the cast be of Indian descent because the story is so important to the culture,” she said.
Both Xiong and Bagga were initially involved in Theatre Esprit Asia, another local theater company dedicated to staging Asian-centric productions, before spinning off to form Collective Conscious last spring.The show hitting the ACAD stage this month follows a protagonist as she falls in and out of love thanks to some bad luck and mysticism, according to Bagga. And although it’s primarily a children’s story, it has plenty of “easter eggs” to keep parents entertained too, Xiong said.
“It’s a family-themed show, but the storyline is written for adults — kind of like Pixar,” she said. “It’s for kids, but with some adult jokes sort of sprinkled throughout.” All of the actors, who are serving on a volunteer basis, were recruited for the show mostly via canvasing at local libraries, Indian-centric grocery stores and word-of-mouth, according to Bagga.
On top of jumping onto the stage, the performers have also learned how to manipulate nearly life-size puppets, which are featured prominently in the show. All of the caricatures, which are manipulated using hand-steered rods and were inspired by the Bunrako tradition popular in Japan, were handmade by Bagga.
“Sushma made … every single one,” Xiong said of the puppets used in the show. “She’s really the executive producer — she put this all together. She gathered the music for our sound guy and she really engineered all of this.”
Xiong said she’s optimistic “Shakuntala” will help introduce younger generations of Asian-Americans to the arts. “In the Asian culture, generally, the arts aren’t something that we grew up being pushed to get into, unless you’re a classically trained pianist or violist,” she said. “So being a performer isn’t something that is really as respected as being a doctor or something in our community. So hopefully (“Shakuntala) helps open the eyes of a young generation to say, ‘You can do this as well.’”
After selling out their most recent show, which was entitled “Adhe Adhure” and performed entirely in Hindi last year, the theater troupe has committed to staging at least one Indian-centric show each year. Bagga, who grew up near New Dehli, said she hopes shows like “Adhe Adhure,” “Shakuntala” and others help expand audience members’ world views. “There’s so much division … that we see,” she said. “Instead of coming together, we are being pulled apart. So the hope is that when you have a peek at a different culture, you can become more tolerant and have more understanding.”
7:30 p.m. July 15, 22 & 29; 2:30 p.m. July 16 & 23. The ACAD Gallery, 1400 Dallas St. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door. Visit collectiveconscious.us or the Collective Conscious Facebook page for more information.