One of the things I enjoyed the most about my studies at New York University was the opportunity to take courses outside of my specialized program in Dance Education at Steinhardt. I also took classes at Tandon, the school of engineering, and at Tisch, School of the Arts. It was at the latter, in a course called Performance Matters with instructor and artist extraordinaire, Karen Finley, that I met Samyuktha Viswanathan. Her diverse approach to art-making and creativity in media and tone impressed me as a fellow student and we stayed in touch after the course ended.
A person and artist like this is both born, and made. Though we have different backgrounds, what Sammy says about choosing not to hide in art really resonates with me, and I bet others as well. I was thrilled to hear her story of how she ended up at NYU from India, making the choice to be an artist, past experiences, and what she is curious about now.
Tell me about how you initially were introduced to/became interested in the arts.
For as long as I can remember (quite literally), I have been interested in performing. My family still tell me the story of how I crawled onto a stage at a family and friends party in my red dress and “danced” for over an hour. I was barely able to walk, but I was on that stage wobbling around with a gleeful smile on my face. Of course, I don’t remember this. My first memory was probably when I was about six years old. I participated in a singing competition and won the second prize. (Unfortunately, I didn’t train my singing talent as well as I did my dancing, acting and writing talent.)
Following that, every opportunity I had to take the stage — I took. It started with public speaking competitions at school in first grade and I never stopped. I was known to be quite the introvert in my middle school and high school years and so, ‘the stage’ was a place for me to let go and be myself uninhibited.
I started training in ballet in the fourth grade after falling in love with the dance while watching ‘Barbie in The Nutcracker’. Ballet wasn’t as popular in India as it is now, especially in the South. It was my mom that introduced me to it after researching classes and enrolling me in ‘The School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance’ in Chennai, India. After that, there was no going back.
I come from a family that loves the arts — my dad who can sing and dance, used to want to be an actor. I have grandmoms who can sing beautifully. One of my grandads used to too. And the other, he loves his ballroom dance. I definitely got my dancing gene from my dad and my grandma. I would say I am very blessed to have a support system that understands and constantly encourages me.
What kind of training/experience did you have before coming to NYU?
The truth is, I was a bit of a bookwork (still am, actually!). I studied science and math, and I was going to pursue engineering or architecture. At the very last minute, I decided that that wasn’t for me. I wanted to perform, I wanted to share my creativity in the art forms I so loved. And so, after a great deal of debating and convincing, I decided to study ‘Visual Communications’, which included communication and media studies, design, photography and production. This also allowed me to focus on my performing arts career. So, I continued dancing — ballet and contemporary styles with a bit of jazz and salsa. Dancing was and always will be my first love.
An injury when I was 17 forced me to take a break from dance and this is when I truly discovered theater. I had been in school plays and such before, but never really delved into it. Again, my mom found an audition ad in the newspaper for The Little Theatre Company which is the leading non-profit theatre organization in India focusing on entertainment for younger audiences. I still remember every detail of the audition, right from when I walked in. I am not exaggerating when I say that it changed my life. Along with a wonderful ensemble and brilliant direction, I went through a series of workshops and intensives before performing in the annual Christmas pantomime as one of the leads. I continued to stay on with the company, and will always be a part of it. I also worked on a number of commercials, web series and short films before moving here.
I worked with a media company, ‘Fully Filmy’, as part of their video production team that allowed me to have hands-on experience in all aspects of production while also working on original scripts and concepts in front of the camera.
I started writing in the most cliched way, in ‘Dear Diary’ notebooks, then I wrote little poems and essays — English was my favorite subject in school. After sharing it with people and realizing I had a knack for it, I took it a step further and began to send it out to magazines to publish; school & college publications, kids & teens publications, my own blogs, and so on.
With such a wide field of interest, it was hard for me to zero down on one focus for my graduate studies, which is when I came across NYU’s Performance Studies program.
What was your experience at NYU like?
New York City had always been a dream for me. For years, I thought of it as a pipe dream, until an uncle of mine who lived here helped motivate me to work toward it. And so, I did. I applied to a number of schools, NYU Tisch at the top of my list, and kept my fingers and toes crossed. I remember in vivid detail the moment I read the acceptance letter. My dream of pursuing my passion in New York City was coming true!
Fast-forward to my first day at NYU. I definitely felt like a fish out of the water. Coming from a fast-paced city, I didn’t think it would be too much of a shock for me, but I realized that no city is like NYC. It truly is a world of its own. And NYU was my first taste of it. I was the youngest in my class, at 20 years of age. (We start school a year earlier than others in my state and I did a three-year program with extra credits for my undergrad, following which I started my MA exactly five months after graduating.) I was initially very intimated; the educational system was completely different albeit much more to my liking. Thankfully, I had some great classmates that helped ease the transition, and TAs and professors who were very knowledgeable and helpful. Every day was new learning for me. And for someone like me, who’s been waiting thirstily for an experience like this, even the bad days had a silver lining, especially in retrospect.
One of the moments that stood out was a project I worked on in Prof. Karen Finley’s class during my first semester — a performance art piece titled, ‘Label Me’. I worked on something I felt really strongly about regarding socially enforced labels and judgments, a project that I plan to expand into something much bigger in the near future.
I only spent a year as an official NYU student, but I grew more in that year than I had in a while. I guess living in this city alone will do that to you.
Tell me About art as a life pursuit- teachers who encouraged you, the moments you realized that this is what you wanted to do, memories of music or performance
It definitely took me a while to fully realize just how passionate I was about the arts, about being an artist. My dance, my writing used to be my ‘hiding place’. I was safe here, I was safe on stage, I was safe under the lights, in front of the camera. I was protected. I was happy. When I look back, I can’t believe that it took me as long as it did to realize that it didn’t have to stay as my hiding place. It could be much more than that, and I could be a much happier person. There are definite moments that stand out to me:
In seventh grade, I won a solo dance event as part of a cultural program in school. It seems like a small thing, sure, but I still remember the moment that they announced my name. I think that’s probably the first time I truly felt like I could make something out of it.
Ballet became my ‘USP’, people in school would refer to me as the ballet dancer and I would puff my chest with pride. Being known as an artist became a goal of mine.
One of my favorite pieces to dance to was and still is The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Unfortunately, I never got to play the role, but every time I hear the music, I feel myself detach from everything else and just have the music play in my head.
In my second Christmas pantomime at The Little Theatre, I played a version of Harley Quinn — my favorite role to date. And that fluttery, weightless feeling in me just before walking on stage followed by the ecstasy that you feel when you walk onto stage, all dressed in costume, the lights focus on you and you hear the audience cheer while you take on this character that you have spent so long working on — that feeling is one of the many reasons I do this.
Besides all of this, I truly believe that art can change mindsets; well-done art can provoke emotions, create empathy and communicate in a way no language can. I have felt this in movies, books, poetry, dance, physical art pieces, musicals, you name it. And at the end of the day, this is what I aim to do — to use art to create change, change for the better.
Tell me about challenges — in early years, in health, in injuries, in opportunities, in support, here in ny, in the art world at large.
A huge challenge I faced was the transition into choosing this as my career, and leaving behind the more scientific and academic side that I was always known for, particularly within family. I tried my very best to do something that would make everyone around me happy. Needless to say, it didn’t work well. I was unhappier than I had ever been. After a number of long conversations with a career counselor and my mom, I made my decision. Convincing my dad, however, was a bigger challenge. Being a very protective father and knowing to be overly sensitive, he didn’t think I could handle it. He asked me to prove to him that I could, and if his undying support for me is any proof, I think I convinced him. I understood where they were coming from though. It seemed like I had become a different person, and the truth was that I had. I felt like I had hidden huge parts of myself from everyone, including myself. The start of my undergraduate degree saw me becoming a different person; I made mistakes — a lot of them — but for the first time, I was okay with learning from it instead of punishing myself for it. My art saw me becoming more compassionate to myself, and I know just how powerful it can be.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve had to face in following my dream is leaving my little brother who is a decade younger than me back home. This little guy is my sunshine, and his smile and beyond-his-years wisdom is the biggest thing that keeps me going during the roughest of days. Having him say and feel truly proud of me will be my biggest achievement.
It has certainly been trying, living alone halfway across the world in a city that’s known for its ‘toughness’. I have always been the kind of person that likes to dive in head first, and it worked here too. Being screamed at by a random passer-by, splashed by a puddle, taking the train into a borough uptown instead of downtown, being hustled by the costume clad characters in Times Square, I’ve had to experience this and much more. And every night as I go to bed, I remind myself that it is a blessing to be doing what I love in a city I dreamed of and that every challenge is only a stepping stone to something greater.
Tell me why New York is a good fit for you/support and opportunities you’ve had here.
I’ve only been here about a year and a half but I fell in love with the city; New York very soon became home to me. I have grown so much as a person, as an artist, as a human. New York saw me maturing into someone that not just I but that my parents, my brother and the rest of my large Indian family can be proud of.
I’ve worked on quite a few projects since coming here. My most recent one was a short play festival at The Players’ Theatre in The Village. And the next one coming up is a staged reading performance called ‘Broken Dolls’ in Poughkeepsie, an original play that highlights the realities of human trafficking in a ensemble piece — this is a project that I am very excited about. I’ve also worked as a teaching artist for a few projects in the city, mostly for kids aged between 7-17. I am now looking to work simultaneously as a teacher in theatre and writing, while also auditioning, acting and working on my own projects. I have had some wonderful teachers and mentors through my life, I’ve had firsthand experience of what a difference they can make in a child’s life and I would love to have the opportunity to do that for another.
I am also constantly working on honing my craft through classes and workshops, one of the main places being Michael Howard Studios introduced to me by the aforementioned teacher at NYU. I also work with a theater company, Luna Stage, in New Jersey that is dedicated to producing thought-provoking theater that is resonant, adventurous, and always challenging.
During my time here, I started my blog, ‘Love and Other Battle Scars by The Mis(s)fit’, and I am now working on writing a web series in collaboration with my best friend in India based on my experiences in NYC and in India, and we’re hoping to collaborate with others with similar stories.
Here in New York, I have found places that resonate my own personal mission and a place that allows and embraces growth and progress. There is no other place I’d rather find myself in.
More artists making it in New York City: check out the Profiles Archive
I am delighted to be working with Sammy on my upcoming Steinhardt Research and Creative Project Grant. (Info about the show and the linguistics research in the link) Come see what we create on May 11th and 12th and NYU Steinhardt.