(May 9, 2023) The world of Broadway is experiencing an ingenious work of art at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater in New York. The Broadway house is currently home to a mesmerizing adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi. Directed by Max Webster and adapted by playwright Lolita Chakrabarti, the stage comes alive with various lighting, video, sound, and set elements that shift and transform throughout the performance, creating a magical world that captivates the audience. And in the middle of the ocean, with a diverse cast of 24 actors and puppeteers, is an Indian actress, Mahnaz Damania who has impressed audiences from the production’s first show.
The Indian stage actress has come a long way since her beginnings in the world of theater. “Sometimes I wonder to myself when we’re at the theatre, ‘Man! How did I get here?!’ And when I look back at a decade of my work I realise I’ve been so fortunate in India too to train under Faezeh Jalali working on her productions — 07/07/07 and Shikhandi – The Story of the In-Betweens — and with Rajit Kapur (Rage Productions). I feel ready as an actress because of these chances that I’m very grateful for,” the Global Indian said in an interview. With an unwavering passion for her craft, the actress continues to break boundaries and captivate audiences, solidifying her place as a rising star in the theater world.
The world’s a stage
Currently based out of New York City, Mahnaz was born in Ahmedabad into a Parsi family. Always wanting to be an actress since a young age, she was an active part of her school and college drama societies. The actress completed her Master’s in Psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad, and soon landed a job as a flight attendant with Jet Airways. However, her dream of being on stage and performing a part never left her bedside.
Eventually, the actress left her job and left for New York, to do an acting course at Stella Adler Studio of Acting. And it was here that a chance meeting with Indian actor, Irrfan Khan affirmed her belief in her dreams. “I bumped into Irrfan Khan outside my acting school in NY years ago in 2010 or 2011, and I was thrilled! I exclaimed, “Oh My God It’s You!” And he goes, “Yes it is!” I told him that this is the building I study in and he’s like ‘Oh, this is where the Stella Adler acting studio is.’ And then (I don’t know why) but I asked “can I hug you?” And he said, “of course!” We continued to talk about the pros and cons of studying outside of India for the craft and then we said bye. I’ve always loved his work and wanted to work with him. Being a part of this play is the closest I’ve come so far in my career to being associated with his splendor. This is a very cherished experience for me,” the actress shared. After returning to India, the actress took part as a contestant in the TV reality show Kingfisher Supermodel 2, and was later seen playing a lead part in Dharma Production’s Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania.
However, a turning point in her journey came in 2022, when her manager approached her with an interesting role in New York. While she didn’t get the part she was aiming for, she landed an opportunity of a lifetime. “My manager Sana Hanible submitted my tapes for the casting call for the part of Rani, Pi’s sister in the play but originally written as his brother in the book. On the day of the call back, the director Max Webster, playwright Lolita Chakrabarti, and casting director Duncan Stewart were in,” the actress said, adding, “After my audition for Rani, I was about to leave, but they called me back into the room to read for the character of Mrs. BK who plays a family friend and teacher. There was a second call back after this one and about a month or so later I got the offer letter to be in the ensemble and understudy the two characters. I was over the moon. Of course, actors mostly want to book the principal part they test for but being an understudy comes with its levels of responsibilities and challenges.”
An unforgettable journey on stage
Describing her time with The American Repertory Theatre as a “great learning experience”, Mahnaz shared that she thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to learn puppeteering from experts like Fred Davis and Scarlet Wilderink under the guidance of puppetry and movement director Finn Caldwell, which was essential for her role in the Broadway production.
“It’s been such a great learning experience for me since this is my first regional theatre stint with The American Repertory Theatre which is, oh my god, a great way to start my stage career in the US,” the actress said, adding, “I also have the opportunity with this play to learn puppeteering from the likes of Fred Davis and Scarlet Wilderink under the expert puppetry and movement direction from Finn Caldwell.”
But that is not all. The actress also voiced that being a part of this South Asian cast ensemble on the set, has put a huge responsibility on her shoulders. “This story tells such a fantastic tale of survival and resilience of the human spirit, how far we can come with what we tell ourselves to cope – to get through hardship in our lives. Having so many South Asians in the cast is a testament to this survival in a way. Being in the room with so many faces that I identify with, that know what language I’m speaking, that know the struggle of living as an immigrant and more so finding a stage and story that takes you into that world,” the actress expressed.
“Sometimes, I’d look around the rehearsal space and I couldn’t believe I was actually there with so many talented people that were all experiencing the same strange but familiar feeling. I’m so proud to be a part of this unraveling of sorts of the narrative we’ve been fed all our lives (be it stage or TV) and changing it to look like the actual world we live in. The wardrobe department also extended a consulting role for me on the play which I am so happy to be assisting with,” said the actress, who is skimming through scripts for her next project.