The Sensible Director

Director Sharmini Kumar breathes new life into Jane Austen’s classic Sense and Sensibility.

The Musical with a post-colonial twist playing at Melbourne’s Gasworks Theatre from 16th March – 20TH March 2022.

Not every day we get to sit and speak to someone who’s a doctor in her spare time. Sharmini Kumar is an occupational therapist by day and at night she churns playwrights to crave her passion for the theatre.

Born to a Sri Lankan father and Filipino mother, Kumar always had a fling for the classics, including Bronte’s, Dickens and Shakespeare. She always wanted to interpret it in a way that not only made sense and accessible to her but also to the people around her.
The dream became a reality in 2017 with the first production and adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona officially started the theatre company 24 Carrot Production.

In regard to picking up such a classic Sense and Sensibility, shifting the angle with your spin, why now? What was the most important character that you want for people to relate to and why now?

“Good questions. I don’t know if there’s any one particular character, But I think, the most important character for me in sort of placing together the show was the character of Colonel Brandon.” Alan Rickman in the movie plays his character but things got interesting for Kumar, realising the character was a soldier in India and he would have been a private soldier for the British East India Company. As that’s not specified in the book nor brought out in any of the adaptations that Kumar’s seen. But not until recently she knew a little bit about the history of the British East India Company. “Well, what does that mean, about the trauma that he’s experienced? What does that mean about the wealth that he’s built?” So, realising that a few years ago was a bit of a lightbulb moment, says Kumar.

Kumar puffs new expressions to this character giving it an Indian lens to be able to look outside the British society.

How much influence have you drawn from your background from Sri Lanka?
“Even if it’s not in the front of my mind, it’s in the back of my mind. We’ve developed lots of works that are very specifically about an immigrant experience or a migrant experience.”
With a mixed cast predominantly Indian, Sri Lankan and some Anglo people playing roles give that sense of the model she wants to adopt.

Kumar tells about a piece she directed last year that was based on Queens.

But even when we’re telling the stories, like we did a piece last year based on ‘Queens through history’, to tell stories about people who weren’t just wife and the European royalty, but there are other stories in between to tell and acknowledge.

Kumar further speaks of globalism as a relatively recent phenomenon, but it’s been there for a long time. “I think that’s what you don’t realise, like the way that we have consumed, you know, the whole societies conceived the Western canon of literature.”

As international travel is nothing new and the idea that somebody in 19th century England has heard about and similarly not talking about a person of colour from that past is equally meaningless.

How do you spend your time juggling between two different professions you’re in?
“It’s an interesting job and it’s a good job and I’m happy doing it, but it also funds the other work that I do so I’m extra happy for that”, says Kumar.

Being pretty lucky with the work she does in terms of the medical work from nine to five as it is much of a consultation work than emergency work.

How far do you think that Australia has embraced entire multiculturalism and how Sense and Sensibility translated to that idea?
“I’ve got to be honest, I don’t know. Like, some days I think we’re doing really well. Sometimes I think you know, there’s so much acceptance and so much eagerness to find out about different points of view. And then other days you say something. Oh, alright. I guess you haven’t come as far as I thought.”

Kumar makes an interesting point about privilege, as for a white person who’s never thought about privilege, just loves the Jane Austen adaptations, and all those things without contemplating the history or people behind it. Kumar does say it is a little bit of work to spin new life into her screenplays but then again, it’s okay having to do that much work.

How many hours do you put in to get a show like this together?
Kumar’s cast and crew had been rehearsing since August of last year because this production was supposed to go in November. Taking three weeks off at Christmas and soon after they had been doing six hours a week of rehearsals.

If she had to tab on an estimate just for herself, it could be a couple of hundred hours. Kumar and her mother had been churning fifty new costumes to create that logistic and support for the crew, and plus writing the script.

“Somebody else wrote the music. I would hate to think how long it took him to write the music.” Says Kumar.

What’s next for the theatre and for Kumar?
“This year is already quite a big year. We are trying to use the resources that we have as a theatre company to bring other people’s work to light as well and to collaborate with other writers who maybe don’t have the resources to put on their own shows and to tell other kinds of stories. Queer people, people of color, people with disabilities, women, gender, diverse folks, neurodiversity, folks, all of that kind of stuff.”

As we draw the curtains to this interview down, we wish this director a huge blockbuster season for her play Sense and Sensibility. May she fly her flag of multiculturism loud and proud with the likes of Jane Austen or Shakespeare. We wish her all the best!

By Nandita Chakraborty