Under the Limelight: Akshara Gunda pursues the dramatic arts onstage

Senior Akshara Gunda as one of the Radium Girls in the 2019 fall production of Melanie Marnich’s ‘These Shining Lives.’ “I felt like there was a little of my own personality that I could bring to the character I played — Pearl Payne — because she was always trying to help her friends through dark times, which really helped bring the message of the show together: showing the strength of sisterhood through light and dark,” Akshara said. Photo courtesy of Alexa Kreiling.

The light from her lamp illuminates her face on the screen. Akshara takes a sip of her water as she settles into her seat, thinking about her childhood. From a young age, senior Akshara Gunda has been involved in the arts. She recalls her initial involvement, as her mother introduced her to Carnatic singing (Indian classical music), piano, and dance in first grade. She tells me that she didn’t really enjoy Carnatic music and stopped after a bit.

Akshara reminisces about her favorite memory of singing which led to her taking voice lessons in sixth grade.

“My biggest memory of it was in fourth grade when we had Honor Choir,” she laughs, remembering those Tuesday and Thursday mornings of singing. “That was so long ago… I remember thinking ‘I’m not that bad!’ and then I took lessons.”

Her dad, Yogendra Gunda, says that he knew she was made to perform from the moment she was born. “I first noticed her high pitched voice when she was just a few seconds old. Maybe that was her first performance.” We all laugh at that as he and Akshara’s mom Prabha Gunda think back to Akshara’s birth.

When I ask Akshara about what her favorite parts of singing were initially, she takes time to think about it.

“I think I really liked the idea of being someone else if that makes sense. When I started voice lessons, we started off with Broadway music, and you have to act as a different character, I thought that was really cool,” she says. Her eyes wander as she thinks about her initial years of singing.

She mentions her shyness, a contrast to her current self. Looking at the way she carries herself, her hair tied back into a sleek ponytail, her silver hoop earrings dangling from her ears, it would be difficult to see a shy version of her. Akshara pauses before telling me that holding herself back when she was younger has pushed her to do more now, to “make up” for what she didn’t do back then.

“When I was in Willy Wonka, this girl backstage was talking to the director about all the shows she’d been in, and I was like ‘I am so behind’ because it was my second show and she was two years younger than me. I felt like I had a lot to catch up on,” she explains animatedly, gesturing with her hands.

Akshara’s mom Prabha mentions she felt that Akshara had very low confidence when she was younger. Whenever she would go to family parties, she would shy away from singing in front of everyone else. As she grew up, she seemed to become more comfortable with singing in front of others.

Akshara looks off into the distance as she begins to tell me how some experiences in middle school also caused her to be shy. She felt that she had to suppress her voice in fear of singing too loud and in fear of being judged.

Akshara admits that although she joined the sixth-grade fall play, she wasn’t as enthusiastic about it.

“I didn’t know anybody and I had maybe three to five lines max, so I would just go there after school and do my homework, and do my part when it was needed,” Akshara adds.

She feels like she wasn’t as involved as she could’ve been, but she was twelve and wasn’t completely serious about it. Akshara had always seen medical school in her future. The topic of medical school makes us both laugh as we talk about the stereotypes in the Indian community, and how others always assume we’d go into science fields. She mentions that her older sister, Akshata, is in medical school at the moment. Doctors and engineers are the highest valued careers in the Indian community, and most kids are pushed to go into those fields from a young age.

Akshara Gunda in the production of ‘Willy Wonka’ with the Limelight Theatre Company. “This was my first show where I didn’t know any castmates beforehand, but I never felt out of place or alone. There was always someone there for me when I needed something,” Akshara said. Photo courtesy of Prabha Gunda.

“I think I really liked the idea of being someone else if that makes sense. When I started voice lessons, we started off with Broadway music, and you have to act as a different character, I thought that was really cool.”

— senior Akshara Gunda

As a result, in her freshman year of high school, Akshara joined choir, still planning to do it as a hobby. She pauses for a few seconds, taking a sip of water before diving into the past. During freshman year, she tells me that she didn’t feel like she had any friends in choir. Her voice falters as she mentions that this caused her to not try as much. Her past experiences also caused her to become more quiet in class.

“At that point in freshman year, I was still like ‘Oh, I want to go to med school, I want to be a doctor’, so I felt like [choir] wasn’t that important,” she tells me. She explains to me that during her sophomore year of choir, many seniors were in her class. She smiles as she remembers those memories.

Her senior friends were like mentors to her, and they showed her that a career in the performing arts, whether it be theatre or music education, was viable. “I knew the reputation they had in East Theatre, and I really admired what they did and the work they put into the shows,” she says.

That was when Akshara began to realize that she didn’t have to go into a career everyone else was pursuing. Not only did her senior friends encourage her, her choir teacher, Mrs. King (Miss Rhoades at the time), pushed her to audition for the musical.

She mentions that she didn’t expect to get a callback, but it ended up changing her path. “At first I was like ‘I’m going to play around with theatre for a little bit and see if I like it’ and then I did it that summer and I did it all [junior] year.”

Her theatre director, Nicole Chandler, tells me her first impression of Akshara when she joined theatre. “I do remember… she was a bit quiet and a little bit reserved, but always respectful and kind. I do remember being impressed by her talent and her audition. I was surprised by her tenderness and ability to communicate the heart of the character in the audition.”

Although Akshara didn’t join OE theatre until later, she would watch all the shows freshman and sophomore year. She laughs as she tells me how sad it is that she watched one of the shows by herself twice. She shifts in her seat as we dive into her experiences in theatre.

“I definitely felt like I was stepping into unknown territory. I didn’t want to make the wrong decision,” she says.

Akshara is an incredibly intelligent and hard-working student. Her GPA is over 4.0 and she takes AP classes. When she joined theatre, she didn’t expect the large time commitment it required. Juggling the workload from the college-level courses while doing theatre until 8PM in the evening every day is something most people would not be able to handle.

“During my first semester, I didn’t do much after school, so I had a lot of time to do homework and other things. And then in sophomore year, I was like ‘I can’t do this,’” she says, recognizing that she was putting too much pressure on herself.

However, the backstage time gave her an opportunity to make more friends in theatre. Her eyes light up as she talks about how theatre became a second home. She tells me she has generally had good experiences, and that there are always a few people who may gossip, but she brushes it off when that happens.

“You have to do your thing, and not let it get to you because that is when it goes bad,” Akshara tells me. Theatre can be quite competitive at times but she says that you should be prepared to not take everything to heart.

Being one of the few Asians, and sometimes the only Indian, has definitely been a factor in her experiences. At East, Akshara is one of the few Indians to pursue theatre. In her experiences outside of East, she mentions that it’s somewhat the same. “I don’t think that’s anyone’s fault though, it’s just not a common thing for people to pursue.”

Currently, Akshara is the only person of color in her theatre classes, like directing. The performing arts in the United States is generally a white-dominated career. Often POC characters are used as the token POC, or as a joke. She herself has heard comments where people attribute her success in plays like The Secret Garden due to her being a minority.

“Someone said I was the token minority,” she says, using air quotes. “And they said [the school] only casts me in shows to push diversity so they’re not racist.”

Despite these comments, I can tell that her experience in The Secret Garden seems to be one of her most cherished memories as she tells me about the process of playing an Indian character and the perspective she was able to bring to it.

“I got to dress up in a kurta with a dupatta around my head. I also wore a bindi, and I had to learn a Hindi chant, which was so cool because there’s barely any Indian representation in theatre,” she says, her gaze wandering as she thinks about those memories.

I ask her to list out all her theatre experiences, and I’m blown away by how much work she’s done. With only around three years of experience, Akshara has already been a part of many plays and musicals. Sophomore year she began with Senior Scenes, where the seniors in OE theatre direct mini-scenes and cast underclassmen. That same year, she had a role in the spring musical, Cinderella. The summer before junior year, she joined Limelight, a local theatre company. Junior year was when she began to take on more major roles, in the fall play, These Shining Lives, and the winter play, The Secret Garden. In it, she was able to play the supporting role of Ayah, an Indian character, set around the time when the British colonized India.

Akshara Gunda in the 2020 spring production of ‘The Secret Garden.’ Akshara plays the Indian character Ayah. “It’s not very common for me to be able to play a character with the same ethnicity as me, so Ayah is definitely a special role I’ll never forget because of how unique the experience was,” Akshara said. Photo courtesy of Carson Bierman.

Through all these plays, she’s been able to explore her passion and realize that this is something she’d like to do in the future. She realized that she didn’t want the daily nine to five lifestyle. Like most parents, her parents were initially unsure about it, but they’ve quickly become immensely supportive of her.

“My mom was more supportive of it at first than my dad since he had been set on me going to medical school. She told me to go for it and that I would regret it if I didn’t try at least once,” Akshara tells me. But it didn’t take long before they were both 100% supportive of her.

Most of all, her older sister Akshata was the one who backed her up from the beginning. I can see how grateful she is to have her sister by her side. Akshara admits that if she was the oldest child, it would’ve been more difficult for her to pursue it.

Akshata opened their parents’ eyes to all the possible careers in the performing arts industry. She helped them realize that those who go into the performing arts don’t have to be one of the two options the media depicts: the broke musician who has a million part-time jobs or the incredibly rich celebrity.

When it comes to family friends, the reaction is a whole different story. The Indian community hasn’t been known to be open-minded about creative ventures. Akshata mentions that the reason the community isn’t as supportive is because they only tend to see the failures in arts careers whereas they only see the successes in STEM careers. It’s harder for them to wrap their head around other career opportunities when they don’t know anything about them.

Akshara tells me that she’s received both extremes of support. Some family friends fully encourage Akshara and constantly compliment her talents, while others question her decision to pursue the performing arts. “Once, this family friend I hadn’t met before came up to me and was like ‘Can I get a picture with you so I can save it before you get famous?’,” she laughs, her smile stretching from ear to ear.

Akshara then pauses before telling me about one of the negative reactions she received. “We had a new Indian neighbor who stopped by to greet us, and he asked what my sister and I were doing, and my dad told him that I was going into music and performance,” she says, gesturing to herself. “He was like ‘She can still become a doctor after that right?’ and yeah, you can, but that’s not the plan. I don’t think he meant it in a rude way but just knowing that he was like ‘That’s not that smart’ didn’t feel great.” She shakes her head in disappointment.

Akshata tells me that going to medical school altered the way people approached her and that they treated her like a different person. “When I told people that I was going into medical school, I got more respect. Especially amongst the community, my parents got more respect from them as well. When Akshara would say ‘I’m going into music’, she wouldn’t get that same kind of response until they heard her sing. [Akshara] had to prove herself whereas I didn’t have to.”

Generally, those she’s close to tend to be more supportive of her. The people who matter the most, her family, both immediate and extended, are extremely supportive of her decision.

Her experiences compared to her white peers’ experiences are also different. Most of her peers have been doing theatre for a very long time, but they don’t get as much backlash from it, making it harder for her to relate with her peers.

“I find myself having to remind myself that they don’t really know how it feels to be told to pursue another career or something like that because they’ve had that support their whole life,” Akshara explains.

She sighs as she tells me that she feels like Asians are the only ones that are kind of against theatre as all her other friends’ communities have been fine with it. However, in general, despite cultural differences, pursuing the performing arts usually garners a different response.

“It is often a path that very few people understand, see value in or have knowledge of how the industry works. So often people don’t realize the vast career opportunities that the arts, specifically theatre, offer,” Chandler says.

Aside from her family and others, Akshara admits that she herself sometimes has doubts. “I definitely have moments where I’m like ‘Oh I got this!’ and other days I’m like ‘I should just go to law school and call it a day.’” However hard she tries, it’s sometimes difficult to escape the cage that is Indian culture. Money and stability is often emphasized and with a career in the arts, that stability isn’t always guaranteed.

Once again, Akshara mentions that her sister is incredibly supportive and has told her that she would help financially in any way possible. Her love for her sister lights up her eyes as she tells me how grateful she is.

Akshata also mentions Akshara’s self doubt. “I think Akshara wants to have that safety net because of her own insecurities and lack of self confidence because she doesn’t know how she stands up amongst her competition. It makes sense to feel that way, but I hope when she gets to music school, she’ll gain a sense of self worth and not feel like she needs a backup option.”

Akshara and I talk more about the stereotypes surrounding the performing arts in the Indian community. Akshara shifts in her seat as she discusses the elitist mentality some seem to have because of their career. Often, those who go into the arts are looked down upon, as if they’re stupid. Frustration crosses her face as she talks about the stereotypes that even she’s had before she joined the arts.

“You think that people in theatre are in theatre because they’re not good enough to do something else, but it’s because they’re good at something else,” Akshara says, animatedly. “It’s not something you can just look up and get away with. Acting and singing is a whole different kind of study.”

Her passion for the performing arts radiates from her, and everyone else can see it too.

“When I saw her in Cinderella, I knew that she was going to do this forever. She’s just never talked about anything as happy as she has about that. I think it took her breaking out of the Indian American mold and her breaking out of her own insecurities for her to realize she could do it,” Akshata begins to tear up and her eyes become glossy as she thinks about her sister on stage. “I remember when she got one of the lead roles in These Shining Lives, you can just see her passion.”

Akshara’s mom agrees that you can see Akshara get lost in her passion, and seeing the audience’s reaction to Akshara is incredibly rewarding. “[Yogendra and I] both cried because of the audience reaction.

“You think that people in theatre are in theatre because they’re not good enough to do something else, but it’s because they’re good at something else. It’s not something you can just look up and get away with. Acting and singing is a whole different kind of study.”

— senior Akshara Gunda

In the future, Akshara hopes to keep doing theatre and build her resume. She plans to pursue vocal performance and do theatre in college. However, her face falls as she says that she feels like she’s either at an advantage or disadvantage being Indian. “I might be more likely to get an opportunity because society is now trying to pursue people of color in traditionally white spots, because they feel that representation is needed. But I think Indians are seen a bit differently than other minority groups. Growing up it was always the Indian who had the accent or was made fun of. And if they want to stay true to the historical background of the show or something like that, it would work to my disadvantage.”

There seems to be more self doubt within her when it comes to representation at times. “[I wonder] if they want me because I’m Indian, or do they not want me because I’m Indian? It’s hard to figure that out, which is scary.”

As a minority in theatre, Akshara hopes to see change in the industry. She wants to see more characters where race isn’t a defining part of them. And she wants to see herself be a part of that change. Her determination is written on her face as she tells me, “I can’t just sit around and say we need more representation. If it’s something I’m interested in, I need to do it. There’s no harm in trying. If I’m already going into theatre, then why not go into it with that goal [of bringing proper representation to the screen].”

Akshata also hopes Akshara can bring Indian culture to the media in a way that represents Indians properly. However, her ultimate goal is for Akshara to be successful and happy. Her parents and teachers echo this sentiment. Their faith in her is unwavering and inspiring.

But it seems that Akshara has inspired them all too.

“Your reputation does not matter more than your happiness. You have one life, why are you wasting it on other people? People are always going to have an opinion about you, whether they express it or not. If you’re confident in what you’re doing, it shouldn’t matter what other people have to say. You define what makes you successful and that’s not in anybody else’s hands,” Akshara says with conviction.

I know she definitely inspires me.

Deshna Chitrarasu is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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