Issue 17 / Tackling Experiences and Breaking Taboos From Script To Stage

Tackling Experiences and Breaking Taboos From Script To Stage

Oct 04, 2015


Happy Place: Award-winning actor and playwright Pamela Mala Sinha takes a step towards finding meaning in the meaningless.

Pamela Mala Sinha’s means of survival is art. She finds meaning in the giving and sharing of experiences and, through her performances, offers the audience a glimpse of humanity much bigger than herself. For her, the stage provides a sense of purpose. “As an artist, if I don’t express myself, I’ll die,” says the Dora award-winning actor and playwright whose sophomore play Happy Place, running at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company this fall, is collecting rave reviews.
A classical theatre artist, Sinha studied at the National Theatre School in Montreal, before moving to Los Angeles where she was cast in a recurring role on NBC’s hit drama, ER. “I was just going to start being a series regular on HBO’s Huff, when my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer and I moved back to Toronto to be with him,” she says calling the time difficult but deeply meaningful. “My brother, who also moved back, and I had the incredible privilege of being adult children in our parent’s home when they needed us the most.”

L-R: Diane D'Aquila & Oyin Oladejo in Happy Place
Photo Credit: Soulpepper Theatre Company

Statistics say around 350 million people suffer from depression worldwide, and, that every single Canadian will battle mental illness directly or indirectly in their lifetime. Sinha has experienced this intimately having personally suffered acute depression following her father’s death. It’s a topic that she explores in depth in Happy Place that features touching performances by a powerful cast including Dianne D’Aquila, Deborah Drakeford, Caroline Gillis, Oyin Oladejo, Irene Poole, Liisa Repo-Martell and Sinha.
Oladejo, who plays Samira in Happy Place, portrays a story similar to the ‘survivor’ from Crash—Sinha’s 2012 Dora Award-winning debut play which was a flashback-style monologue of a brutal rape. Following the initial run, it was revealed that Crash was Sinha’s own story from her time as a student in Montreal. “The life that I was meant to live was robbed off me but my reason to create was not,” she says.

Pamela Mala Sinha at the 2012 Dora Mavor Moore Awards  
Photo Credit:

Rape and sex are two different things and pop cinema portrays two stereotypes when it comes to women and rape, says Sinha. “Either the woman is completely liberated from her suffering and points at the perpetrator in the court of law and then moves on with life. Or, the other kind where the woman is the one who always opens the door a crack and wears a potato sack. That’s it. Either you conquered your trauma or you are acutely traumatised for the rest of your life.”
Crash and then Happy Place are Sinha’s efforts to portray women like herself, who are working, happily married, have children and loving parents and yet, she says, “I’ve lived through this thing and some days I simply can’t get out of bed. Not because you don’t care about your life, as one of the characters in the play says, but because you just can’t bear failing at another day.”
Living side by side with her depression and its various manifestations is what’s helped her not feel isolated. Drawing for her personal experience, Sinha wanted to share stories of encounters with women living with suicidal depression in an in-patient care facility. “I did not want to tell the story of depression just through my eyes,” says Sinha.

L-R: Deborah Drakeford, Caroline Gillis & Irene Poole in Happy Place
Photo Credit: Soulpepper Theatre Company


Set in an in-patient care facility, Happy Place explores the themes of depression with a great deal of humour, love and an investigation in the dynamics of community, experienced through the stories of six women and their therapist who struggles just as much as her patients.
“We live in a society that measures grief and looks for hierarchy in pain. I wanted to blur the lines between who’s healthy, who is sick, who can measure trauma, what is the size of trauma and put that in context of humour,” says Sinha explaining how the facility represents a microcosm of the society as a whole and that you can’t have a play with a group of women of varied ages and not have humor and sex as part of their world. Indeed, Happy Place liberally punctuates the sombre narrative with hilarious satire and comedy.
The play is also set to become a movie, produced by Sienna Films, an independent Canadian film and television production house. Sinha’s writing the screenplay for it.



Quoting American philosopher Richard Rorty, Sinha says her art allows her to give audience “the imaginative ability to see strange people—those oppressed by humiliation, cruelty and pain—as fellow sufferers and to imagine being somebody else.
“I am incredibly blessed that Soulpepper took a risk on me,” says Sinha. “Happy Place is a play we are very proud of. I want to share it. I can only do my best and hope that it resonates with people. That is all I am offering. I have no other agenda. What my audience does with what I offer… I have no agency over that. I only hope that they leave a little different than when they walked in…that is the great gift of live theatre.”
Aside from Happy Place, Sinha’s also busy working on Nirbhaya—the testimonial theatre project in which survivors of sexual abuse and violence speak out about their experience while also recounting the 2012 rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi. Sinha, who joined the project when one of the actors left the show, has performed in several cities major cities including New York and is set to bring Nirbhaya to Toronto and Vancouver later this year.

Happy Place runs at Soulpepper Theatre Company until October 17th, 2015. 

Main Image Photo Credit: Soulpepper 


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