March 1, 2023
How To Fail as a Popstar (but rock as a TV star)
“I’ve gotten used to referring to myself in the third person, which feels kind of weird,” says Vivek Shraya a mere two days after filming wrapped up on her upcoming comedy TV series, How To Fail as a Popstar, which is set to air on CBC Gem.
That feeling is understandable. Shraya — a multidisciplinary artist whose work has included literature, music, visual art, and now acting, among other mediums — plays her present-day self in the series, but she’s only one of three Viveks to appear in the show. There’s also a teenage Vivek and an adult Vivek, played by different actors.
The eight-episode television series, based on a one-person play Shraya wrote in 2019, is autobiographical, telling the story of a “queer brown boy who dreams of becoming a pop star.” The show’s narrative is told from the perspective of present-day Shraya, a trans femme reflecting on her journey, which doesn’t ultimately lead to Madonna-level mega-stardom, hence the failure descriptor in the title.
Failure seems rather harsh given the huge success and high-profile Shraya — an associate professor of creative writing in UCalgary’s Department of English — has achieved. Among her prestigious accomplishments is rave recognition in Vanity Fair, a Polaris Music Prize nomination, being a seven-time finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, and, most recently, receiving Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee Medal.
But despite all of that, falling short of the pop music mountaintop has been genuinely painful for Shraya, and she opened herself up to expressing that deep hurt when writing the original How to Fail as a Popstar for theatre.
“I don’t think we make a lot of space for disappointment in our culture,” Shraya says. “We don’t like to hear about how somebody feels like a failure, maybe because we care about them, or maybe it just a difficult thing to receive. We’re much more comfortable with the feel-good story.”
It seldom fails, notes Shraya, that when she talks about How To Fail as a Popstar, people feel the need to bring to her attention her many career triumphs. “I’m proud of the success I’ve had — but ultimately, being an academic or writer is not what I imagined,” she says.
I spent a good 15 to 20 years with the single goal of being a popstar in mind, and when you fall short of that mark it hurts you and haunts you. And that’s the core of this story — honouring that disappointment.
Shraya had big plans for How To Fail As a Popstar when she wrote the one-person play in 2019. It was workshopped in Calgary in early 2020 as part of One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo festival, followed by a 12-night opening at Toronto’s Canadian Stage.
Then, the pandemic struck.
“I feel like I was one of the few people on the planet that got to mount a play in 2020 before everything shut down,” Shraya says. “We were supposed to hit Germany next and had other international opportunities in the works. Artists traffic in momentum, it’s almost a mystical thing that we rely upon. You can’t put a price on it, and you can’t get it back. That was a huge loss for me.”
Shraya’s story got a second lease on life thanks to the CBC Creative Relief Fund which she successfully applied for, granting her the opportunity to collaborate with a TV producer and story editor to turn her play into a pilot, which ultimately led to developing and filming the upcoming TV series.
The show’s cast is impressively packed with a roster that includes acclaimed director Vanessa Matsui and such notable actors as Eric Johnson (Fifty Shades Darker), Nadine Bhabha (Letterkenny), Chris D’Silva (It Chapter Two) and Adrian Pavone (Star Trek: Discovery).
While the show’s central premise comes from a place of grief, Shraya emphasizes that it’s written as a comedy.
“There’s certainly sadness in there, but it’s also fun and joyful,” she says.
“It’s kind of beautifully naïve that I thought I could make it! You never get that youthful innocence back of believing you could do something larger than life. It’s a show that celebrates failure, but in many ways it’s also a celebration of trying. Believing against the odds that something magical is possible.
“I see it as a tribute to a kid who persevered.”