New faces in theatre: meet creator/performer/producer/activist Sue Goberdhan

They’re young, bright, and unstoppably creative. And, pandemic be damned, their adaptable, flexible talents are already lighting up the Edmonton theatre scene. In this 12thnight series you’ll meet some of E-town’s sought-after up-and-comers, artists whose work, on- and backstage, is already having an impact in this challenging age — and will have more when the theatre doors are open again. 

Meet  The series so far has included  designer/scenographer Elise CM Jason, techno whiz Bradley King, and triple-threat Chariz Faulmino, sketch and improv star Sydney Campbell and playwright/ dramaturge/ theatre scholar Mūkonzi wã Mūsyoki.

Sue Goberdhan in her Elf on The Shelf mode – Sister Act II and a Girl Named Sue.

By Liz Nicholls,

SUE GOBERDHAN, creator/ performer/ performer/ activist

If you saw Jason Chinn’s big-cast 2019 political comedy E Day — set in a makeshift NDP constituency office on the eve of an historic provincial election (yeah, that one) — you’ll have caught sight of a charismatic newcomer.

Sue Goberdhan played Sue, Safeway union worker cum campaign volunteer assigned to the lawn sign brigade — a ‘sure-no-problem!’ can-do sort with a beacon smile, her own running gag, and a crucial role in one of the play’s sinister mysteries. And she nailed it.

It was a sighting of a young theatre artist, in her mid-20s, who’s burst onto the scene in startling fashion, with an expanding array of talents, passions, and thoughtful ideas for changing the way theatre works in these parts.

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Since then Edmonton audiences have caught the exuberant Goberdhan onstage, dancing along 83rd Ave whilst singing, in the Plain Janes’ Scenes From The Sidewalk. Azimuth Theatre has acquired a new co-artistic director (Goberdhan in tandem with Morgan Yamada). There’s a new Goberdhan podcast, A Bigger Table. Hey, maybe you already caught Fringe premieres of Almost Heroes or Marnie Day, two original musicals Goberdhan wrote with composer (and old friend) Matt Graham, Jasper Poole, and Kaleb Romano? Goberdhan and Graham, have their own musical theatre company, with a quizzical Goberhanian name, Could Be Cool Theatre.

Sue Groberdhan in Scenes From The Sidewalk, Plain Jane Theatre. Photo by Stephanie Wolfe.

She writes musicals and plays, she appears in them, she instigates and produces projects, both her own and others…. It’s no accident that Azimuth’s “Performance Lab #1” online Feb. 15 was “telling your own stories with Sue Goberdhan.” It’s a motif, a mission even, she cherishes. Her own story has a certain blithe unpredictability, true, but a certain inevitable momentum, too.

“I tried everything to not be an artist!” declares the effervescent voice on the phone. In this Goberdhan, who’s a funny, entertaining, unpretentious conversationalist, was following the advice Giancarlo Esposito (Gus in Breaking Bad) gave in response to a question about entering the field of acting. “‘Do everything else first; decide there’s nothing else in your life to do. If there is, do that!”

“So much less turmoil on the heart.” Goberdhan permits herself a sigh. “Ain’t that the truth?”

Goberdhan took theatre avoidance seriously. She lists her assortment of post-high school gigs: maternity store for five years, David’s Bridal, data entry clerk for a national oil outfit (“yeah I sold my soul; I needed the money”), a flower shop. “I don’t know what they were thinking hiring me. Annuals $3, perennials $5. I was like ‘how do you tell the difference?’. So I decided everything was three bucks. A lot of people got lucky that summer.”

Ever since junior high, theatre has been staking a claim, bigger and bigger, in Goberdhan World. There were, however, obstacles. Theatre was/is a white stronghold. “I knew I loved it. I was so sure. But I remember looking around me, at high school (theatre). And I was like ‘there is NOBODY onstage who looks like me doing this job’. So I didn’t think I could do it.”

Goberdhan is of Indo-Caribbean descent (her family is from Guyana in South America). “In Scarborough, where I grew up, half the kids at my school were Guyanese; some were my cousins.… I didn’t realize how multi-cultural my school was till I got here (for junior high), and didn’t meet another Guyanese person for five years!”

“What gave me permission to pursue theatre,” as Goberdhan puts it, was seeing “two brown girls” in a high school show, one in hijab. “OK, if they can do it I can do it,” she says. “It cracked the code for me. I knew I could have meaningful work.”

There’s another turning point in the Goberdhan story, too. And it has roots in a pop culture interview that stuck with her. “You’re a weird dude,” said Judd Apatow talking to Jason Segel at the Freaks and Geeks season wrap. “And you’re not going to get any meaningful work after this — if you don’t write it yourself.” Goberdhan took it to heart. “OK I’m a weird dude too. OK, write your own? Let’s do it! That’s all I needed.”

“We talk about this a lot at Azimuth,” she says of her campaign of empowering a diversity of theatre artists to create their own work.  “You have to start stacking hats on hats on hats … so you can actually get to a place where you’re happy with what you’re putting out. You’ve got to be a writer, a director, a producer….” The Fringe, where creators are of necessity producers, is, as Goberdhan points out, is the playground for that kind of exploration.

“I get asked ‘what’s a dream role for you?’. And I don’t really know how to answer that question. No one had me in mind when they were writing whatever they wrote. I was nobody’s first choice for anything…. So maybe my dream role is one I haven’t written yet. Right now it doesn’t exist.”

Sue Goberdhan

Goberdhan traces her love of writing back to a couple of high school projects. One was inspired by a 300-line Ferlinghetti (R.I.P) poem that unspools in metaphors. “We had to write our own.” The other was a stream of entries in a writing portfolio. “I didn’t really start writing (plays per se) until  Almost Heroes.” She describes her collaboration with Graham — “he was my first friend; we started writing together at 17 and never stopped” — as “a farcical musical comedy about what it really means to be extraordinary. It’s about superheroes who have really shitty powers and have to use them to protect their little town.”

“Matt has the music brain; I have the other one…. It’s a blessing to be his friend and watch his practice grow!” says Goberdhan, who’s a natural repository of exclamation points. Almost Heroes was seven years in the making before its 2017 Fringe debut. “We played the Garneau Theatre  — to never less than 100 people a night…. I was super-surprised! It just shows you a little bit of enthusiasm will take you so far!”

Their second musical, which explores grief, was “a complete 180,” she says. In Marnie Day five friends gather every year on the title day to honour a free-spirited friend who has passed away. “It’s about finding a way to move forward when you don’t think you can.”

As a musica theatre person Goberdhan gravitated to MacEwan University, didn’t quite grasp the intricacies of a musical theatre audition (finding sheet music, and a pianist, and all that), and ended up in the Arts and Cultural Management program instead. “I kicked myself down for it; for ages I couldn’t move past the fact I was already so many steps behind.… How did I not realize that if I wanted to be better at something I just have to practise the something?”

That’s why she’s so excited about the Azimuth job, Goberdhan says. “I have such an opportunity to fix things that were wrong when I was coming up…. People are at a point when they’re recognizing their own agency. And this is an opportunity to teach people the skills to explore that agency. People are just waiting for permission, for someone to tell them ‘you should do this because you’re going to succeed’.”

Goberdhan is “living proof,” she laughs, for the go-for-the-gusto model of self-discovery, of “opening your eyes” to your own talent. It applies to her big singing voice, to her ventures onstage in musicals she’s (co-) written, to forays into sketch comedy with Blackout (“I can’t write short form to save my life!”), to the kids’ theatre classes she teaches at Grindstone Theatre. “My whole practice in teaching is self-guided instruction!” she says.

“I’ve been lucky to bounce around from project to project, to do experimental things that aren’t necessarily ‘professional’,” she says.  Though “not an improv person,” she’s even tried that terrifying spontaneous form. What’s The Deal?, an improvised Seinfeld show in which she was the Kramer character, “is maybe my favourite thing I’ve ever done.” If they ever revive it, “I’m in!”

Warning: if Goberdhan gets an idea, she’s very apt to run with it. When she and Luc Tellier amused themselves in COVID-ian lockdown by creating kooky custom-made Elf on the Shelf memes for Edmonton theatre people, they ended up with a 2021 calendar that Goberdhan designed.

As an artist who’s also an appreciator and enthusiast, Goberdhan is all about empowering the reticent and the marginalized. “Accessibility” and “permission” are key words in the Goberdhan lexicon. “I get frustrated because our community is chock full of incredible talent, and a lot of it is stuck in the ‘community theatre’ lane, people that don’t have a way to get to the intersection with professional theatre, people doing it for zero compensation….”

I just think we’re really missing out…. We have so many performers who should have so many more opportunities than they do,” Goberdhan says. “And we need a way to make this whole process more equitable..”

“I think of all the times I’ve tried to open a door for myself and couldn’t. I needed someone to hold it open for me!” That door-opening someone could well be Goberdhan, paying encouragement forward.

“If we make space for people to tell their stories, our lives would be all the richer for that….”

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