Story District Performer Ritija Gupta Prepares For Her Solo Debut
It’s not everyday that you get to share a real success story. But Ritija Gupta is certainly becoming quite a success as a storyteller here in DC and Story District is proud to count her as a veteran performer. With an invite into the Mead Theater Lab Program, and with a one-man show coming this year, it was definitely time to talk to her and try to get her storytelling secrets.
How long have you been telling stories?
My first story with Story District (back when it was Speakeasy DC) was mid-March, 2013. It was for the “Lent” show and, interestingly enough, was nominated for Speakeasy’s “Best of” stories for that year. I mention that because, well, I’m really proud that that happened, and I think it’s important for newcomers to know that there is a lot of space for everyone in this community, no matter how inexperienced you think you are.
What do you enjoy about telling stories?
When I tell a story, I’m really looking to connect with the audience in a way that is so much more personal and in-the-moment than I’ve found in some other art forms. The distance between me and the audience is shortened when I’m onstage, and it’s not just pure entertainment or provocation, it’s a sort of community-building that feels like it extends long after I’ve left the stage.
How did you feel when you were told that you would be doing a one-man show? Did you feel prepared?
I was leaving a meeting when I got the e-mail that I had been accepted into the Mead Theatre Lab Program (MTLP) and initially misread the e-mail as a polite “thank you for your interest, but” letter, which is what I was expecting, to be honest. When I realized that I was actually being offered a spot, it took a second to digest that this thing I’d wanted was happening—I hadn’t even realized how much I’d wanted it because it seemed so improbable to get this opportunity that I kind of distanced myself from the outcome. The idea that these artists that I respect and admire were encouraging me to also make art, and giving me the space and mentorship to do it, seems surreal. The MTLP has given me permission to think of myself as an artist (which feels very weird even to say), and that is a tremendous gift that I don’t take for granted.
What do you feel like are your influences for how to tell stories?
I’m not sure what specific influences I’ve used, I’m sure everything I’ve heard and everyone I’ve met has had some impact on my approach to establish what does and doesn’t work for me. What does appear to work so far is offering the audience some humor in return for their listening to something potentially uncomfortable, which is very much a stand-up approach, not necessarily a part of what storytelling is since I think of storytelling as having great emotional range and nearly infinite approaches. I do admire storytellers who have the dexterity to maneuver an audience through difficult emotions without artifice or a knee-jerk need to cut tension, though. That’s some next-level talent and it’s what I aspire to.
You mentioned that people in the Story District community have helped you?
Well, Amy Saidman has given me opportunities to be onstage, which is of course an immense help! I’m very grateful to have been included in Story District performances, I think what Amy’s done for the storytelling community in general is amazing and necessary.
I’ve worked most closely with Stephanie Garibaldi on developing my stories. She’s one of Story District's senior teachers and she coaches the storytellers who perform in the monthly series on 2nd Tuesdays at Town as well as in Sucker for Love. I’ve found her insights to be spot on and her feedback completely essential. Storytelling, unlike many other stage-based art forms, can be somewhat insular unless you specifically go out and solicit feedback—otherwise, it’s pretty much just you until you get onstage. The danger there, for me, is that it’s easy to get wrapped up in what I think is funny, what I think connects, and I could be completely off the mark. Stephanie delivers feedback really effectively with specific suggestions on how to improve a story, how to become more efficient in set-ups, how to make more of an impact, how to bring in other voices and experiences to truly engage the audience. I trust her judgment completely when it comes to storytelling feedback. She’s also, by the way, incredibly nice and encouraging and I would have never even applied to this opportunity if not for her. She is tirelessly supportive of storytellers in the community and is a tremendous resource.
What’s the one thing you think people should avoid when trying to tell a story?
Some clichés exist for a reason, and I have to say it’s important to be yourself (or, since the question asks about what people should avoid, I’ll say “avoid being someone you aren’t”. Storytellers can be impressive, and memorable, and some stories are practically pyrotechnic in how exciting they can be. However, storytellers and stories can also be humble, reflective, and quiet. There is room for all of it.
This extends to the content of the story, by the way. In some stories, you aren’t the hero—and that’s okay. You aren’t going to lose the audience because you made a mistake or maybe, for once, you were the antagonist—we’re all human beings, most of us know what it’s like to be wrong occasionally.
Can you tell us anything about your plans for the show?
While I would love to, I don’t want to make promises about content that I can’t keep—we’re still at a very early stage. I will just say that, for some, hearing the words “solo storytelling show” conjures up some stereotypes, which are not entirely unfair. I’m hoping to avoid some of those stereotypes, which will be much more achievable with the mentorship from the MTLP. I have the audience’s interests in mind and I’d like my show to be time well spent for them.