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Good Theater

Written by Mike Thee
October 13, 2015

Teaching in a classroom of students is not all that different from performing in front of an audience. Meena Rishi would know; she does both. 

By day, she is a professor of economics in the Albers. When she's not fulfilling her duties as a teacher-scholar in Pigott, you can sometimes find her acting on stages throughout the Seattle area. 

Rishi is pretty good at theater. Last month she learned she was a People's Choice Nominee for the 7th annual Gregory Awards. Named for the late Gregory Falls, who is widely recognized as a leader in theater in Seattle, the awards will be presented on Oct. 26 at McCaw Hall. 

Rishi was in a meeting with her department chair when she got the news on her SU e-mail. At first she thought it was a hoax but then realized it was for real when her telephone started to buzz with congratulatory messages. 

The nomination recognizes Rishi's performance as a supporting actress in "Dance Like a Man," a critically acclaimed play that ran at the ACT Theatre this past summer. (All 11 performances were sold out.) 

There's added significance to Rishi's accomplishment: she has learned that she and fellow cast member Jay Athlaye are the first South Asians to be nominated for a Gregory Award. It's a distinction she is proud to carry. 

"Dance Like a Man" was hardly Rishi's first foray in theater. She has been involved in a variety of acting and other artistic endeavors for a good part of her life, but especially in the past decade after coming to work at SU. Compared to other places she's lived, "Seattle has a more engaged theater scene," she says. 

Much of Rishi's theatrical roles have been through Pratidhwani, an organization that promotes and cultivates the performing arts of the Indian subcontinent. Pratidhwani presented "Dance Like a Man," as well as "Mother in Another Language," in which Rishi starred in 2011. 

In "Dance Like a Man," Rishi was part of a small, four-person cast. She played Ratna, who with her husband Jairaj-both aging dancers-were preparing for their daughter Lata's dance performance in a high-profile festival. Adding further stress to the situation was the impending meeting between Lata's parents and the man she wishes to marry. 

Rishi calls Ratna "a tortured, complicated character," and says the play is "positioned around the couple and their relationship and all the fissures that come to a head when their only child is about to give her performance." 

As the play continues, Ratna and Jairaj go back in time and gain insights into where the tension in their relationship originated. 

The role required Rishi to balance her professorial and theatrical commitments. As director of the International Development Internship Program and the Howard J. Bosanko Professor in International Economics and Finance, Rishi is plenty busy off the stage, and just a few weeks before "Dance Like a Man" opened, she was in Guatemala, teaching a study group of Albers students. She made it all work. 

"The director (of the play) said I could go (to Guatemala) as long as I practiced my lines every night," says Rishi. "I would say I did that about 80 percent of the time." 

After playing herself as a professor in the classroom, the opportunity to assume other characters on stage is refreshing for Rishi, even if those who know her can detect traces of her own persona in the roles she plays. 

"My children said they could see me in the devious mother Ratna," she says with a laugh.