“Meena’s Dream” is the first play artist and activist Anu Yadav is mounting with Forum Theatre since joining the ensemble last year. Over the past decade, Yadav has been producing plays about gentrification and poverty; this fantastical show seems less politically charged. The 36-year-old plays all of the roles, including the title character, a girl whose mother is gravely sick and can’t afford medication. To cope with this bleak reality and her recurring nightmares, Meena escapes into her imagination, where she is a superhero sidekick to the Hindu god Krishna as they battle an intimidating entity known as the Worry Machine. The production, directed by Patrick Crowley, blends Yadav’s acting and dancing with music performed by sisters Anjna and Rajna Swaminathan, who play classical Indian music, and pianist-guitarist Sam McCormally.
During a recent break from rehearsal, Yadav chatted about the inspiration for the Worry Machine, the struggles of being an artist in Washington and how her new fairy tale is sneakily political.
Can you remember where the first seeds of “Meena’s Dream” came from?
It came from a few different places. A few years ago I was freelancing and I was running around, teaching theater at a rec center, where the class had degenerated into just making Play-Doh, and I realized I had to still print a script for a reading I was doing that night. So I was juggling all these different things, and I started writing about a worry machine just as a way to not take things so seriously. Like, what if all my fears were separate from me? And I started writing this little story.
Did you draw any of it from your own life?
My father passed away when I was 12, and I just got so scared. What if something happened to my mom? So I used to have these dreams, and I used to pretend that I was on TV, like I had my own television show, and one of the dreams I used to have was that Krishna used to sit on my bookcase and watch me sleep. So I just used those as a point of departure for a young girl who uses her imagination to cope with things that are just really hard in her real life.
Are there other pieces of art that you drew inspiration from when making this?
Definitely, a bunch. There was “Pan’s Labyrinth” . . .
Is “Meena’s Dream” similarly dark?
I think it’s definitely lighter than that. I think when I tell people about it, I emphasize it’s about this girl whose mother is dying, and everybody thinks it’s really depressing. It definitely has dark elements — she’s terrified her mom is going to die — but I think it’s also about the resilience of a young person who still dreams and has this wild, fantastic imagination and has joy, because that’s just what you do when you’re young. You deal with a lot of hard things, but you still know how to have fun and be happy.
So there’s some balance?
I think it has to be that way in order for people in the audience to take in the gravity of Meena’s situation. As a performer and writer, I’m aware that when you bring in a serious topic, if people get so sunk, they can’t hear you. So I feel like it’s important to have a balance of humor and poignant drama so people can effectively get the message you’re trying to convey.
How has the show changed [since you started working on it in 2011]?
Well, I’m waiting on getting health insurance, and this year I experienced being displaced for a period of time. And all of these things that I, and also different friends of mine, are going through economically have informed the larger sociopolitical context of why Meena’s mother can’t afford the medicine she needs.
The Worry Machine to me is when we blame ourselves for things that are in some ways outside of our control, things that are not just up to an individual. So I’ve learned in a hard and real and great way that you have to learn to ask for help and rely on people. For Meena’s mom to deal with all these things, it’s too much for one person to take on. You have to decide between paying for your medicine and for your rent. Is that a health-care issue or a housing issue? Maybe it’s just an issue that there needs to be enough, and why isn’t there?
Is it getting more difficult to be an artist in the District?
I think so. Someone was telling me that D.C. has risen in terms of being one of the most expensive places to live, and I’ve definitely felt that. And it’s funny, too, to continue to prioritize making art and, well, should you? Maybe you should get a full-time job. And I think everybody has to figure out how to make it work for you. You definitely shouldn’t forgo your basic needs, but it is interesting to be in a moment where it’s, “Okay, there has to be some deeper need why I’m doing this.” Otherwise, why would I be?
Wednesday-Jan. 18. Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. 800-838-3006. www.forum-theatre.com. $20. A majority of tickets are pay-what-you-can, available beginning an hour before the show on a first-come, first-serve basis.