Growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, Vaneshran Arumugam studied to be a microbiologist. He excelled at sciences, but his heart wasn’t in it. What really captured his imagination was the theater.
That was in the 1980s and 1990s, when apartheid was still in force and there were few, if any, options open to a black, stage-struck adolescent. But with the support of his family, Arumugam persevered. Today, he is ranked among South Africa’s most celebrated actors, as well as a playwright, teacher, director and social activist.
This spring, some 40 BMCC English and Theater majors attended a master class taught by Arumugam in “Literature in Performance” at BMCC’s Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Arumugam, who has performed widely on the stage, in movies and on TV since 1996, is currently in New York as a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Brooklyn’s St. Francis College.
Bridging the “you and me” gap
“It’s through the arts that we are able to fulfill our potential to create change, not just on a political level, but in our ability to evolve and transform ourselves and others,” Arumugam told the students. “You gain a kind of wealth through the arts—and through acting in particular—that you might struggle to achieve in other fields.”
Acting, he said, “bridges the gap between the ‘you and the me.’ And, of course, the dialogue between ‘you and me’ is the essence of all drama.”
In his native country, Arumugam has supported a number of key social initiatives, including People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA), Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre, and The Men’s March. He is also a founding member of The Turning Point Foundation, which provides a platform for creating access and training in the performing arts to create social change and justice.
As part of his master class, Arumugam led students through acting exercises, often incorporating scenes from Shakespeare.
“I found it very helpful to see what actors experience on stage, on the other side of the camera,” says Dan Torres, a video arts and technology major. “I was also interested to learn that Mr. Arumugam is a musician as I am—I play saxophone. On the stage, I had the opportunity to use my words instead of my saxophone—and get dragged out of my (comfort) box. I really enjoyed it.”
Shrinking the world
Arumugam’s visit was co-produced by Professors Elizabeth Primamore (Department of English), and Katherine Kavanagh (Speech, Communication and Theatre Arts). “It was thrilling to reach across academic disciplines to put this event together,” Primamore says. “One of the most moving aspects of Mr. Arumugam’s presentation was the idea that the theater provides a global connection and serves to make the world smaller. Actors speak a common language wherever in the world they come from.”
Adds Kavanagh, “Just as literature interprets the world for us, Mr. Arumugam’s master class enabled students to re-interpret it—and to become enlivened by the experience.”
For Arumugam, who has plied his trade in South Africa over the past two decades, acting is, as much as anything else, about advancing the cause of social justice. “In South Africa, the theatre has had a powerful impact on changing people’s minds, and also in concretizing the idea that change needed to happen,” he told the students.
“The theatre has been shown to be a powerful force in bringing people together, in disseminating ideas and ideologies and an creating space for people to disagree.”