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Conversations with Lina Patel

Today we’d like to introduce you to Lina Patel.

Hi Lina, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstory.
My backstory is directly related to why I do what I do – so here goes! I was born in India and grew up in California and Texas. I was a single child until my brother came along when I was eight. So, with working parents and being quite sick as a child, I found art early. Reading and writing was an intinctual way to make sense of everything happening to me that I could not control. I wrote a lot of tortured poetry and plays and short stories, ha! My illness was partly the result of a misdiagnosis. It is a much longer story that I will tell someday. But the effect my illness had, in addition to making me feel doubly other-ed (immigrant and sick kid) was that I missed a lot of learning and socializing at school. At least until my health stabilized somewhat, after my brother was born. As a parent now, I am so grateful for my healthy child. She makes me think back to my own small self with a lot more compassion than I used to. (Like a lot of artists and a lot of women, in particular, I have been very hard on myself.) When children experience trauma and suffering at an early age, mortality and the impermanence of things continue to weigh heavily as they grow into adulthood. My struggles as an immigrant and with my health gave me plenty of time to ponder the big questions while still quite young: Why are we here? What’s the point of suffering? What else is out there? Is there a God? I sought answers in literature. Release in writing. I found my tribe, finally, in the drama department in high school. At that point, I was focused on acting. Theatre was a safe and structured way to explore the messy, scary, big emotions and ideas in my life. Great playwrights made me feel less alone and less of a misfit. The contained space of a theatre provided a mirror for life that illumniated its darker corners. Theatre was and is healing.

As an actor, becoming a character allowed me to live different lives. To go places I otherwise could not go. Theatre gave my pain purpose and it gave me direction. I love the rigor of rehearsals. I love the discipline that acting and writing require. And as you grow in the craft, you realize it’s not about you. I mean, in a way, it is — as an actor or as a writer, you are bringing who you are to the work. It’s you but not necessarily about you. You are interpreting and channeling. You are an active, empathetic part of this wide world. And you must observe and listen without judgment. The periods of isolation while you are memorizing lines or researching or writing is real. But then you must step into the light and present yourself, your work, your heart, mind, and soul to people who will, kindly or not, respond to and judge you and your work. As an actor or writer you are a mirror. An instrument. You have to have an ego but you also have to turn it off. You have to keep your heart open but develop a thick skin. It’s hard! I started off as an actor and I learned through acting about dialogue, character, plot, and structure, which served me well when my focus turned back to writing. I’d be a different writer if I wasn’t an actor first. Everyone, whether they want to be an artist, a doctor, an engineer, or a CEO – maybe especially a CEO! – ought to take acting classes. It is the best way to teach empathy and to critically examine complex ideas and emotions.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Nothing about what I do has been easy or smooth. I’ve talked about the personal challenges that led to my career. Now, I’ll focus on the professional. There are many obstacles and challenges an actor or writer faces – some I’ve mentioned, like the internal challenges of the rigor, the discipline, and the isolation this career requires. And it is a career as much as it is a calling. It took me a long time to be able to say that I make my living as an artist and to treat it as a job. Inspiration and talent can take you far but without dedicated, focused time to work, learn, and give back when you can, a career in the arts won’t last. Of course, there are external challenges, too. In America the arts are seen, incorrectly, as some kind of luxury and not integral to the well-being of a healthy society. As a result, there is little institutional or financial support. The competition is fierce. The nepotism, sexism, and racism is real. But being a writer or an actor, especially a BIPOC artist, means you are asking for obstacles and challenges. Add to that you are a woman. To top it off, you are, as a creative person, naturally full out doubt. Another internal challenge! But, you don’t want to lose your doubt. Doubt drives you to be more honest as an artist. Yet, you don’t want it to rule you to the point where you can’t audition or write or perform. The same with ego – you need a healthy one, but can’t let your ego get in the way of learning or taking risks; of not being open to working on your craft, which is a lifelong pursuit. Bertrand Russell said something to the effect of the root cause of all our trouble is that the idiots are sure of themselves and the intelligent are full of doubt. I love that! Maybe a good way to think of doubt is to keep a “beginner’s mind” while firmly believing in yourself and staying true to your voice. One of the most valuable things an artist has is their point of view. There is no one like you. An artist does the work of knowing themself and challenging themself. To work, unless you have special access, you will have to knock down doors yourself. You must seek out the people who see you. When you find these mentors or angels or friends, have a specific request in mind, like, “Would you please read this draft of my script/play/short story?” Then take their notes — don’t get defensive or petulant! If you trust them as artists/people who have your best interest at heart, listen to what they have to say, process it, and then change what feels right to change in your work or to your approach to your work. It’s also super important to ask them what you can do for them, too. Don’t just take. We can’t control the family we are born into but we can control who and what we choose to surround ourselves with. I like to think of the obstacles I’ve faced as opportunities to hone my instincts and trust my gut.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
I am an actor, playwright, and most recently television writer. I am currently writing for Ava DuVernay’s anthology series, “Cherish the Day”. Before that, I worked for two seasons on DC’s “Krypton” and the CW’s “Frequency”. Over the summer, I’m spending time in southern Indiana as a writer in residence at New Harmony Project. It’ll be my second time there. It’s a magical place to create, write, and meet other artists.

We’d be interested to hear your thoughts on luck and what role, if any, you feel it’s played for you?
Luck plays a huge role in anyone’s life. But, as is often said, luck is the result of hard work and planning. I was lucky because I knew since I was very young that I was an actor and writer. There was nothing else I ever wanted to do. But I knew no one in the business and my Indian parents were clueless about the arts. Like most parents, they were dreaming I’d be a doctor or lawyer or engineer. (At least my brother is a scientist!) But to their credit, and because they saw that it really fed me, they cautiously accepted my chosen path and supported me as best they could. I also think they had seen how much I suffered as a child and just wanted me to be happy. Slowly, I found ways to thrive in an industry that was definitely not designed for someone who looked like me. Was it luck that I got into NYU and then graduate school in San Diego? Was it luck that I met mentors like Jose Rivera and David Henry Hwang and Meredith Steihm? Maybe. But also, I knew I wanted to work as an artist at a high level and found ways to put myself in situations to meet the people I admired. So, despite rejection and closed doors, I just kept pursuing that goal. I sought out fellow artists. I asked questions. I applied for grants, retreats, residencies. I auditioned. And auditioned. I put myself in positions where I could learn. I offered to help or intern or apprentice until I got into that workshop or was accepted into that program or got that job. And work begets work. You create luck by keeping a beginner’s mind – there is always more to learn – and by pursuing, relentlessly, your truth.

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