Five Questions for Tanya Selvaratnam

Tanya Selvaratnam

Tanya Selvaratnam (in a still from Documenta-commissioned "9 Scripts from a Nation at War")

Name: Tanya Selvaratnam
Title/Occupation: Performer/Producer/Activist
Organization/Company: primary theater affiliations have been as an Associate or Company Member with The Wooster Group, The Builders Association, and Performance Media Studio (Jay Scheib); and primary film affiliations have been as a producer with Di San Luca Films, Aubin Pictures, and Internet Stories Productions
URL: theater links —,,; some of my films —,

1. Where did you grow up and how did you end up where you are now?

I was born in Sri Lanka, actually I was born in Ceylon, and a year later the country became Sri Lanka. When I was a baby, my mother and I moved to California where my father had already set up a home for us. As an adult, after graduate school, I was in NYC for 14 years, 12 of which I spent mostly on the road with The Wooster Group and The Builders Association. Right now, I am in Cambridge, MA, and I ended up here because last year I married Jay Scheib who teaches at MIT and makes theater.

2. Which performance, song, play, movie, painting or other work of art had the biggest influence on you and why?

The Wooster Group’s short film “Flaubert Dreams of Travel But The Illness of His Mother Prevents It” – I saw it on PBS’ Alive From Off Center when I was a teenager. Ironically, if I hadn’t been watching television that night, I wouldn’t have known the work of The Wooster Group since they never played in my hometown of Long Beach, CA. My life would have been completely different, because many years later, I wouldn’t have slipped a note under the door of The Performing Garage (The Wooster Group’s home base) saying how much I admire their work and would love to work with them, which means I would have never given up graduate school to join the company.

3. What skill, talent or attribute do you most wish you had and why?

Singing. I love to sing and have even done so in shows, but I can’t really hold a tune. Recently, I played Rock Star, with Andrew Andrew on drums and guitar and Jay on bass, and I scored 99% as the singer, so maybe I’m being hard on myself.

4. What do you do to make a living? Describe a normal day.

I make a living performing but also producing movies. Last year, I spent a lot of time working with Jay on three different shows; now I am focused on the release of two films I produced: Chiara Clemente’s OUR CITY DREAMS about five decades of women artists in New York and Catherine Gund’s WHAT’S ON YOUR PLATE? about children and food politics. In addition to having a job, I’ve been lucky with real estate. I didn’t have much money to work with, but I always believed in the importance of owning property, and the last two places I owned appreciated enormously before I sold them. To supplement my income, I have done tech support and office management consulting, and I have edited papers and done research for the World Health Organization. My last freelance producing project was handling press and logistics as the Artist Liaison for the Rubell Family Collection’s 30 Americans exhibition. Every day is different.

5. Have you ever had to make a choice between work and art? What did you choose, why, and what was the outcome?

I didn’t have to choose between work and art, because art became my work, both as a performer and film producer. But I did have to choose between one type of work that involved art and another that didn’t. In college, I thought eventually I would become a Chinese Legal Historian or diplomat. After graduation and before graduate school, I was working and doing research at the Center for Chinese Legal Studies at Columbia Law School, while simultaneously working as an assistant for Anna Deavere Smith. Then my father died, and happiness was more important than anything, and theater made and continues to make me very happy. Anna as well as Elizabeth Lecompte and Kate Valk have been extraordinary role models for me, and if not for them, I wouldn’t have felt that theater could be a profession and not just a hobby. If I hadn’t followed their lead, I wouldn’t be doing what I am now and I wouldn’t have met Jay. Visitors are welcome at our little house in Cambridge.


Tanya’s film Our City Dreams, will be shown on the Sundance Channel on Monday, May 25 at 7 p.m.

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