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Actress, producer, and comedian Sunanda Sachatrakul on taking over the global stage

by Ashima

A reminder that laughter truly is the best medicine.

By Ashima Sethi

With everything going on in the world, I find myself using the phrase, “if I don’t laugh about it, I’ll cry” more than ever before. It’s doom and gloom on TV, Twitter is riddled with bad news, and Facebook is constantly trying to remind me about how much fun I had in 2013 when the world seemed like a much safer place.

Now more than ever, art forms that have the power to take our minds off the real world are the things we can all use in spades. Just ask Sunanda Sachatrakul, who is committed to entertaining audiences around the world through various creative mediums. She talks to Masala about her journey thus far and why having a good laugh is so important.

Sunanda was raised in Bangkok where she attended the International School of Bangkok (ISB) from kindergarten through to graduation. “I often joke that my parents spent a lot of money for me to come out of school sounding like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle,” she laughs. Growing up, Sunanda had a particular interest in Biology which led to her desire to become a doctor. “I don’t know if that was innate or internalised conditioning of what we as Indians are expected to do with our lives,” she explains.

However, while studying in New York, Sunanda soon realised that medicine was not for her because she was studying alongside pre-med students that had questionable ethics. “I thought, ‘do I really want to join a profession that is so wildly challenging that so many people cheat to get into it?’ Unfortunately, I met more people motivated by what they expected to earn as doctors as opposed to wanting to help people.”

She then switched to majoring in Economics but wasn’t pleased to learn that most of her peers were going into investment banking, an industry she was not comfortable with. “I would’ve graduated in 2001, so it was really during the height of investment banking fraud that led to the 2008 crash on Wall Street.

While in college, Sunanda fell into producing after seeing a banner for events company Giant Step at several concerts. “I figured I could attend gigs for free if I was working with them,” she explains. “I interned there for a few years before the team introduced me to more people in music and I landed my next job. It then became clear that I enjoyed Student Government so much in school because I liked putting on events and bringing people together.”

Sunanda then worked as a producer in events, music videos, short and feature films for several years before becoming a photography producer. “I was working with one of my best friends at an advertising agency and found myself constantly giving her unsolicited creative input. I’d always suggest adding comedy to the photos, so finally she told me: ‘go find your own creative expression! You clearly need an outlet to express comically.’”

Photography credit to Mark Gambino.

After this, Sunanda found the guts to sign up for an improv class. Six months later, she was in Bangkok when an acquaintance suggested she compete in a stand up competition although she’d never done one before. “I ended up winning and then got the chance to compete in Singapore. I then started doing stand up regularly at open mics and festivals. I’d always loved producing work for others because I loved seeing ideas come to life, but because I had a lot to say and my perspective was rare and valuable, I began focusing more on producing my own work.”

While studying a Masters of Communications in New York, Sunanda had the opportunity through an old college friend to work with many up-and-coming comedians. “This gave me good exposure to comedy writing, the skills and training required to perform, and the tenacity it takes to keep going. These were all things I used while I was taking classes in Los Angeles a year later. Competition is tough, so the key is believing in yourself. It’s much harder than it sounds.”

Like in other creative fields, there were many challenges that presented themselves while Sunanda was establishing her career. “Working as a creator, it can be difficult to get paid for your work. A lot of people will ask you to do things for free in exchange for exposure, which is alright for a while or if you have other means of supporting yourself, but you have to realise when it crosses into exploitation. If you don’t start charging for your work, no one will ever pay you for it.”

Beyond the stage, Sunanda has also worked in other areas of the entertainment industry including her celebrated writing work on Broad City (2014). “It was such a joy to have worked with a team that took their webisodes to a full 30 minute television show that lasted six seasons on Comedy Central.” She’s also been part of the CBS Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase, iO West, The Pack Theater, and ACME Theater in LA and has worked alongside talents who are on Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show.

Photography credit to Mark Gambino.

Having lived in cities like LA, New York and now Melbourne, Australia, I ask Sunanda how she’s coped with being a Thai-Indian abroad. “It’s not easy being a foreigner. I think many Thai-Indians can relate to the feeling of being ‘othered;’ however, I think I was naïve to the racism because at international school, you are sold this ideal of equality, but the hierarchies play out throughout our lives in racist and colourist ways.

“I didn’t realise how much racism I’d have to combat in different places, so Thailand is not bad at all. My background, privileged education, and language skills gave me many employment opportunities. While in the U.S., I found opportunities largely through my college network, another sign of privilege. Bigger cities also allow for more people from diverse (read: non-white) backgrounds to get jobs easier than where I live now.

“In Australia, the mainstream white-Anglo population are almost ignorant of how racist they actually are. Generally, I see a push for tokenistic and performative diversity…for example, ‘let’s get some people of colour in this advert for Melbourne Uni to attract international students who are actually paying the bills,’ but the people making the big money are predominantly white.

“As a comic, I have to work a lot to seem relatable to a mainstream audience here or anywhere, because although there are huge diasporic South Asian populations around the world, they remain a small part of my audience. So I have to constantly explain how someone as brown as myself considers themselves Thai, but with an American television accent.”

As Sunanda discusses her experiences, it’s evident that diversity is crucial to her work. “Very few people get to control media. In media we’re supposed to see a reflection of ourselves. If we don’t see it, we can feel alienated, or worse, ashamed of who we are just because we’re not seeing a larger than life version reflected back at us, telling us ‘you are not alone.’

“I try to highlight all my diverse aspects as possible because someone like me, an adopted, larger, masculine of centre, lesbian Punjabi woman is not very common in the media. If one more person can see or hear me and think ‘wow, fi nally someone I share something with’ then that’s what I want.”

Graphic belongs to Sunanda Sachatrakul.

In a similar vein, many view comedy as a platform to discuss important topics. For Sunanda, her comedy is based on her life experiences. “Some comics live by ‘Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story’ but I think it’s more about finding a story structure in your experiences.”

As someone who has performed in a range of different roles, one of her most recent performances was as a drag character with other queer Melbourne clowns called Po Po Mo Co for children. “I relish being able to perform for children as they’re honest laughers and not worried about people judging them for expressing themselves. I also want to be a strong role model for queer brown kids because I didn’t have an example like me when I was a kid,” she explains.

So what can we expect from Sunanda in the near future? “I’m working on a show where I explore the theme of relatability because I think that’s the core of empathy for so many people. With more empathy for one another, we can work together to make the world better for everyone”

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