When 25-year-old Dallas playwright Shyama Nithiananda’s play “Feeding the Cat, Incorrectly, Several Times Over” debuts on stage at Dallas’ Echo Theater on Feb. 9, it will be the culmination of years of hard work for the multi-talented writer, director and performer.
The play tells the story of Peter, a high school English teacher, and Jo, an intern pursuing a medical license. It drops in on the couple after a big argument, exposing the flaws in their relationship. It follows them into the fallout of their fight as “Jo’s decision to keep a patient’s secret backfires.”
“They love each other very much, but they don’t necessarily like each other all that much,” Nithiananda said. “They get into some sticky situations in their work lives and don’t realize that they’ve overlapped until (it’s) kind of too late.”
It’s a story with roots that date back some seven years, before Nithiananda’s college graduation, before a global pandemic and before her budding career as an actor and director at various theaters around DFW, all the way back to her first year as a student at SMU.
Back in 2017, Nithiananda started working on what would become “Feeding the Cat, Incorrectly, Several Times Over.” By now, she doesn’t remember exactly what inspired the original basis for the show, but she does recall the many hours spent developing the initial draft.
“It took me a long time to get through that first draft because I didn’t really have a process at that point,” Nithiananda said, reflecting on her early work. “But I think the flip side of that was that I’d felt like I spent a lot of time with the characters by the time that I had a draft, and I just liked them.”
With her roommate Mac Welch acting as a sounding board for different ideas, Nithiananda believes she finished the first draft of the play in 2018. Over the ensuing years, the young college student would then graduate from SMU with a degree in Theatre Studies before moving on to act on stage at places like Circle Theatre and Amphibian Stage as well as direct productions for companies like Stage West and Theatre Three.
Throughout her time working on “Feeding the Cat, Incorrectly, Several Times Over,” the show changed and evolved. The play started with a massive number of scenes, with each additional scene marking a new draft stored on Nithiananda’s computer. The title became a running joke as the number of times spent incorrectly feeding the cat equaled the number of scenes in the ever-growing show.
Eventually, Nithiananda shelved the play for some time before picking it up again after the pandemic. She found she still felt a connection to the play’s themes, specifically its exploration of the anxiety and paralysis that come with making important decisions during a crisis.
“I think that is what kind of kept me coming back to (the play),” Nithiananda said, explaining that those themes “became the heart” of her story over time.
She returned to the script before eventually hitting a point she described as “spinning my wheels a little bit” in order to try to figure out what needed to change. At that point, she had an opportunity to take the play to Amphibian Stage for a reading.
“After that, I had gotten such great information from them, and there was so much help to be had there, that I was able to do another draft,” Nithiananda said, praising the creative team involved in the reading.
The revisions came near the same time as Echo Theatre announced its Texas Shout Out New Play Contest. The contest focused on finding stories by Texas-based BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) playwrights, fulfilling Echo Theatre’s mission to support women+ creatives. Nithiananda entered “Feeding the Cat, Incorrectly, Several Times Over” in the contest and became one of two playwrights to win.
She now gets to see her show produced on an Echo Theatre stage as part of its 2024 season, dubbed “a very uneasy season” for how it addresses challenging topics like domestic violence in plays like “Feeding the Cat, Incorrectly, Several Times Over.”
“We absolutely loved Shyama’s play,” Echo Theatre Associate Producer Caroline Hamilton said.
After Echo Theatre chose Nithiananda’s play, Hamilton became the producer for “Feeding the Cat, Incorrectly, Several Times Over.” She praised the cast and crew for their work in bringing the production to life, including Mac Welch who will star as Peter in the play and Director Katie Ibrahim who took part in the reading at Amphibian Stage.
“”Working on a Shyama Nithiananda play is the exact intersection of techniques. It requires the precision of a musical theatre performer, the presence/patience of a contemporary realism actor, and the studiousness of a classical scholar. It’s not about being a master actor, but balancing everything you are able to bring simultaneously,” Welch said of starring in the production. “If any of that seems strange or pretentious, I think it will make more sense when you see it, so please do! It’s quite the experiment.”
It’s an apt description, considering the crew has tested a variety of special effects for the play, including simulated broken glass. Hamilton explained how the script calls for broken glass in several scenes, something that’s generally not doable onstage because of the obvious hazards it presents.
Hamilton said it’s been a fun process to develop the scenes utilizing the safe, simulated glass, which she believes will help hook audiences when they see the show.
Hamilton said Isa Flores, the Echo Theatre production’s gore and special effects designer, worked to craft those scenes and others like them, with the play including elements like the onstage stitching of a wound and the use of quite a bit of blood.
Nithiananda said she’s “really lucky” that Hamilton has the “imagination and tenacity” to produce a play like this that others had said previously wouldn’t be producible.
“I’m very lucky to have a room of actors and directors that I really trust with it in that I trust them to tell me if something’s wrong,” Nithiananda said.
She’s had the opportunity to sit on a couple of rehearsals of the production so far, describing how it’s still nerve-wracking to see people read her play but nonetheless exciting to watch.
“Working on a new script is always such a dynamic experience. Shyama’s characters really jump off the page,” Lindsay Hayward, who plays a professor in the five-person play, said. “Having the playwright in the room while discovering the world of the play is invaluable. As an actor, it is so rewarding to take part in the new play process.”
Overall, Nithiananda hopes her play sparks more questions than answers. She hopes it helps people feel seen and engaged.
“One of the moving things to me about this play is that you’re on the side of everyone. There’s not a villain and a hero. Everyone is doing exactly the best they can, and also sometimes not enough,” Hamilton added. “I’m really excited for audiences to live in this gray area, and it may be uncomfortable, but I think that’s important for people to explore.”
The Echo Theatre production of “Feeding the Cat, Incorrectly, Several Times Over” runs from Feb. 9-24, with a preview night scheduled for Feb. 8. Echo Theatre notes the show contains language, blood, adult themes, depictions of medical procedures, and discussions of domestic violence. For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit https://www.echotheatre.org/.
These interviews have been edited for clarity. Portions of these interviews were conducted via email.