Shawn Ahmed (photo credit: Steve Carty)

Interview: Shawn Ahmed Discusses His Role in the Epic Theater Production ‘Mahabharata’

While you’ll probably recognize actor Shawn Ahmed from his roles on the TV series Coroner, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and Siren, his most recent project was an epic theater production that ran for over six hours.

This October, Ahmed reprised his role as Yudhishthra in Mahabharata at London, England’s Barbican Theatre. The production followed a successful run at the Shaw Festival this past March.

Below, Ahmed discusses his work on the incredible production and what makes the Mahabharata so relevant today.

Shawn Ahmed as Yudhishthira and Sukania Venugopal as Bhishma in Why Not Theatre’s Mahabharata (Shaw Festival, 2023)
Shawn Ahmed as Yudhishthira and Sukania Venugopal as Bhishma in Why Not Theatre’s Mahabharata (Shaw Festival, 2023). Directed by Ravi Jain with Associate Director Miriam Fernandes, set designed by Lorenzo Savoini, costumes designed by Gillian Gallow, lighting designed by Kevin Lamotte, projections designed by Hana S. Kim, with associate projections designer Ann Slote, original music and sound designed by John Gzowski and Suba Sankaran, traditional music consultant Hasheel Lodhia, choreographed by Brandy Leary, Mahabharata Production Manager Crystal Lee, Mahabharata Lead Producer Kevin Matthew Wong. Photo by David Cooper.

Eulalie Magazine: You recently performed in the production Mahabharata in London, months after the production at the Shaw Film Festival. What was the most exciting part of this experience for you?

Shawn Ahmed: I’ve never had an opportunity to perform in a very, very long play before. Mahabharata ran over six hours while also changing forms of storytelling as it went along. There were elements of clown, kalari — an Indian form of martial arts, multimedia, opera, a dinner, as well as parts that felt like a regular play.

This challenge really excited me. After all, making compelling art is all about taking risks. These risks demanded a lot from me physically, emotionally, and mentally. There’s something really wonderful about locking yourself away and staying hyper-focused on a single goal. In the end, it was all worth it.

Eulalie Magazine: The production is a contemporary take on a Sanskrit epic. What does that mean for the show?

Ahmed: Mahabharata has been told for thousands of years and the way it’s told is ever-changing. As we say at the beginning, “the Mahabharata is a forest of stories.” Some are funny, some are sad. They tackle the full range of the human condition.

The creators, Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes, wanted to honor this idea of an ever-evolving story. We start by simply sitting in a circle around a fire and popping in to tell each story and introduce various characters.

And then, as the show progresses, new elements find their way in. For example, the Bhagavad Gita is a conversation between a mortal and a god where the mysteries of the universe are unraveled. How the hell do you show that on stage?! Well, what’s a very heightened form of theatre? Opera. So in our production, the Gita is a thirteen-minute Sanskrit operatic number chock-full of mind-blowing visuals projected on multiple screens covering the entire stage.

Anaka Maharaj-Sandhu as Arjuna, Munish Sharmaas Bhima, Shawn Ahmed as Yudhishthira and Sukania Venugopal as Bhishma with the cast of Why Not Theatre’s Mahabharata (Shaw Festival, 2023). Photo by David Cooper.
Anaka Maharaj-Sandhu as Arjuna, Munish Sharma as Bhima, Shawn Ahmed as Yudhishthira and Sukania Venugopal as Bhishma with the cast of Why Not Theatre’s Mahabharata (Shaw Festival, 2023). Directed by Ravi Jain with Associate Director Miriam Fernandes, set designed by Lorenzo Savoini, costumes designed by Gillian Gallow, lighting designed by Kevin Lamotte, projections designed by Hana S. Kim, with associate projections designer Ann Slote, original music and sound designed by John Gzowski and Suba Sankaran, traditional music consultant Hasheel Lodhia, choreographed by Brandy Leary, Mahabharata Production Manager Crystal Lee, Mahabharata Lead Producer Kevin Matthew Wong. Photo by David Cooper.

Eulalie Magazine: What makes the Mahabharata so relevant today?

Ahmed: The core message of the Mahabharata is about dharma — how is one supposed to act? Whether it be day-to-day or when facing insurmountable challenges, what is the cosmic law that we should abide by?

These teachings will never grow old. We’re living in a polarized world where simple facts can no longer be agreed upon. Where we take for granted all the natural resources around us. It’s all very overwhelming sometimes. The Mahabhrata’s teachings are all about how to navigate these challenges.

Eulalie Magazine: What was your favorite thing about playing this character?

Ahmed: I played Yudhishtira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers, who is destined to win back the kingdom of Hastinapur from his 100 wicked cousins. And though he is born of the god dharma, justice, and morality, he is a very flawed man.

It was these flaws that were the most fun to play. Why do good people do bad things? That question rolled around in my head the entire time.

Shawn Ahmed (photo credit: Steve Carty)
Shawn Ahmed (photo credit: Steve Carty)

Eulalie Magazine: What would you say you were most proud of when it comes to being a part of this production?

Ahmed: This show gave new meaning to the saying “the sum is greater than the parts.” Every artist really gave themselves over to this project. We all needed each other to help lift this herculean show up, and that required a ton of trust. It’s a wonderful thing to make a show where you hold your peers up and they do the same for you. I’m really proud of all of us for how we came together to make this.

Eulalie Magazine: How challenging was it to perform in such a lengthy production?

Ahmed: Very! It required a ton of stamina and focus. Even though it was so long, many patrons expressed that the show could afford to be even longer. In this day and age of short attention spans, I found that to be one of the best compliments we could be given.

Eulalie Magazine: And finally, are you working on any other projects at the moment?

Ahmed: Currently, I’m back on Superhuman Public Radio, an award-winning audio drama about the trials of an NPR-like radio station in a world full of Superheroes. Our first season was a runaway success, and our second season is being distributed by the Fable & Folly Network (available anywhere podcasts are found). We’re dropping weekly episodes for our second season until mid-December.

You can learn more about Shawn Ahmed at iamshawnahmed.com.

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Ashley is the Editor-in-Chief of Eulalie Magazine. Favorite Movies: Sunset Boulevard, Garden State, Modern Times. Favorite TV Shows: Gilmore Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grey's Anatomy. Favorite Books: Interview with the Vampire, Dracula, City of Glass.

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