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No Square Theatre hosts a reading and talk-back discussion of Raveena Khetarpal’s musical Sonder

By MARRIE STONE

This story is a part of our Arts section. Visit www.stunewslaguna.com/arts for more arts stories as well as our arts calendars.

Two years ago, a group of Advanced Drama students gathered in Ella Wyatt’s San Clemente High School classroom during lunchtime to hang out. While Wyatt read through a script that she was about to stage, then-junior Raveena Khetarpal tinkered on the piano.

“I was reading this underwater scene [set] in a magical, whimsical story while she played,” Wyatt recalled. “All of a sudden, this music just transported me there. When she finished, I said, ‘Raveena, what is that song?’ She said, ‘Oh, I wrote it.’”

Shocked at her talent, Wyatt asked if she’d done others. Turned out, Khetarpal had written several songs. Wyatt, who took over as artistic director of No Square Theatre in January 2023, asked Khetarpal to compose some original music for their high school plays.

“You can tell she’s a musician first because the music is very intricate and thought-out,” Wyatt said. “[She doesn’t write] simple musical theater tunes. They’re more advanced. I’m just so inspired by her.”

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Photos courtesy of Raveena Khetarpal

Raveena Khetarpal began composing music at age 12. She recently completed her first musical, “Sonder.”

Khetarpal began composing at the age of 12, having played the piano since age 4 (along with a little guitar and violin). In the spring of 2022, she received a Cappie invitation – an international Critics and Awards Program for high school thespians – to honor her instrumental compositions and musicianship. Now a freshman at New York University studying musical theater and composition, Khetarpal recently completed her first full-length musical called Sonder.

Next Friday and Saturday nights, January 5 and 6, 2024, No Square Theatre will stage readings of Sonder followed by talk-back discussions with Khetarpal to provide her with audience reactions and feedback. The 17-member cast includes some No Square regulars like Abby Matossian, Grace Nachreiner and Rob Harryman. Wyatt will direct the production which she described as “lightly staged.”

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A reading of “Sonder,” followed by a talk-back discussion, will be held at No Square Theatre

Coined by John Koenig in 2012 for his project (and subsequent book) The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, “sonder” is the realization that everyone, including strangers, leads lives as complex as our own which they are constantly living whether we are aware of them or not.

Intrigued by the concept, and her early success, I chatted with Khetarpal about her inspirations, influence, and experiences writing this musical.

Stu News: Tell us about the inspiration for Sonder.

Raveena Khetarpal: I was doing homework in a coffee shop my junior year. I started looking at all the other people at their tables. Everyone was doing their own thing. That suddenly became interesting to me.

When you’re a child, you think you’re the center of the universe. That’s how our brains function. Later you realize that’s everyone’s experience. Everyone is the center of their own story. When you look at the world through that lens, you realize you’re the background in someone else’s story. That idea inspired the work.

SN: You wrote one of the pieces in 2020. Talk about what inspired that song.

RK: 2020 was a weird time. There was a lot of loneliness and isolation. I was a freshman when my school went online, and then I was online for my sophomore year. High school is all about social interactions and learning how to make friends. But we couldn’t do that. That song is very much about the lack of connection, and that’s why I thought it would be perfect to put in this musical.

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Now studying musical theater and composition as a freshman at NYU, Khetarpal is using her winter break to workshop her first musical

SN: Talk about the musicians, composers, or writers who have influenced your work.

RK: Of course I have musical composers who inspire me, and the two that come to mind are Jason Robert Brown and Stephen Sondheim. Their chord progressions and melodies are unmatched in my opinion. However, I grew up listening to a lot of classical composers because I am a classically trained pianist. So, I have to say that a lot of my inspiration comes from that, with some of my favorite composers being Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. This makes a lot of my compositions for Sonder, not classical really, but more contemporary with a classical influence.

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SN: Are there things you can say about your creative process? Does it start with the music, the storyline, or something else?

RK: My creative process varies for every story I write. For Sonder, I came up with the storyline first. To me, coming up with a solid storyline helped me write meaningful lyrics. However, I did use some melodies from previous compositions I have written and workshopped them to fit into this musical. For instance, the song at the beginning of Act 2 was originally one of the first instrumental compositions I ever wrote when I was 12, but I thought the melody of the song would fit the musical perfectly. So, I took the skeleton of that song and added lyrics to it, and it’s become one of my favorite songs in the show.

SN: What were some of the biggest challenges?

RK: One of the biggest challenges I had was having the courage to show people this musical. I’ve written many songs and short stories in my life, but most of them have not seen the light of day. But Sonder was a story that was too dear to my heart to not be shown. Thankfully, everyone that I have shown it to has been nothing but supportive.

SN: Were there any unexpected delights or insights that came out of this experience?

RK: I wrote this musical during the transition from high school to college which was quite a scary time because everything is changing, but this musical kept me grounded. I put a little bit of myself into each of these characters, and whenever I felt alone, I would go back to these complex, yet wonderful characters because they make me feel connected with myself. That’s what this show is about. Connection. And that’s what I hope audiences take away from this musical when they come and see it.

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Audiences are invited to stay for a talk-back discussion following each performance to provide feedback and reactions. Khetarpal plans to use this feedback to refine the script and further develop the production.

The reading is recommended for audiences 13 years and older due to language and discussion of adult themes, including suicide and self-harm. For tickets and additional information, visit the No Square Theatre website by clicking here.

This story is a part of our Arts section. Visit www.stunewslaguna.com/arts for more arts stories as well as our arts calendars.

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