Gaurav Gopalan, an aeronautical engineer who brought boundless energy, a vigorous intellect and startling insight to theater in the Washington area, was found dead in Columbia Heights on Saturday, September 10. He was 35. No cause of death has been announced. [update posted here]
Gopalan served as a director, dramaturge and production manager, primarily for Constellation Theatre and WSC Avant Bard. “He contacted me out of the blue in 2006 and said he would do anything for us, he was so devoted to the plays of Shakespeare,” said WSC Artistic Director Christopher Henley. Gopalan, Henley said, told him that “to work with us on them would be a dream.”
After assessing Gopalan’s skills, Henley put him to work as Assistant Director for an upcoming production of Richard II. The play was a success; DCTS’ Ronnie Ruff noted that it was directed “with chilling effect, giving the production a Goth-like feel while retaining the lavish essence of dialog that Shakespeare demands.” Gopalan made such an impression on the company that Henley named him Resident Assistant Director, a post he held for a year.
Henley remembers Gopalan as “gentle, wild smart, witty, full of life, loyal, generous, passionate.”
Henley recalls Gopalan for his heart and soul. “His generosity was amazing…he bought tickets for anyone who wanted to go to a Cirque de Soleil performance in DC as well as arranging a road trip to see The Seagull on Broadway. He did everything, going all out. He curated several readings series at [WSC’s former home on] Clark Street, and I would attend and be bowled over at the costumes, sets, props he would have gathered for the occasion.”
After working with Scena and Studio, Gopalan served as dramaturge for Constellation Theatre’s enormously successful production of The Ramayana. A devout Hindu, Gopalan’s broad and profound understanding of the story informed Constellation’s production in important ways.
In the program notes, Gopalan observed,
“The story of Rama is older than the Seas. It is the story of a warrior of light, Rama, a truth-seeker, battling the infinite forces of the dark lord Ravana, an embodiment of ignorance. It is the story of the White Wizard, rising from the East, and sweeping across the valley of the shadow of Death with the light of Truth. The story of Ravana is the story of Macbeth, of Darth Vader – a warrior of light fallen to the dark side. Rama as the puny David conquers the looming, lofty Goliath as soon as he recognizes him as his own darkness. There is no judgment…only light and dark, only truth and ignorance. What is true is good; Evil is quite simply ignorance.”
“Gaurav’s spirit is so brilliant, smart, generous, kind and caring; he was an incredibly intelligent, delightful, open friend and collaborator,” Allison Stockman, Constellation’s Artistic Director, said. “I feel incredibly sad and yet I also feel blessed that I had him in my life for a time and that he touched so many. Gaurav believed that at our core, we are unified by one sacred essence with everything and everyone in the universe. In that, although he has left his body I take comfort to think that he will always be with me.”
Gopalan returned to WSC Avant Bard to co-direct the company’s 2009 production of The Cherry Orchard, which closed out the company’s stay at the Clark Street Playhouse. This production, like most of Gopalan’s projects, was also successful. “Co-directors Christopher Henley and Gaurav Gopalan create a world of fantasy and farce to relay the alarmingly relevant passages that mirror the state of our own affairs in this day and time,” opined DCTS’ Debbie Jackson, who pointed out that “Gopalan says it best in his program notes: ‘Russia in 1904 and American in 2009 have a lot in common … [including] a powerful state on the brink of change. Chekhov of all the great playwrights gets closest to capturing the ephemeral pulse of the spirit of being.’”
Gopalan spent much of 2010 and 2011 getting his new business, The Fred Schmitz Group, off the ground. In addition to running the Schmitz Group, which consulted on aeronautical matters, Gopalan was an assistant research scientist at the Alfred Gessow Rotorcraft Center of the University of Maryland. His specialty was in reducing the noise created by helicopter rotors.
Gopalan’s public utterances reflected his deep commitment to live in a truthful way. The home page of his website bears, as its inscription, Polonius’ advice to Laertes in Act I, Scene III – “This above all: to thine own self be true/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man.” In his program notes for Constellation Theatre, he observed that “The Ramayana, to its scholars, is a handbook of Truthful Action, or Dharma. This philosophy states that all you have to do is discover who you are, what your duty is and perform it to the letter. To be true to yourself always and to perform your duties to the best of your abilities is the purpose of your current life.”
And in his biography for that play, he called himself “a foolish truth-seeker.”