Seth Gunawardena brings passion for theater to CTC’s ‘Animals out of Paper’

Seth Gunawardena, the conservatory actor in Chautauqua Theater Company’s production of Animals Out of Paper, was anticipating coming to Chautauqua like a kid waiting for summer camp to start.

With a riotous sprawl of curls and enthusiastic smile, Gunawardena’s exuberance was palpable as he described the lead-up to his arrival.

“Being here really is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me in my life,” Gunawardena said. “The first month of the summer, I was literally just in my room waiting.”

Gunawardena joins guest actors Breezy Leigh and Luis Vega in the three-person cast of CTC’s Animals Out of Paper. The play, written by Rajiv Joseph, finds genius origamist and teacher Ilana, played by Leigh, in the midst of a crisis as she deals with a divorce and the loss of her dog, all while struggling to connect with her creativity. Vega’s character, Andy, introduces Ilana to Gunawardena’s character, Suresh, a high school student coping with the loss of his mother. Subsequently, the characters’ lives and struggles intertwine. Animals Out of Paper continues its run at 2:15 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3 at Bratton Theater.

Georgia Pressley / staff photographer Gunawardena, who is in the role of teenage prodigy Suresh in Animals Out of Paper, is an undergraduate student at the University of California, San Diego.

The play finds both Ilana and Suresh in dark places as they struggle to keep their heads above water. Andy is Suresh’s teacher and an origami superfan who admires Ilana’s work from afar. 

“To help (Suresh) cope with that loss, Andy gives him this origami book, and he takes to it like a fish in water,” Gunawardena said. “He is absolutely fantastic, folding anatomically accurate animals and everything. And so that’s how they interact — (Ilana) being his teacher, but not officially his teacher. Their relationship as a mentor and a student — what are the bounds of that? Where does that exist? It’s also about how different people deal with loss, how it changes us and how we grow from it.”

Gunawardena’s much-anticipated arrival at Chautauqua was delayed, and by July 25, he had been rehearsing for only a week. Vega said that Gunawardena’s commitment is impressive.

“He really jumped right into the deep end and has woven himself into the group and been great,” Vega said. “It’s no small task, and he’s risen to the challenge.”

Gunawardena, who is South Asian, said that it was exciting to be able to play a South Asian character like Suresh. Gunawardena also connects with Suresh’s devotion to his family.

“He is just this kid who’s gone through so much loss and there’s so much pain in there,” Gunawardena said. “But I think the fantastic thing about him is that he has so much heart, that he’s doing all of this stuff to keep himself together for his family and for other people around him. He’s got so much perseverance, and I think that’s what I really attached to about the character.”

When Gunawardena was initially introduced to acting via a class his friend’s mother was teaching in high school, he didn’t take it seriously. But like Suresh’s relationship with origami, Gunawardena took to acting like he was born to do it.

“I thought, ‘This is going to be fantastic. It’s the ultimate blow-off class,’ ” Gunawardena said. “Lucky for me, my friend’s mom was incredibly good at her job and she said, ‘No, we’re going to do theater. We’re going to act.’ I fell in love with it.”

Now, Gunawardena can’t imagine doing anything else. Currently an undergraduate student at the University of California, San Diego, he said the idea of going out into the professional world post-graduation is daunting, but he has a fierce and abiding love for the art form.

“There really is nothing like it,” Gunawardena said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I’m doing the work and I’m in the zone of, ‘I’m performing,’ I’m there. You can really feel the energy, and it’s completely worth it. It makes everything melt away.”

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The author Ellen E. Mintzer

Ellen E. Mintzer is the theater beat reporter for The Chautauquan Daily this summer. She recently earned her Master of Arts in arts journalism and communications from Syracuse University. As a freelance arts and culture journalist, she’s written reviews and features about theater, opera, dance, film and more. Ellen loves weird niche comedy, psychological horror and provocative contemporary theater. (A Strange Loop is the best work of art she saw this year.) She is absolutely thrilled to be spending her summer in Chautauqua and covering its theatrical offerings and beyond.