Get our free newsletter
This article, from this week’s print edition, expands and updates a blog post from last week.
The email came just a few weeks ago. The header said “A Huge Favor.” For Gaurav Gopalan, Heather Haney would probably have done two. She was that fond of him. Many, many people were.
They had met in the spring of 2006, soon after Gopalan left a phone message asking if Haney wanted to try out for an upcoming production of Macbeth.
“There was this incredibly beautiful voice,” she remembers, “asking me to audition for the Scottish Play.” She’d realize when she met him that Gopalan was beautiful in person, too.
Not just handsome, though he was certainly that. He was joyful, kind, sweet, generous, his friends say. And what made him beautiful was “an insatiable appetite for life,” Haney says. He was “always looking to learn more, about himself, about others, about theater. He was always discovering something.”
Gopalan, 35, was discovered unconscious on the street in the early hours of Sept. 10, two blocks from his home in Columbia Heights. He died not long after, in what the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has ruled a homicide. His car keys were missing. The vehicle itself, according to sources who’ve spoken to detectives investigating the case, was moved after his body was found. Police eventually found it on Girard Street NW.
Without his ID, dressed as he was, Gopalan was just enough unlike himself that it would take police three days to discover his name.
Gaurav Gopalan moved to D.C. from India, where he’d gotten a solid education at what Studio Theatre co-founder Joy Zinoman—who’d eventually teach him in a directing class, and who’d sit talking with him about Sanskrit epics and Eastern spirituality and Chekhov—calls “good British colonial private schools.” His family, now in Kathmandu, Nepal, was well-to-do. And he had a passion for Shakespeare.
“He told me once that his mother told him that everything he needed to know about Western culture, you can learn from reading Shakespeare and the King James Bible,” remembers Christopher Henley, who worked often with Gopalan at what was then Washington Shakespeare Company. (The outfit now bills itself as WSC Avant Bard.) “But she said that most of the good things in the King James are also in Shakespeare, so he could just read that.”
Gopalan practically threw himself at Henley’s company.
“He just out of the blue contacted the theater, and said ‘I love Shakespeare, I’ll do anything,’” Henley remembered. He worked first on a production of Richard II, and proved focused and diligent enough that the troupe would soon ask him to be its resident assistant director.
Kathleen Akerley, who appeared in that Richard, remembers a collaborator who was “unbelievably loyal” to director Robert McNamara, whose style and choices were causing some confusion among the cast. Gopalan cast himself as a translator, Akerley remembers, firmly defending the director’s vision and patiently helping the cast toward an understanding of why what McNamara wanted was going to work.
“And then he gave the same devotion to Jose [Carrasquillo] on the Scottish Play,” Akerley says. “How could he serve, was the philosophy he brought into the room.”
Gopalan—by day an aerospace engineer with a specialty in helicopter rotors and the noise they make—brought a scientist’s rigor to the theater, Haney says. He could quote Shakespeare verbatim, and he had an analytical bent when it came to the text.
“That was a benefit,” Haney says. “We artist types can get lost in the weeds of emotion.”
He’d dialed back his theater commitments in the last couple of years, wanting to focus on his career. He did consult with Haney and the cast of Constellation Theatre’s The Ramayana, though, talking them through the epic’s broad ideas about the dharma and illuminating other aspects of Hindu spirituality.
“It was such a gift,” says Haney, who played the female lead in the show. “He’d tell us that there’s meaning in everything we do—and that none of it matters.” He taught them, she says, that the divine is in everything, even if it’s hard to discern.
Haney liked to tease Gopalan about how he explained his all-embracing affection for that all-pervasive divine. He said, as she recalls it: “I love this table as much as I love Heather Haney, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love Heather Haney.”
And so when that e-mail came—the one asking for “A Huge Favor”—Haney responded as you might expect, with an enthusiastic “of course.” Of course she would meet him before the opening-night party. Of course she would keep him company as he got ready.
Of course she would help him get his makeup right.
He turned up with a department-store counter’s worth of products, Haney says. “He’d snagged everything he might possibly need. That was Gaurav in a nutshell; he always overprepared.”
And so it was that on the evening of Aug. 29, at the premiere of WSC Avant Bard’s Happy Days, Gaurav Gopalan surprised and delighted many of his colleagues by presenting himself as Gigi. The name was a hat-tip in the direction of his oldest friends, who’d long used his initials as a fond nickname.
He may have deceived a few people that night, playfully, at least for a little: Christopher Henley remembers him chic, in sunglasses, talking to acquaintances who didn’t seem to recognize Gaurav in Gigi, not giving away the game.
It seemed to be an announcement, of a sort. But Gopalan wasn’t unveiling what he thought of as a transgender identity. His friends say he was clear on that.
“It was something he was exploring,” Haney says. In a way that might have been connected with his spirituality, “he saw himself as male and female—everyone possesses male and female, he believed. They’re both important. I think it was a small part, the newest part” of his sense of self.
It’s true he was a little nervous, Haney and Henley say. He wanted to be sure his look was perfect. He wondered what people would say, how they’d talk about his new incarnation—his new “avatar,” to use his word.
“He looked fabulous,” Henley says. “I said to him, ‘You’re like a character in a Godard film.’”
“He was so happy,” Haney says.
Gopalan was happy, it seemed, though it wasn’t an uncomplicated happiness. As some friends suspected—few knew for sure, and fewer are comfortable discussing it now—he was bipolar, says Bob Shaeffer, his partner of nearly five years. There had been rough times, including one particular low last November.
He had struggled to balance his passion for theater and his devotion to Washington and to Shaeffer—they’d met on match.com, connected over a performance of Madame Butterfly at the Kennedy Center, and built a relationship that many of Gopalan’s D.C. friends viewed with something like awe—with the very serious demands of his career.
“He was a very talented person, very, very good theoretically,” says Gopalan’s mentor and former professor, Fred Schmitz. A California-based aeroacoustics researcher associated with the University of Maryland research lab where Gopalan worked, Schmitz stresses that there’s “a very small population of people doing this [work],” and that when Gopalan was “in the zone,” he was entirely capable of advancing the state of the art.
“He could have been very successful,” Schmitz says, “but he wanted to stay in the Washington area, and the opportunities in aerospace there are somewhat limited.”
In May and June of this year, according to his partner, Gopalan began taking his medications erratically.
“He was just up and down on this roller-coaster recently,” says Shaeffer. Gopalan had been eating less, sleeping less. And for someone who had a reputation as a lightweight at the bar, he had been drinking more.
“He was drinking here [at home] every night,” Shaeffer says. “I told him I was worried about him….I said, ‘You take antidepressants; they tell you not to drink when you’re taking antidepressants.’”
A long conversation on the night before Gopalan’s death, though, left Shaeffer feeling better.
“Friday, we had the best talk of our relationship, before he went out,” Shaeffer says. “We started talking on the porch, across from each other; then we started sitting next to each other, then we came in here to the couch. We talked for about two hours.”
Shaeffer acknowledges voicing some perplexity about Gigi.
“I said I was uncomfortable with him dressing that way,” he says. “But I supported him, and I loved him, and it didn’t change—the person inside was still the same.”
“We went through a lot in five years,” Shaeffer says. “We thought we might get married in the spring.”
Reports from the last week of Gopalan’s life are impressionistic still. Over the Labor Day weekend, he gathered in New York with old friends—classmates from his undergraduate days at the Indian Institute of Technology campus in Kanpur—to paint the town and celebrate a birthday. Siddhartha Sinha came in from Chicago, Pawan Mishra from Rhode Island. They stayed with Rishabh Misra, another classmate.
That Friday, Misra and Gopalan took in a performance of Sleep No More, a site-specific Macbeth adaptation that’s been one of the theatrical sensations of the New York year. Later, Gopalan entertained the whole gang with a solo “director’s cut” of the play in Misra’s living room. On Saturday evening, he called an acquaintance and commandeered a table for eight—no reservations—at Amma, an intimate, well-regarded Indian restaurant in Midtown.
Misra says he’d never seen Gopalan happier. He had taken a hiatus from his job. He’d bought a ticket for Kathmandu, planning a stay of three to four months to spend some quality time with his parents.
“I have absolutely no doubt that he went out on a high,” Misra writes in a fiercely loving remembrance being circulated by friends. “Never born, never died,” it says, comparing him to the Indian mystic Osho. “Only visited.”
The foursome parted ways that Wednesday. Two of them would gather again in Washington 10 days later — with another of Gopalan’s classmates, Sumit Singh of Dallas — asking questions of anyone they thought might have answers.
On Thursday, Sept. 8, back in D.C., Gopalan left Christopher Henley a long voicemail message, “full of ideas.” He might want to pitch WSC Avant Bard on a production of Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen, or perhaps a Sanskrit epic that he particularly liked. Or he might produce something for Capital Fringe. Maybe what he ought to do was form a company of his own, concentrating on world classics.
On Friday afternoon, he set out as Gigi, heading south in sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. He stopped in at the Source theater on 14th Street NW, looking for Constellation’s Allison Stockman. He picked up a bottle—an expensive one—at the Cork Market wine shop. Around 3 p.m., he paid a call at Studio Theatre, where he asked after Joy Zinoman, with whom he’d worked on 2007’s The Pillowman.
He was animated. He wanted to talk to Zinoman about this new persona, this new expression of his feminine side. Zinoman wasn’t in. He caught up with a couple of her colleagues instead. He left the wine as a gift.
Then there was a mani-pedi at Salon Blu, and a sweet martini at 1409 Playbill Café once it opened at 4 p.m. Sitting at the bar, Gopalan told proprietor Elsayed Mansour about another idea he’d had: He wanted to play Cleopatra.
Back at home, there was that conversation on the porch with Shaeffer. Around 10 p.m., Gopalan set out again, into a city that had been plagued of late by a string of assaults on transgender women. He was headed, he told his partner, for the straight clubs on U Street NW. He told Shaeffer not to worry if he stayed out late.
Oct. 1 would have been their fifth anniversary.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery