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The e-mail 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 people were.
They had met in the spring of 2006, soon after Gopalan left a voicemail asking if Haney wanted to try out for an upcoming production of Macbeth at the Washington Shakespeare Company.
“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, 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 was discovered unconscious on the street around 4 a.m. Saturday morning, according to The Washington Blade. He was almost exactly two blocks from his home in Columbia Heights. He died not long after. He was 35.
He showed no signs of significant trauma. A toxicology report is pending.
Without his ID, dressed as he was, he was just enough unlike himself that it would take police three days to discover his name.
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 basically 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 was causing some confusion, perhaps even some rebellion, 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 he 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—-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 aerospace career. He did consult with Haney and the cast of Constellation Theatre’s 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 Big 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 theater friends by presenting himself as Gigi. The name may have been inspired by the nickname Haney had used for him: G.G., for his initials.
He may have deceived a few people too, 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 a playful announcement, by and large. It wasn’t that Gopalan was surfacing some long-buried agony; it wasn’t that he was revealing himself as a transgender woman shaking free the bonds of a male body, or even taking the first steps toward what he thought of as a transgender identity. His friends are clear on that.
“There was a comfort in how he was deciding to present” himself that night, Henley says. And from Haney: “It was something he was exploring, something he was trying.” 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, wanting to be sure his look was perfect. He wondered what people would say, how they’d talk about what he was trying to do.
“He looked fabulous,” Henley says. “I said to him, ‘You’re like a character in a Godard film.'”
“He was so happy,” Haney says.
Reports from last week are sketchy. Last Thursday, Henley says, Gopalan left him 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 maybe a Sanskit 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, he set out as Gigi, heading south, stopping by the Cork Market wine shop on 14th Street NW. Then he paid a call at Studio Theatre, where he asked after Zinoman, with whom he’d worked on 2007’s The Pillowman. He was animated. He wanted to talk to her about this new persona, this new expression of his feminine side.
She wasn’t in. He caught up with a couple of her colleagues instead. He left the wine as a gift.