Indian Ink interview

by Natasha Hay / 18 June, 2011
Longevity is rare in theatre, but Indian Ink, whose latest work starts this week in Auckland, are 15 years strong, and have just been signed by a top US agent.

In the fickle world of theatre touring, there are few long-haul travellers. The risks are huge, and perseverance and resilience almost impossible to sustain. However, one little local company to have beaten the odds is Indian Ink.

It’s a remarkable achievement. For 15 years, this two-man band have produced plays that take traditional forms of mask, story­telling and Indian culture and reinvigorate them with a Kiwi twist. Audiences love them to bits; not just here – they’ve been festival darlings in Edinburgh, Australia and Asia. Now top US agent David ­Lieberman has signed them.

It all began with Krishnan’s Dairy, with Jacob Rajan acting in a play he developed alongside director Justin Lewis after graduating from Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School. The next shows had other actors and musicians, but their latest work, Guru of Chai, returns to Rajan onstage (with one musician) evoking myriad characters.

Currently, they’re in Wellington preparing next year’s Capital E kids show The Smalls – set in a laundry. And although proud as punch, Rajan and Lewis are genuinely surprised by their ­longevity. “We’ve been talking about our five-year plan,” says Rajan, “and it only just occurred to me that in five years it will be 20 years as a company – it’s like … a bank! Like one of those things carved in stone. So it snuck up on us, really.”

Lewis agrees. “We’ve always had a ­strategic plan, but getting to 15 [years] was never part of that. It’s always been focusing on the next step. I think you need to have some sense of where you’re going but you’ve got to follow where you’re being led and you’ve got to go where the opportunities are.”

Early on, wary of falling into a rut, they announced they wouldn’t make any new theatre after completing their trilogy Krishnan’s Dairy, The Candlestickmaker and The Pickle King. Instead, Rajan chuckles, “we have renewed our vows”. The Dentist’s Chair followed, then Guru of Chai, which has an Auckland season this month on the eve of its American debut.

What brought the pair together in 1996? You could call it a planetary alignment, says Rajan. “I was working on Cyrano de Bergerac with Theatre at Large and Justin was called in as an emergency stage manager. We got talking at the Watershed bar [in Auckland] after the show and found this theatre lineage in common with [Melbourne theatre guru] John Bolton. So I had in my back pocket a little play and I wanted someone who knew about masks and here was Justin who’d just graduated from Bolton’s school, which has a big mask component, and he was a director looking for original work … We shook hands later over a cup of coffee, and that was the Indian Ink theatre company.

Krishnan’s was such a golden child in terms of all the accidents that happened, and finding Justin was subsequently part of that. At drama school, I had to come up with a project. I chose the topic of dairy owners, and then I had this car accident where the other car belonged to a dairy-owning family. And in the process of sorting out the insurance I asked if I could interview them, and so the core story from Krishnan’s comes from that interview. That serendipity I love. Where you feel like you’re channelling a story that wants to be told. It’s when you have gifts like that you know you’re on the right track.”

Rajan and Lewis’s personalities and theatrical vision were complementary and the partnership flourished, despite Rajan living in Wellington and Lewis in Auckland. “It’s been a strength,” insists Lewis, “in that when we get together we have to pay money to get together, and it’s a limited time and a concentrated period where we have to achieve a result. That pressure’s good. But at the same time it gets very expensive over the years, and annoying sometimes that we have to leave our families.”

One of the things that’s shaped Indian Ink is that they’re not geographically located. “From the beginning, we thought about an audience in Auckland and an audience in Wellington and throughout New Zealand and then internationally. So it’s just lifted our vision.”

On average, it takes two years to put a show together. The time between working together and letting things settle and clarify is vital, says Rajan. “Always the hardest thing is finding the story – or it finding you.” It helps that they bring different things to the table. “I suppose I’m more your structure guy,” says Lewis, “and Jake’s much more in the character, so I know Jake’ll be sitting at the computer sometimes with the mask, putting the mask on to get the character’s voice, putting the teeth in.”

For Rajan, the mask guides the script: “There’s no way you can force them to say something; you have to be true to the mask.” The rustic papier-mâché masks are their trademark, but in Guru, playing about 15 characters at a time meant switching masks was too cumbersome – hence the teeth.

“It’s an orthodontically made thing that fits in my mouth and makes me a hideous dentally challenged kind of person … If I don’t have those teeth in, the character isn’t there. And that for me defines whether it’s a mask – and those teeth definitely do.”

The masks are streamlined, as is the storytelling. “Guru was made from that simple premise of getting back to what we love in theatre,” says Lewis. “Also it has so much about it that is filmic in the way it was written and conceived – lots of fast editing, locations and epic scenes. All conveyed by one person and a ­musician.”

The live music is fundamental, says Rajan: “A live musician is another person onstage who you’re performing with, where you feed off each other.”

Life experiences utterly inform their work, says Lewis. “Jake and I for the last few years have been performing in Asia and we’ve been studying mask in Bali. With The Smalls, we’re using Balinese masks. And in Guru the character of Guru is inspired by someone we met.”

The Bali time was inspirational, enthuses Rajan, for seeing how performance is so much part of everyday life. “[Composer] Jack Body gave us a contact in Bali who put us on to a mask dancer named Nyoman Sukerta. We arrived there on Sunday, and on Monday morning we were at his compound learning Balinese dance in 30° heat with his family laughing at us. It was brilliant.

“He’s a lovely guy … an astonishingly beautiful dancer. But at the same time he’s got these very human flaws: he’s into his cockfighting, he’ll go fishing at any opportunity, is desperate to have a Facebook page, all kinds of paradoxes … He’s a guy who danced out of life onto the pages of the play and he was always a touchstone in the rehearsal room of getting that voice or catchphrase.”

The other touchstone is India. It’s in Rajan’s blood, but “imaginatively, everyone has their own India … It’s so lovely when people come up to me after [seeing Guru] and say, ‘I know that railway station, I’ve been to that railway station.’ Everyone has a different picture of all those people, the beggars, hawkers, priests. India is just so evocative, it has so many different worlds within the worlds. It’s a nuclear superpower and it’s also stuck in some kind of Middle Ages.”

There are three on salary in Indian Ink: Rajan, Lewis and producer Louise Gallagher, who was brought in last year. And their team of long-term collaborators such as dramaturg Murray Edmond, designer John Verryt and musician Dave Ward are loyal and devoted.

Lewis has the business head. “There’s marketing to the public and marketing to international buyers, and in terms of those [Creative New Zealand’s international manager] Carla Van Zon has been outstanding because she knows everybody in the world.”

Last year, Van Zon arranged for Indian Ink to attend the Australian Performing Arts Market in Adelaide. Her old colleague David Lieberman was there. She deems him “one of the best independent agents in the US”, with nine acts on his books. After viewing a brief extract from Guru, he signed them up for three years.

“This is a huge coup for Indian Ink,” says Van Zon. “Look at his list: Tim Robbins and the Actors Gang, Kronos Quartet, Merce Cunningham Dance Company …”

A savvy judge, Lieberman “got” Guru: “There’s a very popular word we use here when we talk about theatre and that’s ‘authentic’, and Guru was an authentic experience … one of the most charming pieces of theatre I’d seen in a long time.

“Great theatre frequently has the paradox of profundity couched in humour, but the challenge for us is to describe the work appropriately – that while it is humorous it is also very profound, and that’s a very difficult job to achieve. “They’re two very talented fellows and I know that Americans will embrace the work.”

Having an agent is a boost, says Lewis, but it isn’t all smooth sailing. “The US is the most bureaucratic country I’ve had to deal with in terms of business. So they’re helping us go through all these complex tax and immigration forms, but we’re doing the logistics. They support, but they expect us to do the management.”

Meanwhile, there’s a film project of Krishnan’s in the wings. And possibly translations and franchises – although BBC Radio’s The Pickle King was a salutary lesson in how it can go terribly wrong. “But I don’t discount the idea,” says Rajan. “I can see Krishnan’s Dairy done in the States by an American actor using their own cultural context. I’d like to see the plays continue to have a life in other cultures; that would be great.”

GURU OF CHAI, Indian Ink, Maidment Theatre, Auckland, June 29-July 16.
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