Theatre success playing away from home

By Dionne Christian

Two theatre companies return from overseas with a deeper understanding of the world they inhabit, writes Dionne Christian.

Jacob Rajan in The Guru of Chai. Photo / Robert Catto
Jacob Rajan in The Guru of Chai. Photo / Robert Catto

It's a rare thing for a New Zealand play to live a life beyond its debut season; let alone enjoy performances overseas and return home to tell its tale anew to local audiences, but three productions come back to Auckland this month, having achieved just that.

The homecomings for Indian Ink's Krishnan's Dairy (now in its 15th year) and The Guru of Chai, and Red Leap's The Arrival are triumphant. All three have been performed in various locations around the world in the past year. The exposure to new ideas hasn't been a one-way street, with travel having a definite impact on each production and its performers. Both Indian Ink and Red Leap say they have become more informed and confident through travel and, because of it, refined their plays and picked up new techniques for making their "theatre of the imagination".

Indian Ink, formed by Justin Lewis and Jacob Rajan, has been on the road since the late 1990s. With the stunning Krishnan's Dairy, the duo changed New Zealand theatre by telling a story of love and denial which transcended geographical and cultural boundaries, yet remained embedded in a specific ethnic milieu.

The play has been seen by 47,000 people in New Zealand, Australia, Southeast Asia and at the Edinburgh Festival. Rajan says there is a new generation of theatre-goers who haven't seen it as well as those who remember it and want to see how it has developed over time.

He says travelling in Southeast Asia and doing workshops, particularly in Bali with local theatre-makers, has helped him develop a more educated appreciation, but continued sense of wonder, for the mask-work which characterises much of Indian Ink's work.

Over time, certain references in Krishnan's Dairy have been altered to keep it contemporary and Rajan, along with musician David Ward, are now more polished performers. But Rajan confesses that when they were in Singapore, with back to back performances of Krishnan's Dairy and the company's latest show The Guru of Chai, he worried whether the first work would still stand up.

"Guru shows a whole lot of maturity on our part and while Krishnan's is still strong, with a pure heart, I worried that with having a work that is so new, where we're at the peak of what we do, you can't help but draw comparisons with a work that is more of a classic. What I learned is that they are really different but both very beautiful."

For the cast and crew of The Arrival, travel reminded them of the importance of the story they tell. An adaption of Shaun Tan's graphic novel, The Arrival features no English - the characters, in highly physical performances, speak a made-up language - but it examines in recognisable detail why people leave their homes to search for the "better life".

Since its debut at the Auckland Arts Festival in 2009, the production has played in Wellington, where it won six Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards, Sydney, Hong Kong and, in May, Korea.

Travelling to the Korean cities of Seoul and Busan, Red Leap founder and producer Julie Nolan says there were times when the 10-strong cast and six crew felt as if they had strayed into the play itself. Certain items, train ticket machines, for example, looked familiar but didn't work in quite the same way; the cityscapes were completely different and audiences responded in new ways to the production.

"It was good to have a feeling of living out parts of the play, to remember we are not just putting on a theatre show but telling a story which carries a lot of weight and meaning for some people because it's their reality. They deal with the hugeness of coming to a new country and trying to find their way around. It reminded us of the significance of the story we are trying to tell."

They are stories, say Indian Ink and Red Leap, needing no explanation because everyone recognises the characters and relates to their ambitions, however modest, and hopes, however high.

The Arrival's nameless lead character, known only as The Traveller (Jarod Rawiri), encounters strange languages, peculiar customs and cultural traditions, and odd urban landscapes as he seeks to make himself at home in a foreign place.

In Krishnan's Dairy, a modest man with a big heart tries to do much the same, and the result is a true test of courage for those around him; in Guru, the modern and old world rub up against one another on a kind of middle-ground as characters seek to navigate their way through both.

Taking The Guru of Chai to Virginia, in the United States, Indian Ink was asked if Rajan could give a "cultural presentation" before the show to explain it to an audience possibly less knowledgeable about New Zealand or India than some others.

They refused. Lewis says they didn't want to alter the audience's perception or appreciation but were happy to take questions after the performance. The organisers agreed; the audience loved what they saw without a prior explanation.

Coming home to perform Krishnan's Dairy and Guru at Q is a dream come true for Lewis, one of the driving forces behind the theatre's creation. After Auckland, Indian Ink travels to New York and, for Rajan, those performances at The Barrow Group's off-Broadway theatre are the realisation of a life-long goal to take a bite of the Big Apple.

Red Leap co-founder Kate Parker, who also appears in The Arrival, says the cast were surprised to find that when they left the Korean theatres they were greeted by throngs of people wanting autographs and photos with them.

Though that's obviously a positive affirmation, coming home to perform again is just as important to the company as international plaudits.

"If you have just one season and that's the end of it, the show never reaches its full potential," says Parker. "Taking a show on the road lets it grow and after six seasons, it finally feels like it has hit its straps. It's a tighter and sharper production."

What: Guru of Chai
Where & when: Q Theatre, July 11-21

What: The Arrival
Where & when: Aotea Centre, July 13-14 (7.30pm), July 15 (4pm)

What: Krishnan's Dairy
Where & when: Q Theatre, July 25-August 4

- NZ Herald

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