Jacob Rajan is an actor and writer whose first play, Krishnan's Dairy, catapulted him into the hearts of theatregoers around the world. A founding member of Indian Ink, together with Justin Lewis, the pair have delighted audiences with their enchanting productions. Their latest piece, Paradise, or the Impermanence of Ice Cream, is doing a nationwide tour of 11 centres, including a June 9-27 season at Auckland's Q Theatre.
We left Malaysia because the political situation wasn't great for non-Malays in the '70s. If you weren't from Malaysia you couldn't buy land or be part of society so we came to New Zealand. Apparently I could speak Malay when I was 4 and, while nothing traumatic happened, everything from Malaysia has been wiped. I've even seen photos of myself there, so it's extraordinary I have no memory of it now. I've never been back either. I've been close, I've been to Singapore and looked across the bridge to Malaysia, but I would love to return, and see if it triggered anything.
I arrived in 1970, aged 4, and spent the next nine years living in the grounds of the Porirua Mental Hospital where dad was a psychiatrist. At the time, Porirua was the largest hospital of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere and all these immigrant doctors lived onsite with their families and the grounds were manicured and maintained by psychiatric patients as part of their rehabilitation. The really dangerous ones were in a secure unit, but everyone else was mildly normal …ish. And there were tennis courts, pool tables, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, and a man who wandered round in a Superman suit. I thought it was a holiday camp, with vast green spaces for me to roam and ride my bike. Then you'd see a woman pushing a toy pram around, which in retrospect is so sad, to think what had brought those people there, but as a child I just thought they were playing, so I played happily among these people who were going through a difficult time in their lives.
At school, I had no leaning towards performing. I never did school productions, nor did I long to, because I had such tunnel vision towards sciences. I didn't even know the arts were an option. I was also painfully shy, so in terms of where I've ended up, standing in front of 400 people and basically showing off, it has surprised people. And being the son of an Indian immigrant with a medial bent, of course I was supposed to be a doctor. You don't move your family thousands of miles from your homeland not to justify it with success. So after high school I went to Otago to study science, but the thing about a science degree, it's like a creative deprivation tank so, miles from parental control, I snuck off from lectures to join the film club. I saw plays and music and while I was only a voyeur, my compass was starting to align.
I studied microbiology - quite prescient now - and not a bad thing to fall back on, although I'm not sure a C- science degree is much in demand. But I hated it, and took four years to do a three-year degree. I failed repeatedly, and I felt like a failure. My parents weren't tough Asian tigers, but I could sense their disappointment, their concern and anxiety. You can't help but take that on board.
After completing my degree, I had a year of explosive creativity. I completed my piano exams. I took painting classes. I joined Wellington Rep, where Kerry Fox was my tutor. I did theatre sports then, the seminal moment, my parents said I needed to do something to provide for myself, so I chose teachers' college. Renaissance Man Jacob was going to teach primary school. But, at teachers' college I heard about John Bolton, the legendary Australian theatre teacher. He was doing a mask workshop in Auckland, so I hitch-hiked up, as you did back then, and did his two week half-mask course, and that was the game changer. I put on the mask and realised that was what I wanted to do. Around that time, I also found work through an actors' agency and somehow talked my way into my first professional gig, a production of The Tempest. There I was on stage with all these actors who had huge bios, and mine just said "Jacob Rajan intends to go to the John Bolton School in Melbourne". But the head of The NZ Drama School was in the audience one night and she sent a note backstage suggesting I audition for them.
At drama school I found my tribe. There were 16 people in my class and I know they all have a different perspective but, being the first Indian, I could just exist and people valued me, whereas in science I felt like a failure. I was also older, 26, at a stage where you're learning because you want to learn, as opposed to 18 when you're still trying to figure out who you are. Then, when we did our solo shows, I created Krishnan's Dairy, using masks and my fate was sealed. A few years later, I teamed up with Justin Lewis, and we've been writing plays together ever since.
For a jobbing actor, your sense of self-worth is constantly crushed. You're going to auditions, and not getting things but you don't know why. Mostly they're not rejecting you because of your talent. You'd actually be great but another person edged you out, so you shouldn't take it personally if you don't get the job. But when you're doing audition after audition, and not getting stuff, it gets to you. But if you create your own work, you're the master of your own destiny. Yes it's nerve-wracking and you're culpable if it doesn't work. And yes, a jobbing actor might get the occasional big gig, a TV show, an ad, you're flavour of the month for a month, but then you're cast adrift again, waiting for the next thing to come along. But Justin and I, we get into our little Indian Ink boat and we steer it in any direction we want.
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Sometimes I think I'd like a regular job, or a part in long-running TV series, where you just turn up, learn your lines and eat catering - how lovely - but at the end of the day, there's a price to pay and you're totally at the mercy of unseen forces. Not to say running a theatre company is easy, and of course, we can make great art, but if people don't come and see it, we won't survive, and that's the genius of Justin. He's a brilliant artistic director, and he also has a keen business sense. Jude Froude, our GM, does amazing funding applications, and makes budgets work, even through Covid. We also have an extraordinary set of advisers, all captains of industry, on our board. We meet quarterly and do grown-up things like talk about business. It can't all be artistic. Oh money? That's vulgar. Marketing? Yuck. We need to work hard to make this business viable.
Covid put a bit of a dampener on mass gatherings and like most theatre people during Covid, we wondered what we should do. There was the pivot towards digital, Zoom theatre, but that's not what we do. We exist to be in a room with people, in real life, so we turned our attention to developing works, including Paradise, which is about a guy in a room with a vulture. Which doesn't sound funny, but it is. Laughter is central to our work, we use humour to open the audience up, then we'll slip something serious in. There's a real-life story in there, but it's wrapped in a delicious fiction. The character might look like a fool, but he also contains all our humanity.