Monkeying about but it's a true story
Jacob Rajan of Indian Ink theatre company laughs as he relays the cultural difference between performing in his home state of Kerala, South India and New Zealand.
"You know when a cellphone goes off in the audience in New Zealand, somebody is horribly embarrassed and they're thrashing around in the handbag trying to turn it off," Rajan says. "In India, they answer it, and they finish their conversation. It's quite different."
Founding partner of the company as well as writer and performer, Rajan is speaking on the phone while the rest of his cast puts some final polish on the company's latest show, Kiss the Fish, coming in New Plymouth this week.
This is how they craft their plays, Rajan explains, they're always tweaking.
"We know the play's good, we're just making it better."
Indian Ink performed its previous show Guru of Chai in Kerala in January.
It was the first Indian-ish company based outside of India to ever return to the country and perform - a world first, Rajan declares. "We got a standing ovation, it was fantastic."
Indian Ink was formed by Rajan and writer-director Justin Lewis in 1997.
Since then, their simple formula has led to audiences expanding from intimate black boxes to 800-plus theatres.
"We haven't gone for the whiz-bang technology or projection or all those fantastic things you can do with computers.
"I think theatre's strength lies in the imagination."
It's about letting the audience fill in the gaps, rather than spelling it out for them, Rajan says.
This is where the masks come in.
"They're completely inanimate pieces of wood but when a performer puts one on, it's partly the performer's skill but really it's the audience believing in them. Masks are a conduit for imagination."
Some of the masks are traditional and some commissioned - made up by a Balinese master mask carver after Lewis and Rajan described the characters to him.
"The masks he's come up with are just genius," Rajan says.
"You can go to Bali and buy a tourist mask off the shelf but a performance mask is a completely different energy."
As well as Bali, Rajan and Lewis have travelled to India and Italy to study mask traditions then bring them back and reinvent them for the Indian Ink stage.
"In a very Kiwi kind of way, we just pinch what we like and use it in our own way."
In Kiss the Fish Rajan is joined on stage by Nisha Madhan (Show Pony, Shortland Street, Blue Rose), Julia Croft (The Arrival, The Kick, Agent Anna) and actor/comedian James Roque (AotearoHA - Next Big Things, Titus) and award- winning musician David Ward.
As with the plays that have come before it, Kiss the Fish is based on a true story. "We've just amplified it and made it funny," Rajan says. "The story is kinda epic."
Lewis went to an island in Malaysia and returned with a curious story.
"The village he was staying in had cheap tourist accommodation but up on the hill was a massive five-star resort fully complete with plumbing and beds and ready to go.
"But it was entirely occupied by monkeys."
When Lewis asked around, it transpired that a multinational corporation had gone in boots-and-all and built the whole thing.
But they hadn't acquired the water rights from the village and, when they asked, the head honcho refused.
"They tried to bully them through government pressure and all sorts of things but the head man held out, so they had to walk away from it."
This idea of a community faced with a change underpins Kiss the Fish.
"A resort offers huge opportunities for the community if they want to take them; jobs, roads, cellphones.
"All sorts of the goodies of the West are on offer which could have a huge positive or negative influence so it divides the community."
Rajan says there's always some element of real life they draw on and, although the plays are intentionally funny, the characters are larger than life and often ridiculous.
"We use that as a way to open up the audience to more curious themes.
"I hate going to the theatre and being beaten over the head with a message but, when you can make it more palatable, that gives you a nourishing evening."
Kiss the Fish is showing at TSB Theatre Royal on June 19, 20 and 21. Book at www.ticketmaster.co.nz or 0800 111 999.
Taranaki Daily News