Behind The Mask: Dramaturgy

Murray Edmond stands in front of a wall of Indian Ink PostersThere’s nothing in theatre that Murray Edmond hasn’t done. He’s the founder of the community theatre group, Town and Country Player, formerly an actor and recently retired from the head of Drama at the University of Auckland. For reasons “unknown or unknowable” he’s still a poet, playwright and fiction writer. And through it all, he’s been the dramaturge for every Indian Ink production.

For those of us who don’t know, what exactly is a dramaturge?
Well, what I do with Indian Ink is pretty unique. In a very encyclopedic way, it means the person who programmes the theatre and oversees what kind of plays are held, who will be involved in putting them on — all the kinds of things that associate with the director.

But the role was always unclear. I was told that the dramaturge is the advocate, the lawyer for the playwright because the director will criticise, the actors will say ‘this doesn’t work.’ The dramaturge is there to protect the playwright, to talk to them through the workshop and to help with re-writing.

With Indian Ink, I sit down with Jacob (Rajan) and Justin (Lewis) right from the beginning of each play. Which is why I say I’m not a normal dramaturge. Normally, someone brings you a script and says ‘help!’

Jake’s interest has to be about what he’s doing on stage, and Justin’s has to be about making it all work together. Those anxieties weigh on them, whereas I’m free of those restrictions.

You’ve been Indian Ink’s dramaturge — or playwright’s advocate — from its very first show, Krishnan’s Dairy (premiered 1997). How did this collaboration start?
I went to see a little show called Jeff, Son of Jeffery which was down in an art gallery. I hadn’t seen anything like it and it was an experience, so I went to see who did it. It was Justin Lewis. Murray Edmond working with the script at the Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream workshop, 2020

So Krishnan’s Dairy was your first work together?
No, Justin did a show on Siamese twins who were married to two sisters. It was a true story — they were from Thailand and they went around America where they were famous. There are great stories in the world!

Anyways, Justin called me up with two weeks to go, obviously the show wasn’t working, and he said, “can you come and fix it?”

I looked at it, and it was a really fascinating subject but it wasn’t ready at all. There was no way it’d be ready in two weeks. We tried, but it was a bit of a mess, to put it kindly. Sorry, Justin!

Sounds like a steep learning curve. What did you take away from it?
That you give yourself time and you don’t bring actors in until you know what the idea is, who’s in it, what you’re trying to do and who the audience is.

So, Krishnan’s Dairy, the play that started it all. Give us an insight into the first workshop.
It was the holidays, so we used drama rooms at the University of Auckland. I left the boys — as I call Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis —  there for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I came back on Friday and Jacob performed this cobbled-together version of what it might be like. We felt there was something there, and we ran with it.

At a time with anti-immigrant sentiment, Krishnan’s Dairy was a love story between migrant dairy owners, and it was critically acclaimed. What was it about the story that made it so well-received?
Jacob was a fantastic performer and the masks were magic. There was a sense that masks meant improvised, but it was scripted down to the last comma and full stop.

The location, too, was important because everybody knew it: Diaries. It was a well-known aspect of Kiwi life.

Mrs Krishnan, played by Kalyani Nagarajan, taste-testing. while Justin Rogers looks on in shockAnd, the plot. It’s really a tragedy but there’s a lot of funniness in it — which is great and also one of the first rules of dramaturgy: If you’re going to write a tragedy, find the comedy in it for God’s sake. Or you’ll bore people to tears. Same with writing a comedy, you’ve got to find what’s serious.

So I think the kind of theatre, plus the performer plus the subject matter did catch something.

“If you’re going to write a tragedy, find the comedy in it, for God’s sake.”

Finding the comedy — like in Mrs Krishnan’s Party, which picks up twenty-years after Krishnan’s Dairy?
Yes. There, you’ve got to deal with this terrible grief. Mrs Krishnan is hanging onto the shop in comfort and it’s killing her. In the end, she’s released from that.

Why flip the tragedy-comedy dichotomy in Mrs Krishnan’s Party?
Mrs Krishnan’s Party was interesting because Kalyani had a strong idea of her character. We said, why not make it Zeena Krishnan, twenty years on? Then we had a background story that we knew, which was useful.

The big questions were, where is she now? Well, she’s still running the shop.
She’s stuck. We thought about that stuckness a lot — it was a logical series of steps. The dramatic movement was to get her unstuck.

We played with little ideas like Mrs Krishnan’s son Apu who was going to be in the play. But then we decided that offstage characters are so powerful. They represent absence, but we always had the possibility that he would arrive. That’s a suspension in the play.

As you said, there’s always comedy within a tragedy, a serious laugh. What about comedy makes an effective tool?
Comedy is cruel; it’s always laughing at the other. And in the end, we can go away and think ‘oh I’ve been a bit like that.’Murray Edmonds stands with script notes that he delivers to an actor wearing a half mask and lab coat.

After Krishnan’s Dairy, you went onto The Candlestickmaker. How did that show come about?
It started with Jacob going to India for the first time and reading Stephen Hawking’s book on time. Those two things: His experience as an Indian person going to an ancestral home for the first time, and this idea about the nature of the universe and time.

It’s really about the immensity about the universe. In the end, Krishnan’s Dairy is about a little room, a little family and their tragedy. But this is a tragedy-comedy about the universe, about entropy — the idea that the universe is slowly running down. It was about the vanity of human wishes. But it was beautiful.

What about the dramaturgy?
It’s one of my favourites. It was very hard to make. We spent a week sitting around the table just talking and talking.

The masks were hard to incorporate. It’s not hard to make a mask for a crazy, old one-eyed professor but to make a little boy’s mask is really hard because the human features are too beautiful when people are young, where masks are full of distortions.

Justin was making versions and they weren’t working. And we were sitting and looking at versions of the mask, they weren’t working. We talked ourselves out of every idea, and in the end, we had nothing. All the good things were gone.

It took some time, but you got there in the end?
Yes, it’s always a matter of whether an idea is good, and if it is, don’t waste it. Stay with it till it actually works, till you find what’s really there.

It makes you cry from a different way from Krishnan’s Dairy. With The Candlestickmaker you have a tear in the corner of the eye because you see your part in it all.

And then The Pickle King, which is Indian Ink’s most comedic show.
Yes, The Pickle King is the commedia dell’arte, a classical comedy with a young girl and an older person who wants her married off, but with the style of masks that were in Krishnan’s Dairy.