Jacob Rajan

Listener Interview

His seventh production is about to open, but Jacob Rajan wasn’t even supposed to have a drama career.

Jacob Rajan’s parents had hoped he would be a doctor. “Being the son of an Indian immigrant with a medical bent, of course I was supposed to be a doctor, both my brothers were ­supposed to be doctors. You don’t move your family 10,000 miles from their homeland not to justify it with success.”

Arriving from Malaysia in 1970 at the age of four, Rajan spent the first nine years of his New Zealand life living in the grounds of what was originally called the Porirua Lunatic Asylum where his father was a psychiatrist.

“Porirua was the largest hospital of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere and all these immigrant doctors lived on site with their families in lovely little houses, manicured and maintained by psychiatric patients as part of their rehabilitation. The really dangerous ones were in a secure unit with barbed wire and fences, but everyone else was mildly normal – ish. And there were tennis courts, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a man who wandered round in a Superman suit – it was like a massive playground.”

In retrospect, it’s hardly surprising a creative life lay in store. But Rajan was “painfully shy”, so after high school he left for Dunedin to study science – not quite medicine, but on the right path.

“The perverse thing about doing a science degree at Otago is it was like a creative deprivation tank, so miles from parental control, I snuck off from lectures to join the film club. I saw lots of plays at Allen Hall and the Fortune Theatre – only as a voyeur, but my compass was starting to align. I was captivated by performance.”

Drama still wasn’t apparent as a career, however, and Rajan continued to wonder where his future lay, “earning a BSc in microbiology with a C-. The year after I graduated, I went to painting classes, I joined Wellington’s amateur dramatic society, I finished my piano exams. It was a creative explosion, but I didn’t know how I was going to make a living, so I trotted off to Teachers’ College, because that’s where people go when they don’t know what to do.”

When he found himself in a workshop with physical theatre guru John Bolton, “it all came into focus. I popped a mask on my face and that shy person was gone and this new being was born and I loved it. Before then, I didn’t see mask beyond street or children’s theatre; it was not part of adult performance. And I got this bee in my bonnet about it.

“The funny thing is around this time, when I was at Teachers’ College, I started doing extra work on films, then I found work at an actors’ agency where I got my first gig in a professional production of The Tempest. I managed to talk my way in and there I was on stage with all these actors who’d done all this stuff. In the programme notes, they had these huge bios and my note just said: ‘Jacob Rajan intends to go to the John Bolton Theatre School in Melbourne.’”

As fortune would have it, Robyn Payne, then head of Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School, was in the audience and sent a note backstage suggesting Rajan consider staying in Wellington to study. He laughs at the memory. “I didn’t even know we had one, I didn’t know Toi was there. So I auditioned, I got in and I waited for the mask components to begin.”

What a disappointment to find that, over two years, there was just a single afternoon of mask – a session on ­commedia dell’arte – so, when it was time for the students to do solo work, Rajan created the beginnings of Krishnan’s Dairy.

From that 20-minute monologue, one of New Zealand’s best-loved theatre pieces emerged. In this extraordinary story of love and heartbreak, now a text taught in schools and universities, all the characters are played by one man who wears four masks. But it took a while for that solo show to become a full-length performance.

“I was a jobbing actor for a while and was in a production of Cyrano de Bergerac when Justin Lewis came on board as our emergency stage manager. We were talking at the bar one night and he mentioned mask work. He’d just graduated from John Bolton and his oeuvre was directing original work, and in my back pocket I had a 20-minute solo that needed a director. The planets were aligning.”

The only fly in the ointment was that Lewis lived in Auckland and Rajan in Wellington. They got together only twice over the course of a year, but in 1997 premiered Krishnan’s Dairy at Bats in Wellington and the Indian Ink theatre company was born. The pair have continued to work in intense, frantic bursts ever since. “It takes us about two years to put a show together – lots of Skype, a bit of flying. It’s pretty expensive and we both have young families, but if we’d been in the same city, it might not have worked. We can’t sit around forever having lattes and talking – we need to make things happen.”

Their latest project, The Elephant Thief, is th

eir seventh production and it’s their first play to be created without Rajan performing in it.

Rajan picks his words carefully when asked to describe the new piece. “I don’t know how to say this without putting people off, so I’ll tell you a little bit about the inspiration. Justin had read somewhere that elephants would be extinct in the wild in 50 years. We’d hardly drawn breath before the British Astronomical Society weighed in to say humans would be extinct in 100 years. So we thought, we have to write a play about this.

“Writing about extinction is hard to market and we don’t want to be miserable about it, so we made this rollicking comic adventure. Set in the future in India, this is our take on what the world will look like in 50 or 60 years, with India the most powerful nation on Earth. A tribal girl who’s off to see the world is followed by her father’s elephant – the last in the world and everybody wants a piece of him. It’s a poetic, rambling epic, a love story that touches on the more serious issue of humankind’s effect on this planet.”

Somehow Rajan manages to make the end of the world sound like fun. As for his future, assuming the world doesn’t end too soon, Indian Ink has been offered an unturndownable opportunity with South Coast Repertory in California’s Costa Mesa, one of America’s best regarded ­theatre companies.

“They’ve commissioned us to write a play for them. We’re quietly pooing ourselves, but now the trainer wheels are off The Elephant Thief following a successful off-Broadway run in Hamilton, we’re ­getting stuck into the research, and if it goes well, this could be a game-changer.”

Medicine’s loss is theatre’s gain. He doesn’t sound particularly repentant. “There was no previous record of a Rajan in the performing arts. Two hundred years of doctors ended with me. Although I did better than my brothers. At least I played a doctor on Shortland Street.”