Guru of Chai - Notes
In 2008 I was being bitten by giant ants in the Australian countryside when the germ of this show was born. At the time of the ant attack I was taking part in a workshop with my theatre teacher John Bolton. We were all furiously creating pieces of theatre in short periods of time using the environments we found ourselves in; I came back to New Zealand with the idea that Jacob could do a one man Tempest to be performed in houses.
I find the hardest thing in creating theatre is coming up with the story and so the idea of working with an existing text and freeing ourselves to explore the theatre of The Tempest was compelling. Jacob and I embarked on our new project but whilst the theatre making was fun we soon realised that Shakespeare wasn’t us. But Jacob was attracted by a little known Indian folk story, Punchkin, and this became the story we brought to life. We worked for a long time in the fairy tale world of Punchkin and made some great theatrical discoveries. But it was only really when our dramaturge Murray Edmond pushed us to make the story a contemporary one that we were set free creatively to create The Guru of Chai. At first glance, little of the original story of Punchkin is recognisable but looking deeper I think that a remarkable number of its key elements have survived the translation to contemporary India. These elements mystified and fascinated us and have guided us to these characters and plot in The Guru of Chai.
The piece took off again when Jacob and I spent time in Bali studying comic mask (thanks to Asia NZ and Creative NZ). There we experienced the arts as part of daily life; alive in all sorts of contexts, needing only the simplest of technologies yet displaying incredible sophistication of form. And of course the island and the people inspired us. Characters in this play came from people we met, the world of the street carts and hawkers where ancient and modern collide informed the world of our guru.
It has taken us the best part of 2 years to come up with this show. We created it with the idea of performing it in homes and community venues, which has been proven to be liberating. It has inspired a different approach to the technology of theatre and direct connection to audience and environment that I think captures something of what I experienced in Bali and Australia. This piece also embodies some of what we have learned from our time working with film. In the theatre the expanses of time and space that film encompasses with sudden cuts and jumps is given form in the theatre by the storyteller.
I think Jacob and I are somehow drawn to old theatrical forms and we take great pleasure from rediscovering them in a contemporary context. For me this piece is a collision of the ancient and the modern, of the poor and the sophisticated, the intimate and the epic. I have very much enjoyed making it.
I met Nyoman Suketra in Bali. He is a master mask dancer and shadow puppeteer. A squat little man who can move with astonishing grace and fluidity; always smiling, always laughing, a weakness for beer and cockfighting, steeped in the traditions and nuances of shadow puppetry and mask dance yet desperate to have a Facebook page. Gently worried about his growing paunch, his ambitions towards wealth and status are at odds with his desire to go fishing at every opportunity. Indulges his children, exasperates his long suffering wife – the man literally danced into our lives, and onto the pages of this play as a fully formed character. I changed his name and his ethnicity and his teeth but his essence is our Guru. You can’t write someone like this, you have to meet him.
I think that’s been the big lesson for me in creating this work. These days we seem so obsessed with being connected through our computers and cell phones, bombarded with news and entertainment 24 hours a day, proud of our ability to shop, bank and “socialise” without ever leaving our homes. But I had to leave home to meet Nyoman. I had to fly to Bali. I had to get on a scooter and negotiate traffic in a city of 4 million people and no discernable road code. I had to find his house, meet his family, learn to dance in 30 degree heat, share a meal, drink tea, struggle to understand and be understood. I read that back and it looks like I’m trying to convince you that this was some kind of hardship. My wife will never buy that and nor should you. I loved every minute of it.
What I am struggling to say is that the play you are about to see was born out of a real life connection. When I think about it they do have a road code: always go forward, never look back and give way to things bigger than yourself. I now hold that as a guiding principle in life!
I have had the pleasure of being involved with Indian Ink since 2004, operating guitar, banjo, cash registers, hairdryers, ropes and pulleys, crying like a baby on cue and getting to ‘shoot’ Jacob night after night in Krishnan’s Diary.
I have lost count of the shows that I have performed in NZ, Australia, Germany, Singapore and U.S.A, each show inexorably morphing into one de ja vu experience. I can now rattle off Jacob’s lines verbatim, and I am convinced that at least a few scenes will flash before my eyes in my final moments! In 2007 I was thrilled to be handed the role of composer and musical director for their 4th play The Dentist’s Chair, and to work my music into the fabric of a brand new show. Since then I would occasionally hear rumours of a 5th play, but Justin and Jacob kept it close to their chests until late 2009, when Justin asked me to write music for The Guru Of Chai.
As with all their shows, the challenge was how to create the magic of a large, vivid world from the minimal and the simple. This time, the brief was: contemporary India, upbeat and layered...with one actor, one musician. I originally wrote music to English translations of Indian folk songs, but it soon became clear that we needed to sing in Indian, specifically Malayalam. We brought in Ravi Muthu a wonderful Malayalam singer, to coach us on pronunciation and make sure our singing was as authentic as possible. When Ravi improvised around my compositions he naturally added melodic and rhythmic nuances that were just out of the reach of our western ears. At one point I had to embrace a sense of humility and scrap a beat that I had painstakingly built up over 2 weeks, but the final songs were definitely the richer for it.
In the absence of other musicians, I employed a device traditionally used by hip hop artists to sample and sequence instruments that can be triggered live – an M.P.C. A lot of my time was occupied trying to figure out how to make the technology work for me and how it would sit within the show. Slowly, then more and more quickly the layers were built up, the sequences took shape and the ‘electronic’ side to the music stared to breathe and to feel at home in the world we were creating. I find it a joy to be performing with Jacob every night, and to continue to refine and polish what is steadily becoming one of my favourite Indian Ink shows. I think that Guru has some of the funniest as well as the most poignant moments that they have yet produced.