Earlier this year, we took our new show The Guru of Chai into people’s homes, creating true intimate theatre. It was a way to introduce the work to new audiences, create new beginnings and a word of mouth buzz. It also helped us to finetune the show and get it ready for a national and international tour. This year we are heading to Nelson, Wellington, Hamilton, Napier before taking it to Sydney, Brisbane and Singapore. We are still in the planning stages of where the show will go in 2011, but it is looking likely that we will tour it to Auckland, Christchurch, New Plymouth and the USA.
The Guru of Chai was inspired by a little known Indian folk story called ‘Punchkin’, other inspirations came to Justin and Jacob from a trip they took to Bali. The central character in the Guru of Chai, Kutisar is based on a real person they met in Bali. Jacob had this to say.
The Guru of Chai – based on a real person.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!
How the show was born.
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 dramaturg 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 hope you enjoy meeting our guru.