Monday, June 1, 2009

June 2009 - Rajiv Joseph


Rajiv Joseph was appointed in 2005 as a Playwright Fellow in our Playwrights’ Workshop, led by Arthur Kopit. It was in the Workshop that he began to put together the pieces of his play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo which has just opened to critical acclaim at Center Theater Group in Los Angeles. In the following essay, Rajiv reflects upon the juggling act of writing a play that speaks to his own vision and experience while embracing the experience of collaborating with actors, directors, translators and widely divergent communities. Rajiv has had a chance to see his work performed not only in English, but in Spanish and Romanian, in the U.S. and outside its borders, and, as a consequence, has learned a great deal about his writing and its impact on different audiences. We look forward to reading your responses to Rajiv–and to one another!



Spies Like Us by Rajiv Joseph

So the other day I was on a Transylvanian morning TV talk show. It was like Northern Romania’s answer to "Regis and Kelly," except in this case, Regis was a chain-smoking dude with a beard who read the news directly off of his laptop, and Kelly was a beautiful, tall, blonde, 22 year-old woman who never spoke. She literally never opened her mouth. But she did provide a nice visual contrast to the host, which is probably why their show is the most-watched morning TV program in Târgu Mureş.

I was there to talk about my play, Animals Out of Paper, which was opening at the Ariel Theatre and was translated into Romanian by Sorin Rusa and is now called Animale de Hartie. The director of the play, Gabi Cadariu, sat on the couch with me and acted as the translator between me and the chain-smoking, bearded host. The host asked some questions, read some news, and, at one point, started reading horoscopes for the day right off of his laptop. When he got to Gemini, my sign, I asked Gabi to translate for me. Gabi thought about it and then paraphrased and said, ”Choose your words carefully.” I still think he must have made that shit up, because it seemed a little too apropos. Considering he was translating. And I was there talking about my play, which was translated. And that, two days earlier, another play of mine opened in Los Angeles in which one of the characters is a translator in a story that is about, well, translation.

It was a crazy week, what with two openings in two different countries, and in both cases, one could see the evidence of a huge amount of Lark-based contribution. My play ”Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” which opened at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in LA on May 17th, is a play that has been developed extensively through the Lark, beginning in the fall of 2005 with the Playwrights’ Workshop and extending since then with a roundtable, studio retreat, Barebones® production and a co-production with the drama school at SUNY Purchase. Animals Out of Paper, produced last summer by Second Stage Theatre, was first drafted at the Lark Workshop at New York Stage & Film in the summer of 2007, and also benefitted from a roundtable reading.

This was the third time the Lark had sent me to a foreign country. I always feel like a spy when I’m on Lark business abroad. John Eisner usually shows up at midnight in some random train station, we go to a bar, he asks me what contacts I’ve made, what information I’ve gotten, and then he gives me a list of people whom I should call in Bucharest. I don’t know them, but they are expecting me. This is how the Lark works: Playwrights as spies, plotting to bring together theaters and people and cultures and ideas.

John, like all Master Spies, seems to be everywhere at once, and was also at my opening in LA, so it was useful to chat with him in Romania about that experience. I had lived the previous two months in LA, going to rehearsals, working with the cast and director Moises Kaufman, and basically re-writing every night. After nearly five years of development, I had foolishly thought that the script was locked and set, before rehearsals had even started. But this was not the case. As it turns out, when you have a bunch of brilliant people like Moises, assistant-director Jimmy Maize, dramaturg Pier Carlo Talenti and my crackerjack cast poring over every last beat of a play, questions are going to rise up... and every time I rewrote one moment of the play, other things would unravel. This turned out to be a very good thing for Bengal Tiger.

I’m homesick right now for my little Oakwood apartment in Marina del Rey where the theatre put me up. It’s coroporate housing, the place feels like a hotel, but after all the late nights of re-writing, re-thinking, nervousness, frustration and elation, I look back on that place and see it as this little cove of creative energy. And I realize that those two months of working on this play in LA were the culmination of five years of Lark development. And now it’s ready, it’s ready to begin it’s life as a play, and I’m going to miss that time in my life when I was working on it.

By the time I got to Romania, I was exhausted and a little emotionally ragged. In good ways, but still... my parents and their entourage had descended upon LA for opening, as well as all of my college buddies. The play had opened, it was a beautiful production, everything I might have wished, and before I could catch my breath, I was in Transylvania, picking John up at a random train station and then we were in a bar, drinking, and talking about contacts and information and the strange media blitz that accompanies the opening of a play in the fantastic town of Târgu Mureş. Like how, for example, I was to be up very early the next morning to be a guest on the Transylvanian version of Regis and Kelly.

The production of Animale de Hartie at the Ariel Theatre was stunning. Tiny origami cranes were placed on every seat of the theatre as gifts. The actors were phenomenal, and I had the curious and wondrous experience of being able to watch my play performed in a language I do not understand. I felt I was learning new things about the play every two seconds. Gabi’s direction was inspired and it seems that the audience really loved it. Again, I was transported back to those early days on the campus of Vassar at our New York Stage & Film retreat, with my fellow Larkees, hearing the words for the very first time. And I thought about how much those words have changed with every re-write, and now, how they’ve changed even more, into something utterly foreign, and yet familiar.

A party followed the opening and the food was bread with pork lard smeared on it and paprika sprinkled on top. I am telling you, this is the perfect post-opening-night food. Sorin, my translator tells me you can substitute sugar for the paprika if you like your lard a little sweet. Either way, it’s good stuff. Crack open a couple of beers and you are good to go.