Unexpected Places: In Conversation with Lolita Chakrabarti

NOV 14, 2022

The playwright and Life of Pi adaptor reflects on bringing Yann Martel’s novel to life on stage

Lolita Chakrabarti

When did you first read the novel, and how did you get involved with the production?

I read the book in 2002 when it first came out, and I loved it. Of course, I had no idea that I would eventually be asked to adapt it. Before I was commissioned for this project, I had adapted a Satyajit Ray film into a five-part radio play but that was it.

It must have been a daunting process! What was your starting point?

My first port of call is always the personal connection to the material. When I first read the novel, I didn’t understand the end of it in a logical way; it left me undecided but not unsatisfied about what happened at the end: I loved the way that Yann kept us in that space. I didn’t feel cheated by the book at all, even with this ambiguity.

When I started the adaptation process, I took a highlighter, and I highlighted all the bits I thought were interesting within the story. This included any dialogue, dramatic moments, and philosophical thoughts. Now that I have adapted quite a few novels, I see it’s a very personal relationship between you and the piece, but it can seem a little random and chaotic at that stage.

I found an online PDF of the book, so I cut and pasted all the different sections I had highlighted under headlines: God, family, zoo, loss, Richard Parker, and so on. The basic story is obvious. A boy goes to sea, suffers, and survives. So that overreaching arc is always there. My task was to decide how to tell that story. In the book there’s a whole section involving a novelist, but that didn’t speak to me at all. I really liked the Japanese shipping officials, though for the theater Mr. Okamoto and his junior serve the same dramatic purpose: they drive the need to find out what happened. I wanted to put more women in the play, so I took the essence of the two shipping officials and teamed Mr. Okamoto with Lulu Chen, a young, female Canadian diplomat of Asian heritage in Mexico.

I always like to be left alone to write the first draft; I don’t want anyone to impress their ideas on me at that stage. Your relationship with the material is so delicate at the beginning that I feel any other voices or input will intrude on my hook into the story.

Is this a linear process, or does it take place over different periods of time?

An important part of writing is when you leave it alone, you let it filter like sand, and it starts to settle. It starts to land in places you wouldn’t expect.

There was an eight-month period between the commission and writing the play. I did do some research, but it wasn’t a research-heavy script. I looked at animal behavior, zoos, and the political situation in India at the time the story is set, as I didn’t previously know that much about it.

Religion, a major theme of the book, is a very difficult thing to write about for the stage: I spent a lot of time looking at it and thinking about it. The way that Yann talks about religion in the novel really resonated with me. But it’s a delicate subject for theater. I was in a production of Hamlet when I started writing Life of Pi during that time. I was playing Gertrude. I was surrounded by amazing language, and by two intriguing protagonists in Hamlet and Pi: Hamlet facing his terrible circumstances and considering death, and Pi doing the same but determined to survive. That was an interesting opposition to sit in.

Mahira Kakkar watches Adi Dixit reach out a banana towards Salma Shaw, Scarlet Wilderink, Nikki Calonge, Rowan Magee, and Celia Mei Rubin manipulating an orangutan puppet through bamboo stalks.

Is there one way of interpreting the story?

I spoke to Yann when I was commissioned to adapt his novel. I met him in London, and my first question to him was, “What really happened on that boat?” He said, “If you lose the story of the people, that’s fine. The real story is the animals.” It was an unexpected answer, but that really helped me stay true to his intention in the book. There is no single answer to this story! We will all come out trying to decide what happened and having to make a choice. I think in Yann’s mind, there is no definitive answer.

One of the main challenges in adapting this novel is the question of how we stay honorable and give answers in the play, but still allow the mystical element of religion and of life to live within it, when the audience leaves the theater. As an individual, I definitely have my view, but my job as adapter in this case is to leave space for your view.

You’re an actor as well as a playwright. How does this inform your approach?

I’m very conscious of the actors when I’m writing, and I really listen to them in rehearsal. If their instinct is saying that there’s something not feeling right, then we need to tackle it. I know that the thought between the lines is the most important thing. You need to know what the thought is from one line to the next. If the thought isn’t right, it won’t work.

I’m there from the first moment in rehearsals. I rewrote hugely during the rehearsal process for Life of Pi. A script is never a perfectly formed thing when it arrives in the rehearsal room—there are so many edits and changes necessary—especially for a piece like this that has so many different elements to it. I had to adjust the script so that all the elements become integral to the storytelling. The actors were incredible in adapting to the changes, even though some of them were happening late in the rehearsal process as we approached previews. That’s the stressful part, because until you get it in front of the audience, you don’t know how it will be received. But if each individual actor is sure of what they’re doing, when it gets put together it becomes something new and exciting.

I did some rewrites after Sheffield, but then we were delayed because of the pandemic. That later version was used in rehearsals for London, but I did do a few more small rewrites. The stage was different, so the language needed to fit the staging.

What are the other considerations when adapting a novel for stage or screen?

Theatrical interpretation is a very different form to a book. A book is a very personal relationship between you and what you’re writing. Yann says, “Pi sits at a table,” and whoever is reading will fill in the detail about a table. In film, everyone asks a lot of questions about what the table looks like, its meaning—it needs to have a purpose. In theater, the table doesn’t even need to be there! The way in which we use our imagination is different.

There are some books with which I wouldn’t know where to start, but with those I do adapt, I have a flavor of character, of what they want, what they need, and where they’re going. In this one it is about the relationship between environment, animals, and people: that is the key. If the relationships in the book are rich, that’s what grabs me.

This show tells the story in a new way and brings out things in a way that you won’t necessarily have seen in the book. In the book, the chronology jumps around, and you don’t really question it. But in the theater, we need logic, so it becomes a different language.

Were there any particularly difficult scenes to write?

You have to be playful in rehearsal. When I first wrote a draft of the moment when the Tsimstum sank, the scene was far too busy! There were basically various mini scenes going on at the same time. The actors did what I had written, they improvised in the rehearsal room using anything they could find—tissue boxes, coat hangers, a costume rail, etc. to bring it to life—and there were some bits that were magical. Although there was a lot about the scene that didn’t work, we found the intention—that’s key. We took elements of it, and I rewrote it until we get the sinking of the ship that you see in the show.

The scene at the zoo at the beginning was also a big challenge. I wrote and wrote, and it took a long time to get right. None of us could tell why. It’s near the opening of the play—it’s where the magic and wonder start, and the different elements start to combine. It’s the high and happy point before we go to sea. All of the important characters were being introduced, but then Pi is shortly going to lose them, so it was difficult to achieve in a short amount of stage time!

The arrival on the carnivorous island is also an important moment, and we had to make some quite significant changes to our original plans. Pi is hallucinating because he’s so hungry and traumatized. My original ideas didn’t work, and so it has become a monologue now. Pi explains it and the audience has to imagine it for themselves. Perhaps that makes it even more effective: sometimes less is more!

Can you tell us about the theme of religion in the play?

I loved the religion in the book because it made me chuckle. In these times it’s quite dangerous to laugh at religion, but the book is a gentle, affectionate, respectful look at what religion does and what it means to people.

I grew up in a Hindu household so it made complete sense to me as a child that the stories I was told demonstrated good behavior and explored different elements of ourselves. I also went to Catholic school so have a relationship to that religion. It has been fun to explore Islam, Catholicism, and Hinduism in this way.

Do you have a favorite character in the play?

What I really like is the way in that I can make women more prominent in the play. I’ve taken characters from the novel who are men, or who are in the background, and made them more prominent female characters. I love the representations of lots of different kinds of people in the play. I can’t pick a favorite character, though! All characters are part of the whole, and if one was not there I would miss them, and the play wouldn’t work.

What do you want the audience to think and feel when they’re watching the play?

I want us all to travel with Pi’s emotional journey—to feel his love, joy, and wonder and then to really feel his devastating loss. Everyone has felt loss in some form no matter what age you are. By the age of seven, we have experienced the full range of human emotions, and as we age, that response simply becomes more complex. I hope people travel with us emotionally and at the end have a positive, full, meaningful experience. This is a universal story, so I really think there’s something in it for everyone.

Original interview by Susie Ferguson for Mousetrap Theatre Projects.

Mahira Kakkar (“Amma”), Adi Dixit (“Pi”), Salma Shaw, Betsy Rosen , Nikki Calonge, Rowan Magee, Celia Mei Rubin (“Orange Juice”), and the company of Life of Pi: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.
Lolita Chakrabarti: courtesy of the artist.

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