Rajan has received notable awards such as Actor of the Year, Composer of the Year, Play of the Year, and Production of the Year and two Fringe First Awards. He was also appointed as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to theatre.
For New Zealand-based playwright and actor, Jacob Rajan, a career in theater was never on the cards. “I was painfully shy as a child and never wanted to be on stage but I loved watching films and then, when I got older, going to the theatre,” reveals Rajan, who being the son of Indian immigrants was expected to become a doctor.
Following his parent’s wishes, Rajan went to University and did a Science degree but didn’t really enjoy it. Then he went to Teachers’ College and got involved in Theatre in Education. He started performing plays for children and truly enjoyed his work. Rajan’s drama teacher encouraged him to do a course in mask. “That course was my inspiration to become an actor. When I put on a mask I didn’t feel shy anymore and I loved the way the mask changed my body and my voice. It totally transformed me. I was hooked!” recalls Rajan, the first Indian to graduate from Toi Whakaari: The New Zealand Drama School.
Rajan’s interest in playwriting piqued when at Drama school, as part of the course requirement, he had to create a self-devised piece of theatre. He came up with a play called Krishnan’s Dairy, a funny love story which involved the usage of masks. In 1997, right after Drama School, the budding actor cum playwright created Indian Ink Theatre Company with director, Justin Lewis. The purpose of the company back then was to tour Krishnan’s Dairy around New Zealand and write more plays.
Over the last 21 years, Rajan and Lewis have created multiple award-winning theatre productions that have received praise in New Zealand and worldwide. Rajan has received notable awards such as Actor of the Year, Composer of the Year, Play of the Year, and Production of the Year and two Fringe First Awards. He was also appointed as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2013 New Year’s honours list for his services to theatre.
Some of Rajan’s highly successful plays include the trilogy Krishnan's Dairy, The Candlestick Maker, Guru of Chai, The Dentist's Chair, and The Elephant Thief. “Our aim is to create theatre that is beautiful, funny, sad and true. I would far rather people left with a sense of their souls having been nourished that being beaten over the head with a message,” points out the 2002 Arts Foundation Laureate Award winner.
Rajan’s plays blend Western and Eastern influences to create stories that not only provide a heavy dose of laughter but also bring the audience closer to universal topics that touch them deeply. “Because I’m Indian New Zealander, most of our plays tend to have an Indian New Zealand flavour to them. The stories are universal, you don’t have to be Indian to understand them, but they often have Indian characters or settings,” explains Rajan, further adding that he employs the philosophy of the “serious laugh”: opening the audiences mouths with laughter in order to slip something serious in.
The award-winning playwright says that inspiration for his plays can come from anywhere. “We’re also interested in old theatrical forms like mask and puppetry so these can often be a springboard into characters and a world. There’s often an element of personal experience in the work but not necessarily. Ultimately they’re driven by whatever we’re curious about,” he shares.
Talking about the Indian influences his plays usually revolve around, Rajan states that it is a by product of “who I am that my culture is reflected in what I write but it’s not really an intention. The India I portray is still an India of my imagination. My allegiance is to telling a good story not to being spokesperson or adhering to some sense of cultural authenticity.”
Early this year, Rajan’s Mrs. Krishnan’s Party premiered in Vancouver and had a successful run with full-house shows. “By all accounts the actors seem to have charmed the pants of the Vancouverites!” quips the talented artist. Rajan’s 2019 calendar is already packed. “I’ve just completed a draft of a screenplay. Mrs Krishnan’s Party has tours planned in New Zealand and America. I’ll be taking Guru of Chai on tour in Australia. We hope to be having a development season of a new play at the end of the year and Justin and I are heading to Singapore and India for meetings to further a collaboration on a stage musical,” Rajan concludes.
What is your message for upcoming theatre-enthusiasts or those who wish to follow your path?
It’s a career fuelled by your passion and creativity so make sure you’re in it for the right reasons. Inevitably, it’s going to mean carving your own path which makes it tough but ultimately more rewarding. My favourite quote ever: Film will make you famous; TV will make you rich; theatre will make you good.
Indians around the world have made significant contributions to their immigrated countries, what do you think of this accomplishment?
I think it’s fantastic. “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.” It’s a quote from Winston Churchill – unfortunately he hated Indians, especially Gandhi. I’d love to write a play about that!