Interview with Playwright Tom Stoppard

Posted on: August 29th, 2014 by Ted Sod


Ted Sod, Education Dramaturg sat down with playwright Tom Stoppard and discussed Indian Ink.

Tom Stoppard

Ted Sod: Indian Ink was first performed as a radio play, correct?

Tom Stoppard: Not quite correct. This play, Indian Ink, was preceded by another play entitled In the Native State, which was the origin of Indian Ink. Indian Ink is very different in structure, but has the same subject matter.

TS: What inspired you to write about Flora Crewe in India? Was it a specific person?

Tom Stoppard: I was in India myself as a child.

TS:  Was that in 1941?

Tom Stoppard: My family was in Singapore when the Japanese War started. We were in Singapore at the time of Pearl Harbor, and by the beginning of 1942 the Japanese invasion of Burma and Singapore had started. Our little family -- my mother, my brother, and I -- had got onto one of the boats which were leaving. It was supposed to go to Australia, but everything was so chaotic; we ended up in Bombay. We got off the boat and the three of us spent the rest of the war in India. Meanwhile, my father got onto the very last boat leaving Singapore, which was sunk by the Japanese, and he didn’t survive. So it was a saga, really. We were Czech refugees. We weren’t in the British Raj at all. We were a Czech family from Czechoslovakia.

My father was a doctor in Moravia, in the south of the country. There were a number of Jewish doctors in the hospital there, and at a certain point – almost too late really, but in time – they were all sent overseas by their employer. It was the Bata Shoe Company -- an extraordinary outfit -- which had its own hospital, school and so forth. They had started a generation or two earlier, and by the time my family was involved, they had places all over the world. There was a Bata in South America, in India, and in London. We were dumped on these poor Bata people who were established in India, up the river from Calcutta. I’m sure they didn’t know what to do with us. I think there were about fifteen mothers and their children who had all arrived there.

TS: So, the character of Flora – did she come from a memory?

Tom Stoppard: No, not at all. It is a different period. It’s 1930, more than ten years before I was in India. Also, when I was there I was a five-year-old boy. I really wanted to write the role for Felicity Kendal, who had been in India and was in a film called Shakespeare-Wallah. I liked her very much as an actor and said, “I’m going to write this play for you, in which you go back to India.”  Of course I had chosen an earlier period and I don’t even remember why I was writing about 1930. But as you know, it’s a play which takes place not only in 1930, but also in what was more or less the present day when I wrote this play, which was about 1990 I think.

TS: Carey Perloff, the director, intimated that maybe Flora was based on someone like Edith Sitwell or Hilda Doolittle.

Tom Stoppard: She wasn’t. Edith Sitwell was a very different kind of person, aristocratic and rather genteel really. Flora wasn’t based on anybody in particular. I just had this notion of a ballsy young woman who was on her own with a much younger sister to worry about. I just made Flora meet all the people I wish to have met at that time. It is a period that I liked.

TS:  So many of your plays are exquisitely structured. Do you start with a structure, with a character, or is it very different from play to play?

Tom Stoppard: I think it becomes different over the years. I feel that when I began writing I had a need to know more about the play before I got into it. I think that’s the way I was thinking. But my actual experience is that the best way to find out what the structure is, is by writing the play out laterally. You just have got to be brave enough to start without knowing where you are going. You might have one or two thoughts about places further down the line, but on the whole, I just try to make what I’ve just written suggest to me what I should write now. I mean literally line by line and scene by scene.

TS: Like Arcadia, Indian Ink is bifurcated into two time frames. How do you keep track of where it’s going? Or is that something that happens later?

Tom Stoppard: I just do it the way you would do it. I’m not conscious of having some kind of method or game plan. I don’t really have a system or set of principles. It’s kind of common sense mixed up with instinct. If you set off on a certain course, you know that you’re zig-zagging between time frames, if that happens to be what you’re doing, and you’re trying to look out for the unwritten part of the play.

TS: But it’s definitely a puzzle that both you and the audience are solving simultaneously, which makes it fun for the audience!

Tom Stoppard: There’s a puzzle element, and it’s fun for all of us: the writer, the audience, the actors. If you are in control of who knows what when, it’s kind of nice sometimes. The same thing happens in Arcadia where the audience is ahead of the characters. I’ve done that more than once. I probably should stop doing it.

TS: The play is often said to be about “nostalgia and romantic loss.” What do you think the play is about?

Tom Stoppard: The thing is, that’s a kind of critic’s question or an academics question. I don’t mind you asking it, it’s just that it’s about different things to different people. What it’s actually about is what happens in the play. That’s what it’s about. I guess I’ve been asked that about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern now for about forty years and the answer is it’s about two courtiers of Elsinore. And this is about a young woman I invented who is a poet, and she is in India dying of TB.

One doesn’t write these things so that there is a secret “aboutness” which the audience is supposed to guess or arrive at. That’s not how it is. It’s a storytelling art form. You’re telling a story. It’ll chime this way or that way for people who are listening to the story. I think it’s a love story probably. I think that in the end it works as not a conventional love story, but it turns out to be very much about a romance. You have to completely change your mind-set about what a play is trying to be, and when I say you, I literally mean you sitting there today in this room in this chair. I just feel that there is this idea that a play is interesting because it’s actually about something slightly mysterious. That’s not how I see it at all. I think it’s a story about some characters and a story that is trying to hold your attention. If it succeeds, that’s what it’s trying to do.

TS: I asked just in case there is something you wanted the audience to look out for. I realize it’s impossible to answer and maybe I should stop asking playwrights that question.

Tom Stoppard: It’s a perfectly reasonable question. I think that one of the things it ought to be saying to an audience is, “Hurry up. It’s time. Time’s going by; you only get one chance.

TS: That’s why I love Flora. She is obviously trying to make the most of the time she has left.  I think we all do that once we hit a certain age.

Tom Stoppard: I don’t know if we do. I think we still diddle around. I do. I mean I’m seventy-seven and I’m not using my time well most of the time. At the moment, I’m just getting up in the morning and seeing what’s on the diary.

Emily Eden

TS: Will you talk about some of the changes in the text you are contemplating?

Tom Stoppard:  It’s a kind of mantra of mine that the play is the event, not the text. It always bothered me a little that after all these years, anytime Indian Ink is being done anywhere, it ends up with a recorded voice, which is essentially Emily Eden’s letter. I always thought, “Is that really what I would have most wished?” So that was one thing.

Carey knows this play better than anybody, better than I do, and I talked to her about my feelings about how the play ends. It ends with a statement about empire and politics rather than about love and the death of an individual. I thought if I could just shift a necessary few words, which I really wanted to keep from the letter, which was recorded —and move them earlier, then I could actually bring Flora to her own graveyard, like a ghost. We’re sitting here on the first day of rehearsal and I don’t know whether it will work. When the play was new, the kind of audience that would come to it wouldn’t need that much help about who was E.M.Forster or Gertrude Stein. Those two references are still in the play, but there are a few others. I thought that there is no point in including little in jokes about English literary life, so I was quite happy to find one or two trims there.

And finally, although there is no right or wrong length for a play I suppose, I really wanted to get out from under the burden of a ninety-minute first act. We’re in a period of theatre history here where up to ninety minutes is when you go to a restaurant. You don’t go back in for more. With this play and with several other plays of mine, all I remember about the experience of being in production with them is simply trying to make act one five minutes shorter. I’ve been there so many times it’s kind of ridiculous. I said to Carey, “Maybe we can do that before we start this time.” I’m quite pragmatic about these things, especially if that includes lines and references that are literally meaningless to ninety percent of the audience.


Indian Ink begins previews on September 4 at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold & Miriam Steinberg Centre for Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Indian Ink, Upstage

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Interview with Director Carey Perloff

Posted on: August 29th, 2014 by Ted Sod


Carey Perloff

TED SOD: Tell us about yourself: Where were you born and educated? When did you realize you wanted to be a director?

CAREY PERLOFF: I was born in Washington, D.C. and I went to the National Cathedral School for Girls, and then to Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, before going to college at Stanford. I had never been to California before, so that was my big rebellion. I wanted to be an archeologist all my life. At Stanford, I studied ancient Greek and Latin, and I ended up in theater because we studied the Greeks through reading Greek tragedies. I started reading and then directing the great plays in the original language and never looked back. I had a Fulbright Scholarship and went to Oxford after college. I started directing all kinds of plays while I was at Oxford, and also directed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I moved to New York City when I was 21 and started directing whatever I could, all over the city, both new and classical plays. I had no formal directing training; I learned everything I know from wonderful actors who knew more than I did and taught me what was useful in rehearsal. When I was 27, I became the artistic director of CSC Repertory Company on East 13th Street. I had never run a theater before, and CSC was completely broke, so I had to learn how to resuscitate a theater very quickly. While I was at CSC, I worked with Harold Pinter several times, which was really thrilling, and also with Tony Harrison and other notable writers and translators. I am also a playwright and was doing a lot of writing during those early years. I got hired to run A.C.T. in San Francisco in 1992, which meant learning how to direct and produce on a whole other level.

TS: You first directed Indian Ink in 1999. How do you go about conceiving a production that takes place in two different time frames, sometimes at the same time?

CP: What is so beautiful about the play is that it is incredibly crafted. Tom loves theatricality; he loves creating something that could happen onstage that couldn't happen on film or in another medium. The challenge in Indian Ink is to keep the two worlds intermixing and colliding just as they do in Arcadia. In Arcadia, the 19th century and the 20th century share properties, and the audience knows it’s all the same setting. There’s a distinct choreography that is necessary. In the case of Indian Ink, I wanted to make sure that we embedded Eleanor Swan in her garden in the midst of the envelope that is India. The play is a detective story: it’s about uncovering the truth about a love relationship that happened many years ago via a series of letters. The worlds of the play -- India in 1930 and England and India in the mid-80s -- contract and expand; the design is very much a world where both universes can be contained. We know where we are just by what costumes are being worn and what sounds we hear; we’ll know where we are when we segue from a 1930s scratchy recording of a foxtrot to Bollywood music. There are rather abrupt lighting changes -- lanterns go to neon light, and suddenly you are in contemporary India. The characters weave in and out of the time frames and countries, and the audience gets to be part of that journey.

TS: Are there specific challenges in directing a play that you first directed 15 years ago?

CP: I think that you start from the ground up. I watched the archival video of our first production, and then I moved on and began to reimagine. Certain things feel differently to me all these years later. I never realized when I first directed Indian Ink how deeply it is a play about mortality. Flora knows from the beginning that she's dying, and so her action is always to suck the juice out of life. In revisiting our first production, I saw certain things that I loved: there were a few choices that I made that I still feel strongly about and that I think are the right choices. But I love doing second productions. It’s great to return to a complicated play because you have the road map already. You know that it works and you know what the ground rules are, so you can really get in there and explore. This production has a different set, costume, sound, and lighting design team, so it will be completely new.

TS: How do you explain your affinity for Stoppard’s work?

CP: I've directed almost all of Tom Stoppard’s plays. He loves working at A.C.T. and had a long history of working there even before I came. He always said A.C.T. has the perfect audience for his work because they’re literate and engaged. I met Tom when I was first directing Arcadia. I did the first regional production after the New York premiere, and we began a long correspondence that continues to this day. Tom gave A.C.T. the American premiere of Indian Ink and was with us throughout rehearsals, continuing to work on it.  He and I are drawn to many of the same things. We both love language and ideas and wit and desire. He’s also an Eastern European Jew, as I am. It’s very funny that we think of him as the quintessential British playwright but, in fact, he’s a Jew from Czechoslovakia. I felt a connection as soon as I met him. I married a Brit, so I know that culture well. I’ve directed many English plays, so I relish Tom’s irony and his wit. I love his voracious intelligence. I think the main thing with Stoppard is that he really understands that ideas can be sexy and that the heart and the mind always go together.

TS: What would you say the play is about?

CP: It’s about an English poetess named Flora who intimately gets to know an Indian painter named Nirad. Flora keeps telling him she wishes he was more Indian without realizing that the whole tragedy of his condition is that he's been colonized and thus has been forced to be more British than the British. The journey for him is to authentically rediscover something about himself as an Indian man. It’s a play about cultural collision and cultural identity and about how love and art can bring about the most unlikely combinations of people. Indian Ink is about the relationship of mortality to art, a theme Tom has returned to many times in his work. Flora longs to leave something beautiful behind. The play asks us to think about what remains when somebody dies and how art can carry our spirits forward. What is really luscious about Indian Ink is that you don't have to worry, oh, it’s Tom Stoppard, I have to read all the footnotes. The play is very romantic, it’s funny and moving and accessible. I hope the question people ask themselves is why did it take so many years for this play to come to New York?

TS: Will there be any changes in the text?

CP: Tom's changing the ending, which I'm very excited about. He’s putting the focus much more squarely on Flora and the mystery of her love affair. He's re-ordering some scenes and has cut some references and changed some things along the way. I think it will feel more seamless and will be a little bit shorter. He wants to keep the buoyancy of the play. He's very hard on himself. If he thinks he's made something too deliberately obscure, he'll go back there and fix it.

TS: Indian Ink started as a radio play -- correct?

CP: Yes. It started as a radio play entitled In the Native State. Jummapur – the fictional setting of this play -- is a Native State, which means it was nominally sovereign but clearly under the jurisdiction of the British Raj.

TS: Do you personally relate to any of the characters?

CP: I always relate to all of the characters in a great play. I love plays about feisty women. This play has two of the most incredible female characters. Eleanor, played by Rosemary Harris, is a completely surprising and unpredictable character -- you think she's the kindest, sweetest British gal, and you discover she has radical points of view. Flora is also a great creation. She’s very mysterious, passionate, and iconoclastic. The two main Indian characters, Nirad and Anish Das, are complex artists, artists of a very different kind. They wrestle with questions of representation, abstraction, and authenticity. They are asking, “What is the meaning of home and what is exile?”

TS: Do you see any parallels between the British Empire of the early 20th century and America today?

CP: Empire is empire. America is a very different kind of empire. We have made many ill-begotten attempts to try and export democracy. The British did it in India for better or for worse and were quite unapologetic about it. They deeply believed in British law, language and food. There they were in India, wearing corsets and long dresses and eating mutton in this extremely hot climate. It was insane, and yet they created an infrastructure of road and train systems and trial by jury. The irony is that it was by the English being there and spreading their language that different factions of India could actually unify. The British Empire sowed the seeds of its own destruction. What happened during that period changed the way England looked at itself. How America sees itself as an empire is still an unfolding story.

TS: Do you have any advice for young people who want to direct? Do you have any specific advice for young women who want to be directors?

CP: I have spent my whole career fighting for women, and I love hiring women directors. I think the most important thing is to try to develop your own aesthetic. Carve out what is important to you, what you uniquely have to bring to the table and then pursue it as actively as you can. Find the writers that really speak to you and see if you can connect with them. Do readings of their work. There are all kinds of opportunities to direct at graduate schools. I started directing at Juilliard and Barnard. It was also helpful for me to work with the best actors and then learn as much as I could from them. Have the humility to ask good questions and learn what you need to know.

Indian Ink begins previews on September 4 at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold & Miriam Steinberg Centre for Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Indian Ink, Upstage

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Alex Breaux

It is my pleasure to announce that Alex Breaux and Madeline Weinstein have joined the cast of The Real Thing. Alex, playing “Brodie,” and Madeline, playing “Debbie,” will both make their Broadway debuts at the American Airlines Theatre.

Alex is a recent Julliard graduate, and he is currently in The Sky and the Limit at 59E59. Madeline is a graduate of Northwestern University, and she recently spent a summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival.

I am happy to welcome both Alex and Madeline to the Roundabout family. They will join the previously announced Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cynthia Nixon and Josh Hamilton.

Madeline Weinstein

Previews begin October 2 at the American Airlines Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2014-2015 Season, The Real Thing, The Real Thing

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