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An Indian and a Pakistani American Walk Into a Theater: How We Made It to the Stage Adaptation of Yann Martel’s ‘Life of Pi’

An Indian and a Pakistani American Walk Into a Theater: How We Made It to the Stage Adaptation of Yann Martel’s ‘Life of Pi’

  • Since the beginning of our careers, Salma and I had both always hoped something like this was possible but didn’t know if it was probable. As she says, “It’s been a long time coming.”

When “Life of Pi,” a play widely acclaimed on London’s West End for its creativity and vivid liveliness, announced that it was going to premiere in North America, and most probably move to Broadway, we both auditioned for it. 

To provide some context, both of us have been acting in the United States for decades. We have extensive film, TV, off-Broadway and regional theater credits. We have both seen South Asians slowly but surely have more representation in the entertainment industry, largely due in part to lucrative productions like “Hamilton,” and organizations like AAPAC (Asian-American Pacific Arts Council NYC) and the growing mainstream awareness of racial and cultural issues raised in the summer of 2020. 

We have gone from playing terrorists and doctors to playing round characters with inner lives and backstories. The systemic inequities and power imbalances have not disappeared, but we have also tried to not focus on them in order to be able to walk into audition rooms and be our best, most playful selves.

A few years ago, Salma started producing films as a way of having more agency (Black Man Films) and creating change, and I started writing (the screenplay “Preeti Popped It,” winner of the 1497 Features lab award). 

When Salma heard about “Life of Pi” she immediately wanted to be seen for it, and proactively submitted herself. The novel on which it is based is one of her favorite books and she was excited to be considered for the stage adaption. 

I, on the other hand, wasn’t interested at first. The summer of 2022 had been a very busy one for me, with a few off-Broadway shows at major theaters. I had been excited to be once again doing in-person theater but by the end of the summer, had become frustrated by what seemed like business as usual wrapped in lip service to DEI principles. However, my team pushed me to at least consider the project, so I read the script and once I had, I began to feel as excited as Salma.

The theater is a wondrous art form and it is also incredibly demanding. When it is at its best the work is fulfilling; actors feel like they are part of something larger than themselves and are creating magic together with the audience. At its worst the work is grueling and frequently physically injurious; the hours are long and the pay is often pitiable and not a living wage in NYC (unless it’s a Broadway production contract). Until recently the theater was also rife with abusive directors.

There is a mythology around the theater, namely that it is “grounding” and that it is the truest art form in acting, but the reality is that most theater artists are usually subsidizing their theater careers with other jobs (and therefore, technically subsidizing the $5 billion-a-year theatre industry). It has also been our experience until recently that South Asian actors were not treated with value and respect. 

The script of “Life of Pi” though, was incandescent. The words were leaping off the page, and I could sense the potential for enchantment. Moreover, the script was written by Lolita Chakrabarti, a trailblazing South Asian woman revered in the industry for her work as an actor, activist and writer. I decided to audition.

Salma was on her way back from a film festival when she got a callback for the show. She auditioned from the parking lot of an Applebees — “there was a Patel Brothers across the street. I took it as a good luck sign since the lead character Pi’s last name is Patel.”

When I walked into the audition room and saw Lolita Chakrabarti sitting across the table I forgot there was anyone else present. I squealed and babbled that I was a huge fan, and loved her work and was so honored to be in the same room. She smiled politely, and introduced herself and the other creatives in the room — the West End producers and the highly regarded directors, Max Webster and Finn Caldwell. 

Max started working with me in the room. I was so moved by the immense level of respect accorded to me as a potential collaborator and to the script, that I knew the show would be special and I wanted to be a part of it. Here was a world-renowned director truly interested in my opinion, and what I might bring to the table. 

After several rounds of auditions over a few days, I got the offer for the job. I was overjoyed. I knew many of my friends had also auditioned and I wondered who I might be working with. Salma soon messaged me and and said she had gotten an offer as well.

We showed up on the first day of rehearsal prepared to be amazed. And we were. There was Betsy Rosen, one of the foremost puppeteers in New York. Rajesh Bose, who has played virtually every conceivable South Asian male role in the American theatrical canon, was present. Sathya Sridharan, who has helped develop countless new plays, was in the room. Our backgrounds were diverse — actors, dancers, motion capture artists, martial artists — as were our gender, ethnic, racial and religious identities. There was the kind of electric feeling in the air that you get when you know that every single person present is absolutely necessary to tell the story.

“Life of Pi” is a story about survival and the stories we tell ourselves. In it, a young Indian boy faces immense hardship and uses his imagination to survive. It highlights the importance of loving families, kindness, the life of the mind and playfulness. The rehearsal room was set up in a way to support this larger-than-life storytelling.

The creative team stressed that they wanted a workspace where people felt comfortable enough to raise uncomfortable questions so that we could all work fearlessly. They emphasized that they didn’t want us to be afraid to fail and that they welcomed all input. Salma and I have both been in rooms where people have said similar things and used words like “safe space” but have acted to the contrary, but as the weeks went on, we realized that this team genuinely meant it. 

One of my favorite moments is five minutes before showtime. During technical rehearsals when we were putting the show together with sound, lights, and automation, we realized how tired we all were and how this could manifest in irritability or snappiness at our colleagues.

Respect and curiosity are both contagious. These values were set up as a paradigm for us to delve into a story of immense trauma and bravery. For example, we were encouraged to use our natural accents — whatever that meant — and we discussed the different pronunciations of words — how things might be pronounced or phrased in India vs the U.S. v Britain and what worked for us as actors from different backgrounds, and what also served the story and our American audiences. 

Salma has often been told she’s “not Indian enough” (she is very fair and speaks with a Midwestern American accent) and I have frequently been castigated in auditions and rehearsals for my natural accent (a Punjabi Indian accent), so having this freedom to play from our most authentic selves was liberating. 

We started every day with an intense physical warm-up led by either Scarlet Wilderink or Fred Davis, two of the Olivier-award-winning actors from the West End production of “Life of Pi.”

The characters are portrayed both by actors and animal-sized puppets made from driftwood. We needed this conditioning, as we work on an inclined stage — a rake — that is taxing on the calves and hamstrings and some of the actors are inhabiting the bodies of the puppets. There are two or three actors/puppeteers operating each large-scale puppet. One puppeteer, the “heart”, is surrounded by the puppet, literally embodying it, while another moves the head and a third the tail and hindquarters, both directly with their hands, all of which work together to make the puppet seem like a living organism. One of the stars of the show is a tiger puppet. 

To quote Davis, “I think it’s very easy with puppetry to make it cuddly and friendly and almost Disneyfied,” said. “The key to a character (like the tiger) is to play the reality of the danger of that animal as much as you can.” Portraying that danger means that humans have to try and move as fast as the animal might, and tap into the primal energy of an apex predator. 

Salma and I spend most of our time playing human characters, even though we each do a little puppetry. Salma portrays an unconventional science-loving Auntie in a sari (Dr. Ana Mani, anyone?) and a Muslim character who positively influences Pi’s spirituality, and I portray a concerned mother who, with her husband, runs a zoo. 

On the days we weren’t called for rehearsal, the two of us often found ourselves going to rehearsal anyway, just so that we could observe the main puppeteers’ work. We saw them learning to breathe together and think as one being in order to move together. Each puppetry rehearsal was a masterclass in acting, listening and responding to one’s colleagues. 

When Salma and I now handle the puppets, we find ourselves using many of our senses: visual, oral, aural, and tactile, to get cues about how to move so that, for instance, three people look like one believable orangutan. If we are all in sync together, the puppet animal that we are takes on life and the audience forgets about the humans involved. This makes all the ice baths and daily applications of arnica more than worth it.

American Repertory Theater (A.R.T) at Harvard University, the theater that is hosting “Life of Pi” is renowned for its artistry and for often being the originating ground for Broadway shows (“Pippin,” “Waitress,” “Jagged Little Pill”). During the pandemic, they did a deep dive into their values and how they wanted to treat their visiting artists. Both Salma and I found that this translated to a level of care unprecedented in our regional theater careers. It felt like the theater was saying “we know this is a tough, big show and we are going to take care of you” whether that meant hand-preparing Thanksgiving meals for the out-of-town actors or making sure we had what we needed to do our best work. 

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Witnessing this deep investment in the show and the humans made both of us want to extend ourselves even more in the rehearsal process. This level of care showed up in attention to detail; whether a sari was draped right and was reflective of the time period, and whether actors were getting enough rest or enough rehearsal time. 

The eight-hour, six-days-a-week rehearsal period has now ended and the show has opened. However, the entire team of actors is comprised of people who want to give their best. 

Our lead, Adi Dixit, is a young South Asian actor adored by the cast for his sweetness. This is his first big show. It is not unusual to find him and other cast members arriving early at the theater to look at specific moments and continually try to deepen them. 

A typical day for Salma now involves the gym, her film production work, touching base with her son, and getting ready for the show. I use my time similarly. I write and look at my “Life of Pi” script during the day. I might go for a swim or a walk, and then head to the theater two and a half hours early. 

This time is essential for me to warm up physically, and get in the right frame of my mind for the show. I work out my wrists and joints for puppetry and focus on my core, and then go to fight call where a colleague and I safely rehearse some stage violence with a fellow actor, a fight captain. I then get wigged, an elaborate process, and get into costume and makeup. 

One of my favorite moments is five minutes before showtime. During technical rehearsals when we were putting the show together with sound, lights, and automation, we realized how tired we all were and how this could manifest in irritability or snappiness at our colleagues. In the midst of a day when we were behind schedule and the automation was misbehaving despite our hardworking crew’s best efforts, our stage manager Sharika Niles suggested that we all come together for a few minutes before the show. “We’ve all worked so hard to build this special community; it would be great if we could just touch base and breathe together.” 

This is now our ritual before every single show. We gather together as a cast, look at the beautiful group of diverse people who have been brought together to tell this story and Mahnaz Damania, one of our cast members, leads us in the Dhyana Shlokum, a meditative verse in Sanskrit, to focus us. Then Nikki Calonge, a martial artist with dynamite in her belly, leads us in a rousing call and response:  

“What time is it?” she asks
“Showtime!” we respond.
“WHAT time is it?” she yells
“SHOWTIME” we roar back. 

And then we go onto the stage and let the show take flight.

It is gratifying to be a part of this group, to witness everyone’s rigor and generosity and to know that on stage we are all going to be working in sync to bring this young Indian boy’s journey to life. Since the beginning of our careers, Salma and I had both always hoped something like this was possible but didn’t know if it was probable. As she says, “It’s been a long time coming.” 

“Life of Pi” opened recently in Boston to great reviews and standing ovations. And the cast was in its entirety, 22-strong with 10 South Asian actors, offered Broadway contracts. For many of the cast and all the South Asian actors, including Salma and myself, this will be our Broadway premiere. We could not be more proud. 

Mahira Kakkar is an Indian American award-winning actress and writer. She was recently awarded an NYSCA writing grant to develop a series of plays on the Mahabharata in association with Rattlestick Theater, and can be seen as a recurring on the show “Manifest.”

Salma Qarnain Shaw is a Pakistani American, Helen Hayes Award-winning, and AUDELCO-nominated actress and producer. Her current short film, “Silent Partner,” qualified for the Oscars, and she recurs on “That Damn Michael Che” on HBO Max. She believes in a strong educational foundation for all and holds degrees from Stanford, MIT, and Harvard Business School.

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