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Jacob Rajan: The Business of Art

Indian Ink is celebrating 20 years as one of New Zealand's favourite theatre companies. We speak to Director, Jacob Rajan, about the secrets behind their success.


Artists can be quick to cringe when you start talking about good business practice. As a reader, you might switch off just in response to that first line. However, no one denies that sustainability is one of the biggest challenges facing those seeking a career in the creative sector. Celebrating 20 years as one of New Zealand’s most successful theatre companies, I spoke with Jacob Rajan, the Director at Indian Ink Theatre Company, about their secrets to success. And his answer: good business practice.

“The art of the business”, says Jacob, “is as important as the art itself.” For Indian Ink Theatre Company, this can be broken down into three factors: creating a foundation of good business practice with strong leadership; an incredible team of people connected by a common vision; and the ability to create strikingly brilliant theatre using mask as a tool to tell powerfully human stories.

When I asked Jacob if he had imagined himself still directing Indian Ink 20 years on, he laughed, took a sip of his coffee and said with a twinkle in his eye, “you haven’t heard about our suicide pact?”

When Jacob and founding partner, Justin Lewis, first sat down together and formed Indian Ink Theatre Company, they looked at the industry they were immersed in and noticed that in general, companies survived two to four years. So they made a pact: they would make a series of three plays and then send the company back into oblivion. That was in 1997.

But we’ll come back to that.

Jacob’s story will be familiar to many: his parents wanted him to become a doctor. He “savoured” a science degree, taking the ‘C’s a degree’ approach. Leaving the illustrious hallways of university, he spent a year as a postie trudging the windswept streets of Wellington wondering what to do, before finally deciding on teacher's college which he so delicately describes as “the sinkhole of people who don’t know what they want to do with their life”. So began his gravitation towards drama.

It was at a workshop by Australian theatre maker, John Bolton, that Jacob discovered the power of the mask and the big ‘What am I doing with my life’ question was finally answered. “As soon as I put that on, I was gone. That was it.” A relatively shy man by nature, the mask released Jacob from himself and onto the stage. “It’s not that you’re completely hidden,” explains Jacob, “it amplifies you. I got an enormous confidence that what I was bringing out was what people wanted to see. It’s like my Dumbo’s feather. I can now perform without a mask and understand that there is something that will hold an audience.”

As the first Indian graduate to exit the doors of Toi Whakaari, his options were limited to say the least. “The bulk of the roles I was being cast in were Shakespeare or fantasy plays. Nobody would cast me in a contemporary play with a white family without having to ask some big questions. And there weren’t writers writing plays for me either.” He had little choice but to start writing plays that he could act in himself.

This is around the time when Justin “fell from the sky.”

There is no doubting that these two make a phenomenal team. The way that Jacob speaks about Justin emanates the respect and deep friendship that forms the core of their successful working relationship.

Alongside his skills as an artistic director, Justin brought the business nous. From years of experience touring kids shows, Justin knew the ins and ours of marketing and promotion, how to organise a tour, balance books, and write funding proposals. His role in running the company was so extensive that Indian Ink now has three full time staff that supplement what he does. It was this grounding in business knowledge right from the start that Jacob says is one of Indian Ink’s key secrets to success.

“Indian Ink rises and falls on Justin’s shoulders. You need a vision and a leadership. He is a leader in the business and creation process, but I am his equal. Our superpowers are best when we’re together. He’s the head, and I’m the heart.”

Jacob’s message is clear: “If you’re in it for the long haul, you really need to look at how you run as a business.” And one of the essential ingredients for developing good business, says Jacob, is surrounding yourself with a good team of people who have the skills to do everything that needs to be done so that you can work on your art.

Around 10 years ago, Indian Ink formed an advisory board. Describing them as “five captains of the industry”, Jacob says that this group of “savvy grown-ups” are the ones that ask the hard questions. “As a theatre company, you’re offered heaps of stuff, lots of great opportunities. The Board helps you look where that’s going to get you, how it is part of your long term vision.”

Over the years they have pushed Jacob and Justin to explore new income streams, break into international markets and make hard decisions about when to compromise on business over artistic practice. They recently shifted to a more sustainable business model where Jacob no longer acts in every play they produce. This was a tough business decision to have to make when Jacob’s first love is acting.

“If there were lots of plays, I would just be an actor. Direct engagement with an audience is so utterly addictive. The writing is a necessary part of me being allowed to act. It’s really hard, and it’s kind of lonely. But it was a bad business model to have me in every show. There is limited financial return if I’m involved in everything. And it’s pretty hard on the family. I have three kids and we needed to change that.”

As part of this shift, they have invited recent Toi Whakaari graduates, Kaylani Nagarajan and Vanessa Kumar into the Indian Ink family. Bringing these two into the fold allows Jacob a two show break, while there are still two shows out there generating an income for Indian Ink. Plus, it has opened doors to the next generation of Indian actors who face an improved but still limited landscape of casting opportunities.

Which brings us to the final ingredient in the Indian Ink recipe for success: creating theatre that keeps people coming back for more. Indian Ink are famous for creating larger than life characters who connect to the audience through their desire to find their place in the world. Let’s face it, we all know that feeling.  “We nourish people’s souls”, says Jacob, “that is our mission.”

Each Indian Ink theatre production seems to hold at its  core a pertinent social and political message, something that lingers when you walk away at the end of the performance. However, Jacob says that this is never something that he does consciously. He is wary of preaching.

“The audience sniffs that in a second. If you start on a social issue, it would be deathly. If we have good characters that are rich and live large in the eyes of the audience, inevitably they will reflect some social concern because they are human beings. Those concerns become poetic truths because we operate at the level of mask. It’s not the truth of reality but the large Truth of the metaphor. So they can be utterly ridiculous but it becomes deeply profound when you feel their pain on that scale. That is the poetry of it.”

As part of their 20 year celebrations, Indian Ink are re-touring one of their most popular plays, The Pickle King, with Kaylani and Vanessa in the lead roles. Described as a comedy about love, death and preserves, The Pickle King explores the injustices enveloped in the folds of immigration and globalisation. It has a love story at its heart and this time around that story will revolve around a same-sex couple.

Expecting that re-creating the script around a same-sex relationship would take some time, Jacob put aside a substantial chunk of time to re-write the play. On the first day, he sat down in front of the script and started changing the gender making a few minor tweaks along the way. By the end of the day the whole job was done. “That was a beautiful moment,” Jacob says, “because it’s two people falling in love, it didn’t need anything else done to it to make it powerful. It’s so surprising and moving I think it’s better than the original.”

Upon asking for a final piece of advice to those wanting to pursue a similar career trajectory, again he laughs. “Go into medicine! That’s what I tell my children.” But for those who can’t do anything but theatre, he comes back to the number one rule: find sustainability in good business practice. “I believe in your art.” Jacob assures you, “If you’re passionate enough to pursue it, I don’t even have to see it. But you have to be able to feed it.”

The Pickle King plays:

Wednesday 2 August  - Saturday 19 August

WELLINGTON, Hannah Playhouse
Thursday 24 August - Saturday 9 September


Written by

Hannah Mackintosh

8 Aug 2017

Hannah is a Wellington-based writer, community organiser and lover of stories.