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In the rehearsal room of Indian Ink: Changes and Reflections

In the first installment of weekly updates from the Indian Ink rehearsal room, Director Carey Perloff lets us in on working with Playwright Tom Stoppard and experimenting with the staging of the final scenes.

It is always a magical moment when you get to the end of a play for the first time in rehearsal. It happened yesterday in Indian Ink, about two weeks into our rehearsal process. The play, which starts in a very structured way, becomes almost like an impressionist painting by the end, as memories swirl around the stage and disparate threads slowly begin to connect. I first directed Indian Ink sixteen years ago in its American premiere at A.C.T. in San Francisco, and at that time, the play ended with our heroine Flora Crewe getting back on a train in India and reading an excerpt from a famous British travel diary by Emily Eden about the absurdities of the British Raj. At the time, Tom Stoppard and I weren't entirely happy with that conclusion, but we were unsure how to change it. In the intervening years, we have worked together often, and developed a kind of short hand for collaborating on a text. When we came together this spring to begin working on Indian Ink again, it was suddenly clear that the most important thing was to finish out the love relationship between Flora and Das, and to end with how that had released Flora as a poet, rather than ending on a political note.

Of course that meant Tom had to find another place in the script for the Emily Eden, because the collision of British and Indian interests during the Raj is a big theme of the play and didn't want to get lost. What it also meant is that we could end with Flora saying her last letter from Jummapur, in which she tells us "perhaps my soul will stay behind, as a smudge of paint on paper, as if I had always been here, Like Radha, the most beautiful of the herdswomen, undressed for love in an empty house". Tom didn't specify where Flora would be when she said this... it was almost as if her ghost had emerged on stage.

Early this week, we slowly worked our way through the last beautiful little love scene in which Nell comes to visit her sister's grave and falls in love with Eric, while her older self (Rosemary Harris) watches and remembers. And then the biographer Eldon Pike wandered through the cemetery looking for Flora's grave. And suddenly we realized that it was possible for all of the characters in the play, everyone whose lives she had touched, could also in some way be present in this final moment... so we experimented with a variety of ideas, starting with just the biographer Pike and Eleanor being on stage watching Flora, and then adding various other characters. Then it occurred to me that we could wipe the scene with our diaphanous curtain and light through it to discover the world of Flora's imagination through the curtain, with all of the characters we have met in the course of the play lit behind the curtain.

I'm waiting to hear what my lighting designer Robert Weirzel has to say about that, and I'm sure we will try many different versions of this idea before we put the play in front of audiences in September. But the moment in which, at the end of a long rehearsal day, our Flora (Romola Garai) appeared through the pocket door in the back wall and told us her last letter, inviting us to remember the painting of Radha that she had loved so much and touching upon all the mysteries of Indian art evoked in the play, was a magical one. We could see the theatrical imagination of a wonderful playwright at work, inviting us into a world we had known nothing about two hours before and now felt totally immersed in. And by getting a sense of where the journey would end, we could then go back to the beginning and continue to figure out how to get there.

The amazing thing about rehearsing in New York is what is at your fingertips at any given moment: after rehearsing that last scene and thinking about all of the paintings mentioned in the play, I walked over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see two exquisite little exhibitions, one ofIndian miniatures depicting music and love, and one of pre-Raphaelite paintings. Both figure hugely in Indian Ink, and I hope somehow the beauty of those paintings will find its way onstage in our production.

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.

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