LifeofPi 1200x450
LifeofPi 1200x450

Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti on Life of Pi‘s Voyage to Broadway

The five-time Olivier Award–winning play Life of Pi will set sail on to the Broadway stage early next month. The show, based on the best-selling novel by Yann Martel, has been adapted for the theater by playwright Lolita Chakrabarti. Life of Pi follows the journey of a teenage boy who finds himself drifting in the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with a fearsome Bengal tiger after a shipwreck. NY1 entertainment journalist Frank DiLella recently caught up with Chakrabarti to discuss bringing Life of Pi to the New York stage.

When were you first introduced to the novel?

I read it in 2002, when it came out.

This is a beloved property. Was there any trepidation on your part with taking on this book for the stage?

Foolishly, no. [Laughs.] I loved the book, so I thought I could do that. The main question everyone asked was, How are you going to do the tiger? And I just thought, “We’re going to do it.” Then the first preview in Sheffield [Theatres, in England] happened; just before the preview, I remember feeling fearful, and it suddenly dropped and I thought, “What was I thinking?” So my reaction was a bit delayed.

Original London cast of Life of Pi. Photo by Johan Persson.
Original London cast of Life of Pi. Photo by Johan Persson.

I saw the show in London. You nailed the assignment. What was your process with tackling this story?

I was logical about it. I took a highlighter and I highlighted all the bits in the novel that I felt were interesting and dramatic and had potential for story, and I cut and pasted it all into different categories, like God, Family, Zoo, Faith, Philosophy. The basic premise of the story is pretty simple: It’s a boy who loses his family at sea, survives on a boat, and lives to tell the tale.

What was the most challenging moment to write for the stage?

There are so many. [Laughs.] We had quite difficulty with the zoo scene, which is the second scene of the play. It went through many iterations. The show is so sumptuous, it has so many creative strands in it — puppetry, sound, lighting, music, projection design. There’s so much going on. The zoo is the first bit where all is revealed. So there was this delicate balance of, How do we reveal all these beautiful elements and not overload the audience but still drive the story?

This story went from book to film. Why a play for its next chapter?

A book is such a personal thing, where you sit down and you experience it on your own. A film is such a sumptuous, literal thing where you can see everything and imagine thought and feeling with the picture. A play — it’s a different art form. It allows you to be present in the room while it’s happening. And I think what COVID really made clear for me is how crucial the audience is. The audience plays a very significant role during the play. And it’s their imagination and their going along with the story and their involvement with it that allows the story to fulfill itself.

Rowan Magee, Celia Mei Rubin, and Nikki Calonge in Life of Pi. Photo by Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.
Rowan Magee, Celia Mei Rubin, and Nikki Calonge in Life of Pi. Photo by Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

The puppets in this play are spectacular. What was it like watching them come to life?

It was amazing. We did a workshop with several actors trying out the different elements of the story to see what it is. And the designers had come up with a prototype of the tiger, which was a sort of spine, some legs, and a foam head that looked nothing like the one that we have now. But it had the joints and the movement. And we had to present two vignettes of what we had worked on that week to see what the potential of it was. And even with that prototype puppet, it was an extraordinary thing. There were three puppeteers working the tiger: one inside, one at the legs, and one at the head. And it was the relationship of the tiger with the actor playing Pi — it was just thrilling!

I need to point out you’re not only a playwright — you’re also an actress. Any desire to perform in a show on Broadway?

Nobody has asked me that. YES. it would be wonderful!

Dream project?

I don’t know. I love new writing. I love Shakespeare. I always wanted to play Lady M or Cleopatra.

You’re married to actor Adrian Lester, who was recently nominated for a Tony Award for his work in The Lehman Trilogy. What has Adrian shared with you about working on Broadway, seeing that this is your Broadway debut?

He said it was unlike anything else. And when the audience stood up at the end of his show, it was extraordinary. He loved being in New York.

Hiran Abeysekera in the original London production of Life of Pi. Photo by Johan Persson.
Hiran Abeysekera in the original London production of Life of Pi. Photo by Johan Persson.

What are you looking forward to the most with bringing Life of Pi to Broadway?

 I can’t quite believe it. It’s been an extraordinary journey. It feels like an original story, an original moment where you have a wide, inclusive cast telling a very universal tale about survival and faith and life and shipwreck and hope, and I’m just excited about bringing all the creative strands that we’ve layered into this to Broadway. The show still takes my breath away.

If you could adapt any other book for the stage, what’s the first one that comes to mind?

No. I’m done. [Laughs.] I just adapted the book Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, so I’ve got adaptations up to my eyes at the moment. So I’m going to do something original next.

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