Lindsey Huebner interviews Lolita Chakrabarti, who has been tasked with bringing Life of Pi to the stage. They talk puppets and oh so wonderful, rewrites…

It would be an understatement to say that Lolita Chakrabarti is a busy woman. As I write this, she is in the north of England for the openings of not one but two separate plays in two separate cities. I am rather fittingly sat by the side of Regent’s Canal in London – an accidental immersion in the nautical nature of this story. Chakrabarti and I connect via phone almost a country apart to talk about the process of adapting Yann Martel’s beloved Life of Pi for the Sheffield Crucible.

Chakrabarti has many strings to her bow. She started as an actor approximately thirty years ago and in that time, has enjoyed a successful career on stage and screen. She began writing twenty years ago and her first full length play Red Velvet was originally produced at the Tricycle Theatre in 2012, remounted in 2014 and since then has been performed internationally. The play has even made its way onto the syllabus for A-level drama as well as University courses throughout America and the UK. Chakrabarti admits this is, “not bad for a first play.”

Approximately three years ago, Simon Friend, a commercial producer in London, attained the theatrical rights to Life of Pi and approached Chakrabarti to see if she’d be interested in adapting the novel for the stage. Chakrabarti says, “I absolutely jumped at it without really realising what an epic, huge, enormous task I was setting myself. I think the fact that I really enjoyed the book was the reason and it’s good to love what you’re doing because it holds you.” Three years and many workshops and rewrites with a stellar creative team later, Pi’s story is about to grace the stage for the first time.

For those unfamiliar with Yann Martel’s modern classic, Life of Pi follows the story of Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel, an Indian Tamil boy from Pondicherry. In the wake of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declaring ‘The Emergency,’ Pi’s family decide to sell their zoo and emigrate (with the zoo’s few remaining animals) to Canada. A few days after setting sail however, they encounter a violent storm that sinks their ship. Pi escapes on a small lifeboat with an injured zebra, a spotted hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Chakrabarti notes that adapting the piece for the stage contained both joys and challenges. She says, “I enjoyed the book so much I never questioned the dramatic structure or the story of it. I just thought, ‘that works.’” The challenges arose when adapting the piece for the stage. The book is in large part narrated by Pi himself and is subject to his version of events. In adapting for the stage, Chakrabarti had to make the subjective concrete. She says, “In structuring it into a three hour theatre piece, it needs to pack a punch that’s different to the book. In adapting it, I had to give purpose, reason and action to every thing on stage. That was a real challenge.”

In this production, the animals on Pi’s lifeboat are represented by puppets designed by Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes and brought to life by the inspired movement direction of Caldwell. Throughout the workshopping process, Chakrabarti, Caldwell and director Max Webster worked together to bring the many storytelling elements of this piece together. Of this process, Chakrabarti says, “It was great to work out that everything needs its time. If you give a puppet too much time without story or conversation, we lose the direction we’re travelling in. But then if you talk over the puppets, you don’t have enough time to really enjoy them. So it’s been a real balancing of different skills. It has been truly collaborative.”

I ask Chakrabati what audiences can expect from the production: “Somebody said to me yesterday, ‘this is total theatre.’ This is a modern classic book that has an emotional, beautiful story at the heart of it. You’ll have a really good time, but you’ll also have a challenging night. It’s got a bit of everything in the right sort of way and it’s magical. The actors are wonderful and they’re working their socks off – they play everything from mothers and fathers and friends to stars and fish and a turtle. They’re a startling cast.”

Even up to the final week before opening, Chakrabati’s work is not done. She says: “I re-wrote yesterday; I re-wrote this morning: from the first moment I started, I’ve been writing.” Our interview draws to a close and it is time I allow her to return to her pre-opening excitement and all the textual tweaking that accompanies it. I am left to my canal-side contemplation of this “constantly moving feast for the senses,” brought to life by a village of powerhouse creatives. A narrowboat passes by and I find myself wondering if it could fit a fully-grown Bengal tiger like Richard Parker. I think it is best for the inhabitants of the boat this remains a mystery.

Life of Pi is playing until 20 July. For more information and tickets, visit the Sheffield Crucible website.