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December 2004
The Life of Pi
Four
Life of Pi: "Four messiahs walking water."
Award-winning Canadian author, Yann Martel is coming to Bradford to attend a performance of the exclusive stage adaptation of his novel The Life of Pi at the Alhambra Studio on Tuesday 30th November.
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Bradford Theatres' theatre-in-education company, Twisting Yarn, is the only company in the UK permitted to stage the story, and have very successfully toured the production across the country this Autumn.

The play's central character is a young Hindu boy called Pi, who has taken the unusual step of embracing Muslim and Christian doctrines in his search for God. His family own a zoo back in their native India. It is only natural that they should choose take along their beloved animals when they migrate to Canada. However, the ship sinks and Pi is left stranded in the lifeboat with a hyena, orang utan, tiger and a zebra.

Artistic Director Keith Robinson talks to Pete Keane to tell us more about the production:

What is it about Life of Pi that made you want to stage it?

Tiger from Life Of Pi
Pi lives in a zoo
Well, it's an amazing story, but one that starts with its roots on the Indian sub continent, told through the eyes of a very unusual boy who grows up and whose life adventures are extraordinary.

What first appealed was the magic of the setting and the fact that Pi takes on three non-compatible religions simultaneously. It is one of the few books I have ever read that discusses religion in a fun and different way and all this seems particularly relevant given this is a time when religious polarities seem to be becoming more prominent. When I had finished the book, I just thought that it was such an amazing story, that I would love to try to stage it.

What do you think makes the production special?

It is a simple – but faithful - adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel. Its simplicity adds to its charm and the story flows naturally. It catches you up not only in the heat of India, but also in the loneliness of the ocean.

Also, it is the only production of this novel allowed in the UK.

The book was actually written for adults. How have you been able to make it accessible to a younger audience?

We haven’t changed anything. The main protagonist is a boy – it is his story. He lives in a zoo. The fact that the story is told through his eyes, I think, makes it accessible to young people. The story also works on many different levels. It also has all the magic of theatre that appeals to young people

Have you remained faithful to the original ideas and themes?

Yes. Obviously we have had to abridge a 300 page epic novel into a 1.75 hour play so some areas are not dealt with as fully as in the original book but we have not avoided the more difficult areas such as the floating carnivorous island and the cannibalism with the blind Frenchman.

When the production was in its development stage did you improvise with the performers or were all the scenes developed in your head beforehand ?

Tiger from Life Of Pi
Pi is left stranded in a lifeboat
Initially we had a small production team on board consisting of me, our designer Naomi Parker, and the writer / adaptor Andy Rashleigh. We talked ideas and discussed and argued about the book – how to interpret it and then how to stage it. The auditions took the form of a twoday workshop in which we explored ideas with the auditionees. By the time the cast was assembled we had quite a clear picture and a good draft script for the first half (before leaving India) but it was clear that a lot of the second half (at sea) would have to be worked out in rehearsal. The end of the play was worked out by the whole team through discussion and improvisation and constantly referring back to the source novel.

You have already mentioned that you do not charge for your school age audiences. How is that possible on tour?

When we were granted the rights to stage Life of Pi, one of the conditions of the agreement was that we were not to charge admission so this was not a problem for us with the performances here at our home base in Bradford. However, touring outside became problematic in terms of cost to us. The reason the production is touring to Derry and Belfast in Northern Ireland and to Wolverhampton in England is down to generous funding from those cities who have a vision and belief in this type of thing ie: that it is an opportunity for young people to see exciting live theatre and for free.

Why do you think this adults are often drawn to children’s theatre? Was this your experience with your 2003 tour?

I don’t know what you mean by children’s theatre. Our company remit is to provide a quality theatre experience for young people. Twisting Yarn normally takes or creates exciting, challenging stories and makes them into exciting challenging theatre. Exciting challenging theatre works for any age, whether child or adult. Certainly with Life of Pi, the adults loved it too, especially the aficionados of the book.

Once the initial Alhambra Studio dates are over, what are your plans?

In general Twisting Yarn tours three projects into schools each year and covers all age ranges. Our plans for the spring are to tour a production for five and six-year-olds which is called the Carefree Companions of the Caliph of Cordoba, about the golden age of Spain when the Muslims, the Christians and Jews all lived and worked happily together.

How long have you been working as a practitioner of theatre in education ?

On and off for 27 years!

What is it about theatre in education that you enjoy?

I enjoy working with young people in general and I love trying to give young people some of the theatrical experiences that I was lucky enough to have grown up with. It is more that I love theatre and want other people to share that experience.

Give me three good reasons why I think local authorities should support theatre in education initiatives?

Life Of Pi
"It is one of the few books I have ever read that discusses religion in a fun and different way."
We get onto dodgy ground here! What is "theatre in education"? There are a lot of companies going around purporting to be this and often local authorities will employ them to “tick boxes." What I mean by this is that a council may decide it wants to tackle an issue and then get a company in to blast this through schools. These companies tour nationally out of the boot of a car employing a couple of young actors who are often underpaid (their sets usually look like something from a car boot sale too!).

This is what I call “theatre with a message” and I don’t like it. I don’t like it for several reasons – mainly because it is usually poor quality, a bad theatrical experience and it doesn’t work – young people see through it. Certainly for myself, I know that when I was at school, everything I was told not to do – I was tempted to go out and do, and I suspect that this is a fairly universal reaction. What I call “issue based theatre” is not quite so bad as “theatre with a message” because it tries to make the audience think about something, without cheating them down some didactic path. I believe we can only ask the questions and let young people decide the answers for themselves.

Twisting Yarn is special and unique in the country on several levels. To my knowledge it is the only creating company for young people that works out of a “receiving” theatre – by that I mean a theatre that takes in tours of plays produced elsewhere. Secondly it is the only company left in the country that currently does its work without charging young people or schools. More importantly we are in demand in schools precisely because we do not do ”message based” patronising theatre. We are recognised for challenging young people theatrically with our projects and inspiring teachers with our creativity. All our work is multi-cultural, and often multi-lingual, to represent the communities here in Bradford that make up our audience.

Finally. What can people expect when they come to see Life of Pi?

A cracking good show that will transport them away from the every day reality into places they can go only in their imaginations. A show based on an amazing story which will make them ask questions afterwards. I don’t know of anyone who has either read the book or seen the show who has not ended up talking about it afterwards – whether in the playground or in the pub!

Pete Keane

Public performances in Bradford: Friday, October 8th (7pm), Saturday, October 9th (4pm, 7pm), Friday, Novermber 26th, Thursday, December 2nd (7pm)

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