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Inside the Violently Beautiful, Violently Funny World of “Guards at the Taj”

Director Giovanna Sardelli. Photo by Amanda Embry.

Director Giovanna Sardelli. Photo by Amanda Embry.

During one of director Giovanna Sardelli’s conversations with Rajiv Joseph about Guards at the Taj, which is set in 1600s India, he proposed an unorthodox suggestion.

“’There’s a version of this play that can so be done with the two characters dressed as Laurel and Hardy,’” Sardelli remembers, laughing. “He quickly followed that up with, ‘Not this one! But it could be done.’”

That Sardelli chuckled instead of freaking out is testament to the frequency of the two’s collaborations and the level of trust they’ve established. She directed his first professional production, Huck & Holden, as well as the world premieres of a handful of his other plays.

“Rajiv has one of the most fertile imaginations. He can take you to places you just didn’t think possible,” she says. Here, we discuss their collaborative process, the inequality women face in theater and why Guards at the Taj is such an important play right now.

What drew you to this play in particular?
For the longest time, I just knew Rajiv was working on the play and was passionate about it. But I didn’t know much about it. His passion for this, the years of development he did with the two guys from New York, really started intriguing me. I think the writing is so fine, and he’s playing with something — it’s a different style of writing than anything I’ve encountered of his. What’s he’s exploring and the possibilities of these two characters and the story intrigue me.

What were the conversations you and Rajiv had around the play and its direction?
[Laughs] I’m laughing because very little, in some regard! It’s tricky — I don’t want to give away too much! What we talked about in the direction was curiosity, stretching the truth, what’s possible in this world. Could it do this other thing? So really the direction was just questions about: “I’m curious if the play I wrote can do ___.” I’m sorry to be so vague!

That’s true in any play with a shocking development, or reveal — how do you talk about it without talking about it?
Right — what if we decide the play can’t be funny and change it two previews in? Then it’s a weird program note.

I think that’s something interesting theatergoers don’t always know — how much does the script change throughout the rehearsal process?
Typically, it would change a lot. But this one is in such good shape. He had so much development before it went in production and it changed throughout that rehearsal. But it’s already been published, so there have been no changes. And I’ve never done a Rajiv Joseph play where that’s the case. So this is a first!

Speaking of that, you two have worked together on so many projects. How has this collaboration been different?
It’s a little different because he was here in the beginning and we talked about things he wanted to explore, questions he had — and then he left. The next time he’ll see it is with an audience. And that comes from our years of working together. I know his taste. He knows that what he sees will be within his world. That’s from years and years of my finding out what he likes and doesn’t like and what he believes is possible in theater.

Besides the “reveal” we were just talking about, what are some of the special challenges you’ve encountered with this play?
The deceptive size of it. There’s a cast of two and at its core, it’s about something “simple.” And then the world of this play just keeps cracking open and asking more and more of every single person involved in the telling of the story as well as the audience. This play asks everybody to go on the journey.

How does your personal process work?
I very much sign on to the story. I feel like I have a sense of the dynamic of the story. And then, because my training is as an actor, I trust actors so much. I love to watch them play. Part of it is unleashing their curiosity and keeping the room invested in creating options for storytelling, for relationships. My preference is to invite everyone to imagine and play and keep taking the best ideas in the room, wherever they come from.

What’s it been like in the room with Ramiz and Raffi?
I’ve never seen actors pick up signals as fast as these two do. One says something, the other says yes and they run with it. We’re so lucky. The actors in New York were so great and that tradition will continue here in L.A. — and that excites Rajiv, to know it won’t be the same as it was in New York, but it will be just as good.

A play’s success is so contingent on who you invite to tell the story. Casting is always so important, but especially in a two hander — their dynamic is your story. Ramiz is an actor we worked with early in our careers, in The Leopard and the Fox, and he was stunning. He’s a goofball, a big kid. We always marveled how he would come to rehearsal in these big baggy pants and then become believable as Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan. So when it came time to cast this, we said, “Oh yeah, we want him.” Then we asked him who he liked to play with. He gave us some names, and Raffi was one of those. Raffi had to audition by tape, and I have never cast someone solely off tape. But you can see even from the tape that he’s cut from the same cloth as Ramiz. Very playful, yet still able to go where he needs to go.

There’s a huge uproar right now in L.A. about the inequality women face in Hollywood. Do you see that in theater?
Oh, yeah. Of course. It’s why they started The Kilroys List for women writers, a list of female playwrights whose work is ready to be produced. Women have to work harder to move ahead, harder to keep their careers moving. I think I’ve been really lucky that one of my collaborative partners is Rajiv.

Do you think being a woman is helpful in telling this particular play?
You know, I feel like human beings can direct stories about human beings. I don’t think gender has anything to do with how well you can tell a story, regardless of race or aggressiveness. There are people who would’ve said, “Oh, a man has to direct The Hurt Locker.” This is a play where somebody could believe a man should direct it — but nobody can every say that because so far, it’s Amy [Morton, director of the New York production] and me.

The precedent has been set! Finally, why is Guards at the Taj an important play right now?
I think this play is so important because there’s a timeless question of what is beauty, what do we preserve, what do we sacrifice in the pursuit of whatever we believe is more important? And often, those sacrifices are human. I think this play really explores what’s lost in the choices we can make.

Read American Theatre magazine’s recent interview with Rajiv Joseph here.

Guards at the Taj begins October 6 in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse. To purchase tickets, please click here.

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