Perhaps a bit long and convoluted – with a plot that switches back and forth between the 1930s and 1980s – Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink collected generally favorable reviews in early stagings in London and San Francisco. Once Joy Zinoman gave the play its East Coast premiere in 2000, it garnered rave reviews, enthusiastic audiences, a run that was extended multiple times, and a number of awards.
One reason: through Stoppard’s play, Zinoman was able to renew her emotional connection to Asia.
Joy Zinoman’s connections with theater and with Asia run deep where she lived for fourteen years with her husband, Murray Zinoman, who was in the Foreign Service. Moving around during these overseas years, she used her university training to act, teach and direct theater in Thailand, Laos, Taiwan and Malaysia.
When diplomatic assignments brought the Zinomans back to Washington, Joy co-founded Studio Theatre in 1978 and was its Artistic Director, retiring in 2010.
Throughout her career at Studio, Zinoman remained fascinated by the contrasts and contradictions between western and eastern cultures. Her 2000 production of Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink provided a flawless opportunity to bring her own fascination with cultural contrast to Washington theater audiences.
Stoppard had his own experiences trying to bridge the cultural gap between Europe and Asia. Born in Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II, his family left Europe when the Nazis invaded the country. After landing in Singapore, his father sent his wife and children on to Australia. He subsequently died during the Japanese occupation of Singapore. Tom and his brothers were evacuated from Australia and sent to an American school in Darjeeling, India where they remained throughout the war. His mother married British army officer Kenneth Stoppard, who gave the family his surname and moved them to England following the war.
His childhood as an outsider shaped Stoppard and his career. Starting out as a journalist in the 1950s, he started writing plays for radio, and then stage, during the 1960s. He became widely recognized as one of the premier playwrights writing in English after his successful Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. His works became more emotionally open and more personal with time.
Indian Ink, which premiered in London in 1995, contrasted Indian and European styles of poetry and visual art through the story of British poet Flora Crewe’s travels in India in 1930, when she had her portrait painted by Indian artist Nirad. In the 1980s, Flora’s younger sister set out to discover what had happened to Flora, who had died shortly following the completion of the portrait. The mix of classical Indian styles with Western realism sets out the theme of inter-cultural exchange which runs throughout her sister’s wild trek around India. Stoppard thus provided an ideal vehicle for Zinoman to explore her own experiences of being caught between Asia and the west.
Lloyd Rose, who reviewed the production for the Washington Post, found it to be “a gracious, civilized charmer, a delight.” She continued that “complicated though this [story] may sound, it all coheres shimmeringly, with past and present fading into and mirroring each other.” Rose found the play to be a meditation on “truth” as opposed to “fact” carried by stellar performances, beautiful staging, and amiable storytelling.
She was not alone, as the production won numerous Helen Hayes Awards, including Outstanding Resident Play, Outstanding Director for a Resident Play (Joy Zinoman), Outstanding Lead Actress, Resident Play (Isabel Keating); Outstanding Supporting Actress for a Resident Play (June Hansen), Outstanding Costume Design, Resident Production (Helen Q. Huang); and Outstanding Sound Design, Resident Production (Gil Thompson, Ronobir Lahri).
Stoppard stopped by to catch a matinee and visiting with cast members.
Zinoman’s intercultural sensibility – honed during her years in Asia — added depth and wisdom to the production. Telling the Post’s Sarah Kaufman that “it is hard to make art with strangers,” Zinoman worked hard to create a close-knit, multicultural cast. Drawing on English, American, and Indian actors from New York and Los Angeles, advertising on the internet and posting notices in local Indian restaurants, she recruited additional cast members from the World Bank and the Voice of America together with established Washington performers. She immersed the company in Indian classical dance, period ballroom dances, and a small library of books on colonial India.
Over time, Zinoman created a shared vision that transcended cultural and professional differences. She played out on stage the lessons she – and Stoppard, for that matter – had learned through their extended Asian sojourns. Cross-cultural achievement requires work, understanding, respect, and a spark of magic. The result, in this instance, was, as Rose noted, a play that ‘runs a little long, but it’s an enjoyable longness;” a work in which “the conversational wit and intimacy of [Stoppard’s] plays are their genius.” And Zinoman’s, too.
While at Studio Theatre, Joy Zinoman founded the Studio Acting Conservatory, which she continues to guide from its Columbia Heights location.