Dirty Work: Find Beauty in the Absurdity of Work

After its successful run in Auckland, Indian Ink is heading to Wellington and Tauranga soon to showcase its new masterpiece, Dirty Work: An Ode to Joy.

Is it possible to find beauty and fun in the repetitive and jaded nature of an office life? Well, Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis, the brains behind the theatre production Indian Ink, proved that it is indeed feasible.

Unlike their previous productions like "Krishnan's Diary" and "The Pickle King," which delved into the connections between individuals and their workspaces in a serio-comedic manner, Dirty Work offers a different perspective.

Work to Live? Live to Work?

In an interview with the Asia Media Centre, Jacob Rajan walked us through the inspiration and the process behind the production. He said the audience will not only experience a joyous feeling after watching the play but will also tap into their existential thoughts and raise questions about why we are working. For whom? For what?

Rajan stressed, “We have done a lot of research, there’s a myth behind all of this called the Myth of the Sisyphus – the Greek story of the king who was condemned in hell, his task was to push a rock up a hill. When he got to the top of the hill – the rock pulls down again and he would have to do this for eternity.

“So, this idea of Sisyphus and the Sisyphean tasks is really the idea of work, we have to get up, do the same thing - over and over and over again. And in the modern work patterns that we have, people will voice that this is your purpose, this is your meaning.”

“We are also inspired by this French philosopher, Albert Camus, who wrote an essay on the Myth of Sisyphus, and Camus is an existentialist, and he was talking about this idea of purpose and the whole idea of human beings finding purpose is absurd that we live on these rocks spinning around the ball of fire, and we’re monkeys with car keys, basically.”

“We’re just here existing in this chaos, and finding purpose is kind of like a ridiculous delusion. So, we love that essay and we kind of like taken his idea and run with it and amplify the absurdity within the office.”

Colorful stage design of Dirty Work. Photo. Supplied.

The story unfolds within the office of Sisyphus International's Auckland branch, part of a global business conglomerate headquartered in Bangalore, India.

The stage, designed by John Verryt, features office cubicles interspersed with artificial potted plants and partitions adorned with vibrant red, yellow, and green spray paint. A manager's desk and stylised office window backdrop complete the set.

There are four main characters in the play, and they are Joy, the cleaner, played brilliantly by Catherine Yates, who tidies up discarded wrappers and food containers at the workstations.

The slightly bumbling yet enthusiastic office manager Neil (played by Justin Rogers) arrives, explaining that the staff must reconcile accounts for an imminent board meeting.

Zara (Tessa Rao), Neil's office assistant with a romantic interest, returns from travels in India. As office workers assemble, they discover their computers are missing due to an upgrade.

A video call from the company's founder, Vijay Kumari (voiced by Jacob Rajan), adds pressure to gather crucial data for the upcoming meeting. Unfazed by the computer absence, Neil rallies his team to manually reconcile accounts and impress his boss.

Rajan explained some of the characters in the play and what to expect from them,” So, we’ve got your classic middle manager who is a very stressed guy who is trying to wrangle his office workers and get the best out of them with the usual kind of business type that we have these days.”

“Another aspect of the show is this whole nature of work and how it has been kind of, in the recent kind of times, it has been more and more pushed to be your meaning or your purpose as a way to get you more productive – to say ‘look you’re working, you’re part of the family, you’re part of a team’ - all these words to try and kind of get more out of the chickens, basically. But to delude people into the idea that this thing they’re doing is actually who they are.”

“The middle manager represents the guy who’s trying to get their best out of his workers. But he’s also under-pressure from the Uber boss. You know the boss that you never see, the guy zooming in occasionally and terrifying people with asking the impossible.”

“The Uber boss directs the middle manager to do things that he doesn’t know how to do. I think we have all been in that situation where we were just flying from the seat of our pants and trying to fulfil something we really didn’t understand. So, our poor middle manager in the play has to do that.”

Since the main boss is based in Banglore and accustomed to the hierarchal system in India, audience will also witness a culture clash between Kiwi workforce and an Indian boss abroad.

Rajan added, “The boss, like Steve Jobs, who founded the company is based in Banglore. So, one of the branch offices is in New Zealand and is struggling to survive, while the boss who’s never know nor seen New Zealand before rings in with his demands, and of course he came from an Indian hierarchal structure. So, that’s part of the clash. So, there is mentioned of the class system and that culture clash between Kiwis and Indians occur in the workplace.”

“While the middle manager in New Zealand tried his best to convince his team that all workers efforts are being valued by the company, he gets a head-to-head heated argument with big boss in India.”

Tessa Rao as Zara, the free-spirited, middle manager's assistant. Photo. Supplied.


Risky Musical Twist 

Apart from the four major roles in the play, they will be accompanied by a choir, which acts as the workforce in the office. However, as the plot thickens, so does the surprise because every show has a new chorale group.

An ambitious take, but worth the risk.

Rajan admitted that their approach is a bit insane: “Sure, it is the most ambitious, biggest, slightly bonkers idea we have ever attempted up to 25 people onstage and only four of them read the script…. It’s completely nuts. But the 20 of these people are community choir, so they turn up to the theatre about an hour or an hour and half before the show starts – they’ve rehearsed a lot of songs – but they had no idea about the part they are playing in the story.”

“And so, the cast are office workers, in an office, so they are given a (shore sheet) and the show begins. That’s all they know. And it’s a fresh choir every night. So, the choir is rotating.”

“We put the call out, they have to be a certain calibre of singers, they have to be good singers, able to read music and do all of that – the sopranos, alto, tenor, whatever part they are. But they come to the mass choir rehearsals, we then form many choirs out of those people, putting them into their parts, give them the night they going to turn up, then they do the show.”

“There is a script, but the choir never get to see it. The actors who play the boss and the cleaner and one of the workers, they hold the story, and the choir just watching it unfold in real time, as they ingeniously manoeuvre through our stage management and technical team who told what to do, without the audience knowing that they are actually completely unrehearsed.”

Rajan and Lewis have done this improvised production before, but only once. They’ve received great reviews; therefore, they decided to make it into a huge production and embark on a roadshow around North Island.

Since their idea is new, at first no one would like to sign up for it, according to Rajan.

“It’s not for everybody, this idea. The choirs that signed up for this is up for a little risk, a little adventure. We actually found out that when you turn up at a theatre and not rehearsed – you are terrified going on the stage, and you are just clinging on for dear life to get your songs sung at the right time. To get the instructions to do them to the best of your ability so you have no idea of the story actually within one go.”

“To answer your question, it is not for everyone. The choirs that signed up for this is up for a little risk, a little adventure. But having done it, they tell their friends because they say look, ‘we’re taken care of, there’s actually no danger, we’re not humiliated or anything like that,’ so people are signing up more and more as the word gets out," he added.

Actress Catherine Rates play the role of cleaner at Dirty Work. Photo. Supplied.

While the production touches on workplace dissatisfaction and the impact of neoliberal logic, it also presents a more optimistic perspective on finding satisfaction in the struggle of work itself.

In its celebration of individual contributions and dignity within the workforce, the play distinguishes between different types of work—manual labour versus white-collar office tasks. It acknowledges the value of workers while avoiding the romanticization of work itself.

So, what would the audience be expecting from the play?

Rajan answered: “You going to have toe tapping tunes by incredibly diverse choirs. But you also got a story that celebrates, finding joy in the workplace.”

“Hopefully, after watching the show and you go to work on the next day, you might have a little smile on your face by remembering some of the things in the show, which are so familiar to everybody who works in a communal space. And how we value our time and our people.”

“One of the things I never really thought about until I started researching this thing was how work actually dictates the time that we have in our lives. The whole idea of weekend was only there because of work, there’s eight hours a day that is completely structured.”

“So, we must squeeze our lives in around that and so our time is measured by how much we spend at work – that I hope people come away realising that time is precious and so we need to spend that in the best way possible.”

Dirty Work: Ode to Joy is a thought-provoking and enjoyable production that explores the relationship between individuals and their work environments. It celebrates the dignity of workers while acknowledging the broader challenges and systemic issues surrounding work.

This week, the production is heading to Wellington at the Sounding Theatre, Te Papa, from August 2 to 11. Then the team will head to Tauranga afterwards, where they will be seen at the Addison Theatre in Baycourt from August 18 to 20.

For further information and tickets, check out this website: https://indianink.co.nz/our-plays/dirty-work/


-Asia Media Centre