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By Ravi Jain, Artistic Director, Why Not Theatre
At present, theatre audiences in Toronto are not always reflective of the cultural make up of this city. While there are many funders, artists and institutions working to address this, challenges remain.
Our theatres, for the most part, are led by people who have grown up with a Canadian perspective. For them, it makes sense to program a show by George Bernard Shaw with Christopher Plummer, a classical playwright and a star actor; this is a formula that has worked for 50 years. While there are of course exceptions, for the most part, our theatres have not strayed too far from the model. However, in our diverse city, where nearly half of residents are born outside of Canada, many cultures do not have a reference point for either George Bernard Shaw or Christopher Plummer.
I want to shift the paradigm in order to provoke the relevance of theatre in society as well as make it more interesting and fun. I have the privilege of living in a city where I can do this. I am part of a unique hybrid generation that speaks more than one language and that identifies with more than one culture. As a theatre artist, I am interested in the role of theatre in reflecting who we are as a culture. Looking at who is going to the theatre is often the best measure of how we are doing.
Last year, I started asking some provocative questions. What would it look like if a major institution programmed a play in Mandarin? Or Portuguese? Or Greek? Or Urdu? If one show in a season was programmed in another language, would it not offer more opportunity to different artists, different voices, perspectives and audiences? How hard could it be to produce theatre that is more reflective and inclusive of how Toronto is changing? What if someone took a risk and cast a Bollywood star in the same play by George Bernard Shaw, or put a play in Urdu on a mainstage?
I decided to take that risk.
This month my theatre company, Why Not Theatre, is producing two shows in Toronto at the new Regent Park Arts and Cultural Centre. The shows are from Mumbai and star Bollywood Superstar Naseeruddin Shah and his wife Ratna Patak Shah (a famous Indian film and TV star). One show, Dear Liar, is an American play based on the life of George Bernard Shaw, performed in English. It is the first time in the history of Canadian Theatre where a non-white actor will play George Bernard Shaw.
The second play, Ismat Apa Ke Naam, is based on a collection of three short stories by Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991), whose strong feminist ideology made her one of India’s most beloved, successful and controversial writers of her time. We are bringing this show back after a one night sold out run of 850 seats with a 200 person waiting list in 2011. It will be performed in Urdu.
As an artist and theatre producer, I consider that success.
As a Torontonian, I consider our city’s ability to lead through innovation in the arts a great source of pride.