By Meghan Yuri Young
Photography by Max Power
After refusing to be stereotyped, Why Not Theatre’s founding artistic director, Ravi Jain, is passionately working to foster a Toronto theatre scene that’s truly accessible to all voices
Ravi Jain is loud. And for good reason. As a kid, at family functions he had to compete with his aunties and uncles for centre stage. It’s where he discovered his artistic voice — and where his passion for the arts started. The familial stage became bigger when Ravi pursued an arts career. And he grew especially loud when he started making a mark in the Canadian theatre space.
But as a South Asian theatre actor, director, and producer, Ravi was nearly boxed in by stereotypes while simultaneously finding himself boxed out by institutions that didn’t understand him. So, he did what any good Indian son whose parents wanted him to take over the family business would do: He decided to start his own company.
In the process, Ravi made all of Toronto his stage. A piece on Ravi quotes actor Christine Horne, who said, “There’s always a Ravi Jain show you can see.” The writer, May Antaki, responded, “But it’s never the Ravi Jain show.” That’s partly because his focus is on community as much as it is on change.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Meghan Yuri Young (MYY): We’re sitting in Why Not Theatre, which you founded, and which may now be one of my favourite business names. And I can’t help but hone into this child-like response. What led you to embrace the curiosity and playfulness of “why not” as an adult?
Ravi Jain (RJ): I think I’ve always been like that. It’s that phrase you say whenever you come up against any obstacle. When someone says you can’t do something, but you believe you can, you go, “Why not? Let me find another way.” As an artist, I think you have to stay in that state of unknown.
We often stop ourselves from doing so many things because we say, “Oh, I can’t.” The spirit of creating is to constantly be pushing yourself through your own assumptions, through assumptions other people have, in order to remind yourself that you, in fact, can.
MYY: What was your childhood like? Where did you grow up?
RJ: I grew up in Rexdale and then Etobicoke. My parents were immigrants to Toronto. They came in the ’70s, and my childhood growing up was a lot of Indian families gathering every weekend. There was tons of food, tons of stories, tons of singing, and it was all a way to connect to home. Performance is a big part of our culture. I would lip sync Bollywood songs to the guests, and people would entertain in other ways. And it was loud. Everyone’s trying to vie for attention. So, the loudest person would command the space.
MYY: It looks like you took all of that to heart, embracing what it means to be loud and present — having people pay attention to continue not only that sense of community, but also history.
RJ: Totally. And it was like everyone was family. I remember, as a kid, there were people I didn’t even know but would go into their arms because we called everybody aunty and uncle. Community is family. That experience was what I remembered later in life, especially when I started pursuing theatre.
All of a sudden, I was taught to cut myself off from that feeling that made me fall in love with the arts. Instead, I’m supposed to be this actor who’s better than anyone, which went against my upbringing. I grew up with a very supportive family.
“It’s that phrase you say whenever you come up against any obstacle. When someone says you can’t do something, but you believe you can, you go, “Why not? Let me find another way.”
MYY: Is that atypical for an Indian family?
RJ: I would say my parents are maybe kicking themselves a little bit. Yes, it is. But the assumption was always, “After you’re done this, you’re gonna join your father’s business.” They were never so hard about it, but that was the expectation.
MYY: How do they feel now?
RJ: I mean, they’re stubborn. I even made a show with my mother — one of my biggest hits of all time actually.
MYY: What’s it called?
RJ: A Brimful of Asha. It’s the true story of how my parents tried to arrange my marriage. After I finished school, they tried to have my marriage in India. It was horrible. We tell the story of what happened, from both of our perspectives. It’s awesome. My mom’s not a performer, but she’s hilarious.
MYY: Well, you get it from somewhere!
RJ: My parents are hilarious. My mom, when she goes to the bank or the grocery store, she charms people. Yet, even though we’ve toured all around the world and it’s the most successful show, she’s like, “So, really, you’re still doing this.”
MYY: Speaking of touring around the world, you also studied extensively in the States and abroad. Why did you leave and what brought you back?
RJ: My experience of the arts in Canada throughout high school was super limited. I didn’t actually know what was around, but I had read so many plays from the States or around the world. So, in high school, my best friend encouraged me to apply to a school in England. It was a drama school. And I was like, “Sure.” I was 19 and just wanted to be famous. That was really the motivator, you know?
MYY: You weren’t scared to go to another country?
RJ: Reflecting back, no. I think adventure was calling. It was more the curiosity about it all.
MYY: Why not?
RJ: Yeah, exactly. Why not? And, you know, this is 1999. So, no real internet to help find a house, all that stuff. You went with your suitcase, you got into a hostel, and then you hit the papers and started circling. It was a crazy time. The experience you got was kind of romantic as well. I left because I just always felt there was more out there. It was the best thing I could have ever done.
I was in London for a year in drama school. I saw more theatre than I’d ever seen in my entire life because we were getting free tickets. It was like I was eating at the best buffet. The level of artistry I was exposed to really influenced what I thought could be possible. From there, I went to NYU, then got a job in D.C., before flying to France and then coming back home to Toronto.
I had toured and worked with the top theatre artists of all time. And when I came back, it was really strange to be met with a coldness around not only my resume but me as a person. People were like, “You should start a South Asian theatre company,” or “We don’t have parts for you in these plays.” The barriers around race were quick, and I was stunned.
That’s part of what motivated this company. I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna have to do this on my own.” I’ll have to find a way to show people that there’s another way to see me and another kind of work I can make. I had to break a lot of people’s expectations of me.
MYY: You invested not only in yourself but in the city by creating Why Not Theatre.
RJ: Toronto was the perfect city to build a company because when I came back, Luminato also started. That was important because it unlocked what “international” meant for performing arts in Toronto. That energy made the city really important to be in at that time, and it made it possible for me to have the kinds of international conversations I was having here. And, of course, Toronto is an international city.
So, I started presenting work from abroad. I started bringing shows from other theatres that weren’t in English: India, Japan, Brazil, Portugal. There are communities that don’t go to the theatre because language is a huge barrier.
MYY: Where would these works be staged?
RJ: We would work with partner venues across the city: Harbourfront, Factory Theatre, Soulpepper. A big part of my approach has been to work with the institutions that boxed me out. I work with them to leverage what they can do because we all want the same thing. We all want to engage this amazing city and the people in it. We just have different ways of doing that.
MYY: This is beautiful because you hit that wall and instead of giving up, you figured out how to work with these institutions in a way that focused on your strengths.
RJ: You said it exactly right: focus on your strengths and it allows you to be strong. If the artist doesn’t feel strong because they rely on the institution for their careers, there is a constant feeling of being at a deficit.
But if we can flip the relationship to one that’s equal, where I’m coming to the table with a host of skills, ideas, new ways of thinking —and I can access a whole new audience, then you recognize your strength and you’re confident. That’s what I always kept in mind anytime my confidence wavered.
MYY: I love that!
RJ: Toronto is also a good place to build a company because Canada has great funding. Toronto Arts Council, Canadian Heritage, there’s a ton of funding and support for the arts that can allow you to establish yourself and build a career. The independent arts community is also really good. It’s so strong and collaborative. Working with, and getting to know artists, you not only expand your own creativity, but you also see all the cracks and the problems.
As we built [Why Not Theatre], everyone started to say, “Now you’re gonna become the institution! Go get a building!” And I was like, “Well, hang on. That model doesn’t work.” First of all, they box people out. Secondly, the capacity of a building is limited and the volume of need is so high. So, what’s another way to think about this? I thought, “Well, Toronto has so much empty space. What if Toronto was the theatre? And we could actually access all the empty spaces and turn them into halls that artists could access. We could actually meet the need and the demand while also doing a service to the city.”
MYY: We always try to bring it back to what we know. Again, that’s why I love the name of your company. It’s a constant reminder to be curious, question the status quo, and think outside of the box. Everything you do seems to revolve around disruption, which I feel creates accessibility. Do you feel the same way?
RJ: My existence is a disruption. The fact that I’m in the arts is a disruption, so that’s creating accessibility. But beyond “disruption,” I just see it as making something better, making something beyond what we know. There’s so much more we have not explored. Creating accessibility is about understanding that the more voices and perspectives we have at the table, the more interesting it’ll be.
Like you said, we always gravitate to the things we know. So many artists, without even realizing it, are making the same thing over and over again. There’s no shade on that. Some people want and like to do that. Other people don’t. But they don’t understand why it’s the same. Fundamentally, it’s because it’s really hard to change the process. It’s hard to be in the terror of, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do right now.” The more you can find comfort in the terror, the more you’ll realize you’ll find something new. The new might not be even good, but that’s okay.
MYY: The new is a stepping stone.
RJ: Yeah. I always admired van Gogh because when he was painting, he was terribly poor. Nobody wanted his work; he couldn’t even buy paint. He died poor and unknown. Nobody cared until his sister-in-law found all these paintings in his attic. Then, all of a sudden, his work was understood. He was just an artist who wasn’t working in his time.
MYY: He was also an artist who painted for himself. In the era of social media, where we crave other people’s approval, we lose sight of this.
RJ: Absolutely. And to trust the impact that that will have on even one person.
MYY: Accessibility, representation, all of this feeds into a wider sense of community, which you’re fostering through your work and passions. Can you share what community means to you, especially in Toronto?
Community comes back, fundamentally, for me, to those experiences as a kid — when it was a house full of people and everyone felt like family. Everyone felt like they belonged and were welcomed. I’ve been in a lot of conversations where people are using terms like “the arts community,” “the Black community,” “people of colour,” and “deaf community.” There are so many communities within communities.
How do we understand and respect differences while also finding commonalities? How can we respect differences so that people can actually be themselves wherever they are and still feel welcome because we can share food, stories, and a laugh, and also acknowledge there is a gap? I think when we say, “We’re all a community,” we disrespect the gap. The gap is important. The gap is good. Glossing over the gap just to make us together doesn’t help. But if you recognize the gap, we can start to build a functional community of communities.
MYY: Where do you feel most at home in the city?
Queen West is awesome. I live right by Trinity Bellwoods, and I feel like my neighbourhood is very connected. I know the faces and names of so many people.
MYY: What has been a staple on Queen West for you?
RJ: White Squirrel [Coffee Shop]!
MYY: How does Toronto inspire you as a theatre-maker? Where do you go into the city to feel inspired?
RJ: I think Toronto inspires me because there are so many stories that exist and have yet to be told. There’s so much potential for this city to grow to engage those people. And on top of that is the outer regions like Mississauga, Brampton, you know, whole other cities within the city.
How can the arts find relevance in the lives of those different communities? I say that because all of those people are not accessing the arts in traditional ways. Instead, they are doing it in their kitchens and their basements. The arts are in their home, it’s part of their daily lives. We have to find a way to connect with them and it might not happen in traditional spaces. It might have to change, and that is super exciting.
What is your focus for 2022? Personally and professionally?
RJ: My focus this year is slowing down in a big way. Having a kid, you know, again, you gotta change the process. And I think what we’ve just gone through over the last three years — racial reckoning and huge inequities being exposed — now that we’re coming out the other side, so many of us are just trying to pick up where we left off…
MYY: Ignoring the gap…
RJ: We’re ignoring the gap! Exactly. And so how do we deal with the gap? We’re trying to slow it down, and it’s proving really challenging because we’re in a machine. But we’re finding power in saying, “No.”
That said, we’ll be at Luminato with the live version of a show we made with David Suzuki and his wife, Tara Cullis. It’s called What You Won’t Do For Love. The question we ask is: What if we could get people to fall in love with the planet the way these two fall in love with each other? When you love something, you’ll do anything you can to protect it. So, if you could actually fall in love with a tree, or see it as a relative, would it change how we relate to the planet?
What are you looking forward to, locally?
Toronto in the summer is one of the best cities to be in. Stackt Market, or all the new little patios that people have been putting out, it’s just such good energy. I’m really looking forward to that.
I also want to get back into spaces that are fun for kids, like the Science Centre, Ripley’s Aquarium. I’m excited to re-experience Toronto with my son and go to places that I haven’t been in ages.
The Ravi-directed What You Won’t Do For Love joins the 2022 Luminato Festival lineup. Catch it from June 9 to 19 at the Canadian Opera Company Theatre.
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