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Owais Lightwala, left, Ravi Jain and Kelly Read of Why Not Theatre company at their new office in Toronto, on Nov. 1, 2018.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail


Location: Anywhere – but mostly Toronto

Biggest influence: Carmen Morgan, founder and director of U.S.-based artEquity, which offers “training and consulting services to individuals and organizations on creating and sustaining a culture of equity and inclusion through the arts and culture.”

Best piece of advice: When Jain was toying with becoming directly involved with politics, Franco Boni, general and artistic director of the Theatre Centre, told him: “The job of the artist it to bring the problems of the people to the doorstep of the parliament – but we don’t go in.”

Where they see themselves in 10 years: A cross between Complicité, the international touring theatre company run out of London by Simon McBurney, and the Theatre Centre, the venerable Toronto live-arts hub and incubator that settled into a permanent home on Queen Street West after 35 years.

This is part of Stepping Up, a series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.

Artists are hardly immune from the pressure to get on the property ladder.

So when Toronto’s growing Why Not Theatre company recently had the opportunity to purchase a warehouse – a potential office, rehearsal and performance space – for $1-million, they were tempted. But instead, the company decided to double down on its itinerant lifestyle and strive to become Canada’s first nomadic theatre institution.

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“Running a venue and the skills required to do that – and the business capacity to do that – is a very different thing from the work of making artistic projects that are good and compelling,” says managing director Owais Lightwala, who runs Why Not with artistic director Ravi Jain and executive producer Kelly Read.

Writers don’t open bookstores; painters aren’t gallery owners – why do we expect theatre creators to eventually run physical theatres? Says Lightwala: “It would be absurd if Steven Spielberg was expected to also be a really good operator of Cineplex cinemas.”

With shows in development with the Shaw and Stratford festivals and its production of Prince Hamlet off on a national tour, Why Not is transforming from a spunky indie company into a theatrical institution with the help of a sizable new operating grant from the Canada Council and financial backing from big banks such as TD and RBC.

Its annual budget has leapt from $650,000 in 2017 to $1.3-million in 2018 to a projected $2-million for 2019, and the company could soon be the third biggest-budget not-for-profit theatre in Toronto after Soulpepper and Canadian Stage.

Running a venue is not unusual for a theatre company of that size – and, indeed, many companies with smaller budgets do. But today’s sharing economy has shown how massive companies can become without owning their infrastructure and Why Not is exploring how it could find equity rather than profit in the efficiencies of a modern model that eschews bricks and mortar.

So instead of launching a capital campaign, it is channelling its increasing resources into hiring more staff and paying its artists better while pouring its fundraising energy into launching a series of new pilot programs to help fulfill its mandate: “Make. Share. Provoke.”

“Share” has, in the past, meant imagining new collaborative producing models such as RISER, which, matching senior companies with emerging ones, has had great success birthing shows such as Mouthpiece (which tours California in 2019) and Oraltorio (which just had a run at Soulpepper).

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Now, Why Not will be setting up funds to help indie artists, its own as well as others, tackle three issues that make it hard to create work in an expensive city: space, childcare and audience development.

Jain, Lightwala and Read are brainstorming how to provide or subsidize underutilized spaces for rehearsal and performance, do the same with daycare, and explore new ways to help plays find audiences (and vice versa). “We consider this our capital project,” Lightwala says.

Why Not’s appetite for marrying innovation with inclusion (and great theatre) is what made Purpose Capital CEO Upkar Arora, former chair of the McMichael Gallery, join its board a year ago instead of the Stratford Festival, which was courting him. “I call it building without building,” Arora says.

While a theatre company without a theatre is not new, Why Not hopes to show that it’s not a stage you have to grow out of in Canada. “The thing that will be unique about Why Not, in what we hope to achieve, is that we might be able to do this at a scale that no one has been else has been able to do,” Lightwala says.

Read more in the Stepping Up series:

How one artistic director is casting for more diversity on stage

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The animation executive who makes parents' lives easier

How a research lab is taking lessons from music

Vancouver teacher is schooling educators on the value of inclusive classrooms

Dalhousie Indigenous student showing Canada the way to reconciliation

Toronto human rights lawyer sounds the alarm on Canada’s plans to use AI in immigration

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