Not many Canadian theatregoers know the name of Ravi Jain's 10-year-old theatre company – but, if you scratch deep enough, you'll find its fingerprints on many of the most notable new Canadian plays of recent years.
A Brimful of Asha, Concord Floral, Mouthpiece … these are just a few of the four-star, outside-the-box shows that the collaborative and co-operative Why Not Theatre has been involved in premiering in one way or another. A whole new audience will get to know the so-called "Toronto-based company with international scope" by name this month, however, now that it's partnering with the biggest theatre company in town.
Commercial producer David Mirvish is presenting Why Not's acclaimed production of Nicolas Billon's thriller Butcher as part of his Off-Mirvish season starting this Saturday at the Panasonic Theatre. And that remount, which opens at the 700-seat venue on Saturday, is just the start of an ambitious 10th-anniversary season for the company.
"It's a too-busy spring," says Jain, over coffee at a Dundas Street West bar along with Why Not's artistic producers Owais Lightwala and Kelly Read. "A big question for us is how can we find ability to grow … without becoming a fixed entity that isn't as reactive or agile."
An independent theatre company of no fixed address, Why Not does indeed have a lot on the immediate horizon. It will take over the Theatre Centre – the Queen West theatre where it first co-produced the Toronto premiere of Butcher in the fall of 2015 – in April shortly after Butcher closes. Prince Hamlet, Jain's own adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy that he first launched Why Not with in 2007, will be staged in the mainspace – with Dora Award-winning actress Christine Horne playing the title role this time around.
"I thought it was something to revisit, in particular, with all this [recent] talk about casting and diversity," says Jain, who has also cast Rick Roberts as Claudius, Karen Robinson as Gertrude and – in another gender swap – Jeff Ho as Ophelia in the show.
Meanwhile, in the smaller studio downstairs at the Theatre Centre, Why Not will present four shows as part of the third edition of what it calls the "RISER Project" – in which well-established companies mentor and share resources with newer indie ones.
RISER has been a very successful initiative to date – with five of the 15 productions born through it going on to future productions and tours. One example: Mouthpiece, Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken's highly entertaining physical-theatre piece about women's voices, which premiered at RISER in 2015 before getting a longer run through Nightwood Theatre and then heading to Vancouver's Push Festival and Calgary's High Performance Rodeo.
RISER Project's slogan – "From independent to interdependent theatre" – could very well be the overarching philosophy of Why Not, which has collaborated with an astounding 70 different companies around the world since Jain founded it upon returning to the GTA after living, studying and working abroad for seven years.
Jain, Lightwala and Read's penchant for sharing resources and the spotlight is one of the reasons few beyond theatrical insiders know the Why Not brand. The others are that it doesn't have its own permanent venue or present a subscription series.
Instead, Why Not thinks of each show it presents or produces individually. "We embrace that you have to build different audiences for different things," is how Lightwala, who joined the company as artistic producer in 2011, puts it. (Read joined as a second artistic producer two years ago.)
One of the first Why Not projects Lightwala worked on was Beyond Bollywood – a presentation of two shows starring Indian film star Naseeruddin Shah and his wife, Ratna Pathak Shah. Realizing that many in the target South Asian community didn't want to buy tickets online, Lightwala put his personal cell number on the publicity materials. "I would speak to people in Hindi and sell tickets one by one," he recalls.
It worked: The double-bill sold out both at the Rose Theatre in Brampton, Ont., and the Daniels Spectrum in Toronto's Regent Park neighbourhood.
Lightwala has embraced a similar approach to reaching diverse audiences for other projects – such as a Why Not's presentation of Cine Monstro, Brazilian actor Enrique Diaz's acclaimed Portuguese-language adaptation of Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor's one-man show Monster. He helped sell that show by going store to store in Little Portugal. "I bought so many custard tarts," he says.
Overall, Why Not shows – whether presentations of international work or new Canadian plays – sell 80 per cent or more of capacity according to the company, an average of 25,000 tickets a year in Toronto and on tour. And this box-office success is directly due to tracking down the right audience and partners for each show, rather than building a single audience and expecting it to be interested in every artistic project they do.
This also allows Why Not to be "reactive and agile" as Jain puts it – and produce what it wants rather than being forced to adopt the same aesthetic, location or even language for all its work.
Another major moment for Why Not comes this July: the New York debut of A Brimful of Asha – a heartwarming performance in which Jain and his mother Asha tell the true story of her attempts to arrange a marriage for him in India. It's heading to the Pershing Square Signature Center off-Broadway as part of Soulpepper Theatre Company's upcoming residency there. (Jain, who has also recently freelanced for the Shaw Festival and Factory Theatre, is an associate artistic director at Toronto-based Soulpepper.)
And an even bigger Why Not show is coming down the pipeline – though no one is at liberty to talk about it. The indie company recently received a $375,000 grant from the Canada Council as part of the New Chapter sesquicentennial funds for a major international collaboration that its partners aren't ready to announce yet.
This is an exciting, but also a little scary, time for the three individuals who operate an indie company that still only operates at an annual budget of $550,000.
"I've been chasing so long to get opportunities and all these opportunities are presenting themselves and now I'm staring them all in the face," says Jain, whose gorgeous production of David French's Salt-Water Moon for Factory Theatre is also set to go on tour and be a part of the Off-Mirvish season in the next year. "I have a desire to make great art and make a place for other artists – and I'm fortunate to be able to do that in a many great places. My only challenge is time."