When Factory Theatre asked in-demand Toronto director Ravi Jain to stage a “classic Canadian play” for its stripped-down Naked season in 2015-16, the request set off an internal inquiry. This is, after all, a guy who questions things so much he runs a Toronto company called Why Not Theatre.
“What is a Canadian classic?” asks Jain, who’s probably best-known out here for the Arts Club’s Brimful of Asha, a play he performed with his own mother about his parents’ failed attempt to arrange a marriage for him in India. Speaking to the Straight from Toronto, he continues: “What does it mean to be Canadian? What do I picture when I close my eyes and think of Canada?”
Surprisingly, he chose David French’s Salt-Water Moon, a play he had heard about as a rite of passage for actors, but one he had never seen. And when he read the story of the fraught reunion between two young Newfoundlanders in 1926, he pictured it with actors of colour.
“I wanted to find a way to open up the story to a different lens—to honour traditions yet bring something new to it,” Jain explains. Was he making a statement in his casting? “Because the play is a classic and every time you do it you’re in conversation with every play that’s been done, it’s a political statement because it’s never been done before.”
Even Jain has been fascinated by the depth his casting of Mayko Nguyen and Kawa Ada in the roles of the former lovers has brought to the work. Their life experience speaks to all the important themes, from family and class to history and migration, he says.
Having the play pared down to its essentials, lit only with a dreamlike sea of candles to stand in for the starry night, adds to the performers’ duties, however. “It’s a challenge for the actors,” Jain admits. “They really have to be as honest as possible. Getting them to be as vulnerable as possible was really a lot of the work we did.”
The casting and minimalist yet atmospheric setting weren’t the only areas where Jain departed from traditional renditions of Salt-Water Moon. He’s added a musician-narrator, played by Ania Soul.
“I was thinking about the East Coast storytelling traditions and troubadours, so I added this character of the narrator that would score the piece,” explains the affable director, who’s busy juggling rehearsals for an almost all-female version of Animal Farm at Soulpepper Theatre along with a new Punjabi Sikh, Kelowna-set spin on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Shaw Festival. (The play, The Orchard [After Chekhov], by Sarena Parmar, has just been announced as part of the Arts Club’s 2018-19 season.) “It added this musical element that would be true to that part of the world. And that gave me the idea of the candles.”
The result is a production that’s been called “simply beautiful” and “emotionally honest”. This from a project Jain essentially built from scratch.
“I like to figure something out and I like to work on things that are saying something about the world that I’m in—where content is as important as the form,” says the actor-director, whose diverse training includes the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and the movement-oriented Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. “For me as a creator it’s about discovering something new. I love things where I’m a little out of my element; it forces me to exercise something new.”
As the show prepares to travel to the Gateway Theatre here, Jain finds himself at the forefront of changes that are finally happening on a larger scale on Canadian stages, where diversity and nontraditional casting seem to be top-of-mind.
“Progress is being made, but I think it’s still slow. People have been doing this for a long time in the independent sector and now the mainstream is catching on,” he observes. “I hope it can free us up from an idea of realism that has limited opportunities. It’s really narrowed ideas of what theatre can be.”
Salt-Water Moon is at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre from next Thursday (February 15) to February 24.