My Canada, 124/150: Staging Canada’s stories

I see a lot of theatre, as much as I can afford, both in time and money. And one of the most delightful Canadian stage moments I’ve experienced in recent years was at a Toronto performance of A Brimful of Asha, written by and starring playwright and Why Not Theatre Company founder Ravi Jain and his India-born mother, Asha Jain.

While the piece is deeply rooted in their Indian heritage, it’s also a hilarious examination of what happens when a family’s cultural heritage clashes with the modern ways of a now-grown child living in the urban whirl of Canada’s largest city. This is Ravi Jain’s story: it’s also the story of all of us whose families have immigrated to Canada and found themselves straddling the divide between old-country and new-country ways.

Kim’s Convenience, written by Ins Choi as a play that’s toured across Canada now developed as a CBC television series, follows a similar theme, of a Korean couple who immigrate to Canada and run a small shop. The play charts the conflicts that ensue when their children of Ins Choi’s generation reach adulthood and want to take different paths out into the world than the parents ever imagined.

That these shows have become hits in Toronto’s theatre scene and across the country is part of an evolution — some would argue long overdue and not nearly evolved enough — where what you see on Toronto’s stages better reflects the stories of the diverse range of Canadians who live in the country’s largest city.

It’s long been touted that Toronto has the third-largest English theatre scene in the world, after London’s West End and New York’s Broadway, although in recent years Chicago may have knocked Toronto out of medal contention.

At the top of the heap, in terms of size of venues and budget, is Mirvish Productions, a for-profit commercial producer which mounts its own shows, hosts touring productions at its large theatres of Broadway hits and, on occasion, remounts a successful non-profit Toronto theatre show and gives it a new, larger life. Among small Toronto theatres, the phrase “someone from Mirvish is in the house tonight” can cause the most joyous of happy dances.

Then there are several non-profit companies with their own theatre venues that mount multi-show seasons, some from fall to spring, others year-round. Soulpepper makes its home at three stages and several studio spaces in the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District; Canadian Stage has two theatres / three stages in downtown Toronto and mounts two summer shows at an outdoor theatre in High Park. A trio of companies with theatres along the west edge of downtown Toronto — Factory, Tarragon, and Passe Muraille — were founded between 1968 and 1970 in a burst of post-Centennial Canadian nationalism, all dedicated to putting Canadian stories on stage.

Beyond this core group are a multitude of others: one theatre website lists more than 100 theatre groups and that doesn’t capture the shorter-term collectives and companies that form to mount shows through events such as the Toronto Fringe (with 150 different shows) and Summerworks. Those with permanent theatre homes that can also be rented to other companies include Buddies in Bad Times, founded in the mid-1970s to mount queer theatre,  Young People’s Theatre, and Crow’s Theatre, which in 2017 moved into a newly built permanent theatre home in east Toronto, Streetcar Crowsnest.

Other well-regarded and awarded companies were founded to present stories on stage from communities that did not see their experience reflected in the larger, mainstream theatres: Nightwood bills itself as “Canada’s oldest women’s theatre”, founded in 1979; Obsidian Theatre, founded in 2000, “has helped to change the profile of culturally diverse theatre in Canada by encouraging other companies to re-evaluate the way they involve artists of colour”;  Harold Green Jewish Theatre, 10 years old in 2017, was founded to present plays and concerts that “reflect the Jewish Experience”; Native Earth Performing Arts bills itself as “Canada’s oldest professional Indigenous theatre company.”

124 factory
The season poster for Factory Theatre, 2016-17.

Awareness of the lack opportunity for performers and writers who are not whites of European heritage has grown exponentially in Toronto although many would argue there’s still a long way to go. Factory Theatre in 2016-2017 decided to present a season of plays written by non-white Canadian writers, cheekily calling it “Beyond The Great White North.” It featured playwrights from Jamaican, Tamil, Japanese, Southeast Asian and Asian descents telling stories about their families and experiences; some of the shows, such as Leon Aureus Banana Boys adapted from the novel by Terry Woo, were produced in Toronto to great acclaim in the past. There’s no word yet if this season attracted a more-diverse audience: One of great moans in Toronto’s theatre community is that audiences remain white and old while the city’s growth comes from a diverse range of immigrants and youth.

Theatre does more than entertain: it can provoke, question, criticize, and shake people up. One of most moving pieces of theatre I’ve seen in the past few years in Toronto was a Fringe show, Rare, featuring nine performers with Down Syndrome whose personal stories were shaped by playwright Judith Thompson into a stage presentation. They have felt silenced, too: the gift of the theatre is that it can give space, and time, for many voices to be heard, when there’s a commitment and will to make that so.

Main photo of Ravi Jain and Asha Jain in A Brimful of Asha: Why Not Theatre Company

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