Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
It was last Diwali that I first spoke with Ravi Jain. Days later, I sat feet away from him at his play A Brimful of Asha, nodding and shaking my head at various déjà-vu “a-ha’s”. . . while enjoying a samosa handed to me by his co-star mother.
Without a doubt, Mr Jain knows how to set the scene. The simple decision to distribute samosas evoked the homey comfort of a living room far better than any set could, and demonstrated the hospitality that was pivotal to his exploration of marriage from the dual (and often duelling) cultural perspectives of an Indian-born mother and her Canadian-born son. We were no longer audience members but guests at the Jain family home, invited into a funny and frank conversation.
Well, it’s Diwali, one year later, and I connect again with Mr Jain, this time about his interpretation of David French’s Salt-Water Moon, the first play of the Off-Mirvish series now running at the Panasonic Theatre. It sold out houses when it premiered at Factory Theatre, and earned Mr Jain a Dora Award for Outstanding Direction. Spare and simple are his hallmark in this production as well, with its focus on the love story of Jacob Mercer (Kawa Ada) and Mary Snow (Mayko Nguyen).
This theatre experience begins with Mary slowly lighting candles that float in clear glass bowls distributed around the stage, while Ania Soul sings and plays her acoustic guitar. Ms Soul then announces the title, and the play begins with her narrating the stage directions. It is soon apparent that she is not merely providing a soundtrack to create atmosphere….the stage directions that she reads from French’s text do not correspond with the characters’ actions. The effect is a resonant duality: the stage directions and the singer/storyteller sit beside the action: a respectful nod to the original text and the songs which were staples of Newfoundland culture. Meanwhile, the two characters, in nondescript contemporary clothes and unencumbered by props or set, carry on an intimate conversation that we are invited into, by the light of these shimmering candles, which we come to realize are stand-ins for the stars which Mary watches with her telescope. The traditional and the atemporal – the play’s original text and a more essential, less local, more universal conversation at its core – share the stage: distinct yet inseparable.
David French was born in Newfoundland and emigrated to Canada as a little boy with his family, when Canada and Newfoundland were separate countries. As a result, he knew firsthand the experiences of new Canadians and the effects on their children. He explores this theme through the familial circumstances that bring Jacob and Mary to the choices they feel driven to – and which collide in their single, urgent conversation, which spans the duration of the play.
Mr Jain is attuned to their filial, cultural and social tensions from a number of perspectives, including his travels while growing up and studying abroad. From 1999 to 2007, he lived in multiple countries, training and working as an actor. “I love to speak other people’s languages, try their food…The joy of that exchange is for me what I want the experience of the theatre to be,” he offers “So I think I’ve always been fascinated by exchanges between cultures, and for me in theatre, it’s the perfect platform for the conversation.”
His life experiences have given Mr Jain a nuanced perspective on what is a cultural distinction and what is quintessentially human. Whereas the specific stage, set and costume directions, songs and diction situate Salt-Water Moon in 1926 Newfoundland, stripping these away unlocks the core relationship between Jacob and Mary from this specific context and elevates it to a universal realm. In this production, everything worldly and specific exists in words alone. In spoken stage directions, the narrator tells us what Jacob and Mary are wearing, what they are doing, what the setting they are in looks like . . . yet this is NOT what the scene literally looks like . . . or what they are actually wearing . . . or even what they are doing. The characters talk about their experiences and their family’s, which are anchored in Newfoundland of the time, but Newfoundland is merely conjured. It is invisible words floating in the air around the stage. What is on the stage, what we experience as an audience, is more pure and elemental: a man and a woman talking earnestly, energetically to each other and connecting at a fundamental level. We’re meant to experience this on a deeper level, not get lost in the specifics. The fact that Kawa Ada, Mayko Nguyen and Ania Soul are all artists of colour underscore this contemporary universality, for actors and audience, alike.
Mr Jain explains that the idea for this interpretation came at the start of the process. “This story is such an iconic piece of Canadian Theatre, but I’d never seen or read it. Primarily because most of my theatrical life was abroad, but also because I didn’t feel I saw myself in it.” Anticipating that this was likely true for others as well, he wanted to find a way in for himself and for others who didn’t see themselves in it, but at the same time also “find a way to honour the story and traditions associated with it.”
The interpretation had its genesis in Factory Theatre’s 2015-2016 Naked Season, where the participating directors assumed the challenge of staging a Canadian play using only one prop (in this case, the prop was the candles). Mr Jain and the cast have since whittled the play down even further, transcending the initial challenge to create an experience that is accessible to everyone. “I think I knew we got it right only after the audience came,” he says, recalling that “their reactions confirmed that we hit upon something. Again, I think it was because there was really a cross-cultural conversation happening in the room.” He describes the diverse casting of Salt-Water Moon as a simple matter of making “space for [the actors] to be able to play these roles.” Casting in Canada is slowly changing, he notes, but for a long time “we’ve suffered from practices that limited access to the stage….It’s not a new story. I think people are only now catching on that changing who is on stage only makes our storytelling more rich.”
We chatted last fall about Piya Behrupiya, The Company Theatre’s hit musical version of Twelfth Night performed in Hindi, which he helped bring to Toronto audiences. “Language is only one way in which we understand a show,” he mentioned then — a pronouncement that now informs the eloquent gap between Salt-Water Moon’s stage directions, the characters’ dialogue, and Ania Soul’s soothing accompaniment which triples as commentary, soundtrack and sensory expression. Mr Jain’s ability to consider multiple perspectives has helped shift assumptions of how classic stories can be told and audience preconceptions of what they “should” look like. “Look, classic plays are done all over the world, in different languages, by people of all colours,” he gently points out. “It’s only a lack of imagination that allows only one kind of storyteller. You just have to be open to seeing the world through a different lens and be aware of the opportunities that opens up.”
As Salt-Water Moon continues its run, Mr Jain is completing a “very exciting” 2-week residency at Stanford University, playing A Brimful of Asha and researching a new play about the internet with his good friend Nicolas Billon. I wonder idly if we will discuss this next Diwali…and what stories will capture his imagination in the meantime. For now, I am still mulling over Salt-Water Moon. On the evening that I attended with my 16-year old, I saw many young people who had come with their families, and many stayed to participate in the post-show talk back. “I often see a young crowd at the show, which is awesome,” confirms Mr Jain, delighted by a new crop of theatregoers discovering what has made Jacob and Mary’s love story a perennial – and dynamic – favourite for generations. He offers two simple wishes: “I hope they see themselves reflected in the story – in the emotions that happen between these two lovers. I hope they recognize the behaviour as their own. I hope they fall in love with the story, and that it lives on in them as long as it’s lived on in so many other Canadians.
“I also hope that they see how exciting it can be to bring new ideas to old texts.”
News You Can Use
What: the Factory Theatre production of Salt-Water Moon, by David French; directed by Ravi Jain; featuring Kawa Ada (Jacob), Mayko Nguyen (Mary) and Ania Soul (Narration and Music)
Who: Audiences 11 years of age (grade 7) and older
When: On stage till October 29, 2017, matinee and evening performances; running time: 1.5 hours (no intermission)
Where: Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON M4Y 1Z9
Information and Tickets: Mirvish.com and 416.872.1212
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya