What if Hamlet were a woman? This Toronto theatre company dares to ask Why Not

In this production, genders are flipped and the tale is also told in American Sign Language. Director Ravi Jain reflects on how casting can be a radical act.

Casting can be a radical act. Director Ravi Jain reflects on 10 years of Why Not Theatre

Why Not Theatre presented Prince Hamlet for the first time ten years ago. For the current production, the Toronto group is taking a different approach to casting. The title role, for example, is played by a woman, Christine Horne. (Bronwen Sharp/Courtesy of Why Not Theatre)

Ten years ago, actor and director Ravi Jain was having trouble finding work. He had recently returned to Toronto after living overseas for almost a decade, and despite having, in his words, a "kickass" resume, people he met in the theatre world were hesitant to collaborate with a stranger to the local scene. So Jain decided to mount his own production, one that would demonstrate his outside-the-box approach.

"At the time, I thought, 'All that I really know about Ontario is that they're obsessed with Shakespeare,'" Jain says. So he decided to direct a diverse retelling of Hamlet. This independent production marked the birth of Why Not Theatre.

Ten years later, Jain has remounted that play, Prince Hamlet, at Toronto's Theatre Centre, this time casting a woman as Hamlet and a man as Ophelia. The production, which runs to April 29, is performed in both English and American Sign Language, pushing the possibilities of what can be created onstage even further.

Ravi Jain is the founder of Why Not Theatre. (David Leclerc/Courtesy of Why Not Theatre)

I first met Jain more than a decade ago and witnessed the early days of Why Not. We were both part of a community of young grassroots organizers and artists who shared office space, resources and ideas. Although working on different projects, we were all united in a shared commitment to innovation, social justice and community collaboration. Few of us had plans for our projects beyond the three-year maximum time span required by most funding bodies — which meant that our work was malleable and reactive, shaped almost entirely by the needs of the particular moment. This flexible and responsive approach remains a core guiding principle for Why Not Theatre.

Since its origin, the theatre has maintained a commitment to carving its own path and resisted the restrictive structures of traditional companies. They have no fixed address, and unlike most theatre companies in the city, they don't present a subscription series. Theatre companies often rely on a specific group of patrons to support their productions, and they shape their season with them in mind. However, Why Not builds an entirely new audience for every show, developing specifically-focused partnerships and targeted outreach strategies. Over the past decade, the theatre has collaborated with 70 different companies and developed more than 13 productions and 14 co-productions. They've performed in 21 cities around the world.

I spoke with Ravi Jain last week before a rehearsal for Prince Hamlet. We discussed this current (sold out) production, Why Not Theatre's commitment to innovation and the challenge of leading dialogues around diversity.

Why Not Theatre's production of Prince Hamlet runs at Toronto's Theatre Centre to April 29. (Bronwen Sharp/Courtesy of Why Not Theatre)

Tell me about this new iteration of Prince Hamlet. What's changed since you brought it to the stage 10 years ago?

Well, the biggest change is who is telling the story. I really love this actor, Christine Horne, who is a woman, and I [wanted] her to play Hamlet. Sadly that's a bold move in this country because you can count maybe on two fingers professional productions that have had a female Hamlet. That started the ball rolling around thinking about a different way of approaching the "who" of who gets to tell the story.

I went to this great conference in the States. At the end of the conference, one of the people in the group with different abilities was like, "If anybody in the group has the power to cast anything, I urge you to consider people with different abilities." And I was like, "Holy shit." I'm someone who wants to fight for the rights of everyone, and I would have never considered that.

So I came home and I found this deaf actor [Dawn Jani Birley] and I said, "I'd really like to work with you." So I cast her [as Horatio], this role that's really integral to the story, and then it just blew everything open. I started to think about who I wanted to play these roles that we wouldn't normally see — and who could provoke us to think about different approaches to the telling of the story. So men playing women and women playing men, black people on stage, Chinese people on stage.

Dawn Jani Birley is Horatio in Why Not Theatre's production of Prince Hamlet. (Bronwen Sharp/Courtesy of Why Not Theatre)

What was it like directing a production this way?

The major thing process-wise was working with [Birley], this deaf actor from Finland, because the process of that was a whole new thing. You're working in a totally different language. Plus, we're working on Shakespeare, which is a whole different language in and of itself.

A lot of mistakes were made — good mistakes. I'm really proud of it, and the actors are just phenomenal — and again, no one would ever ask them to play these parts. They're just thrilled and they're doing a tremendous job. People are hearing the play differently.

Why the theatre? Why has this been your medium of choice?

I guess I started because I liked to make people laugh and that was always something that I liked doing, and I gravitated towards it because people said I was good at it. Then I went to theatre school, and then I started learning about political theatre and street theatre that was happening all around the world and how theatre was really a vehicle for social change in many countries.

As an artist, you have to be speaking to the world that you're living in and you have to try to impact a change. We have a social responsibility to do that. Ultimately my job is to gather people together in a room to have a conversation and to have an exchange through a shared experience that forces them to ask questions about the world they're living in. We can do that through laughter and tragedy and definitely in a way that just engages your mind about your world.

You guys had a conference last year called ThisGen where you brought together theatre practitioners for very similar conversations. Can you tell me a little about the impetus to do that?

As I travel, I meet tons of people of colour who are in leadership positions in their hometowns and countries and they're doing some fucking amazing work. So I'm not alone. Everyone's always saying, "We need to train the next generation of leaders. We don't have people of colour leadership. There's only a few — we need to train them." And I was like, "No, no. You keep talking about the next generation, [but] there's a this generation. All of us now who are already doing it, why would you pass us all up?" So I decided I'm gonna bring all these people together, because we have shit we need to talk about. We can kind of strategize and change the conversation. The myth that I was being fed was that there was no people of colour leadership. But there is — the mainstream just isn't recognizing them. We've got this network now of people across the globe. We had people from the U.K., the U.S., Nigeria, Turkey and across Canada. It was really reaffirming to say, "You know what? We're here. We're strong and we're already leading."

Christine Horne as Hamlet (left) and Karen Robinson as Gertrude in Why Not Theatre's production of Prince Hamlet. (Bronwen Sharp/Courtesy of Why Not Theatre)

You've been doing this for 10 years. What changes have you observed in Canada's theatre scene since Why Not began?

Nationally I think the big change, and it's a tricky one to talk about, is this desire for more racial, gender and abilities equity. That desire is a funny one because it's great on one hand, and it's kind of strange on another. It doesn't acknowledge the history of exclusion that caused it — we're kind of just moving forward in a re-brand. It doesn't acknowledge the leadership that perpetuated the situation that caused the problem that we're in. For me, a really big shift that hopefully is coming soon is a change of leadership that can address these problems in a holistic way.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Prince Hamlet. Featuring Christine Horne, Rick Roberts, Karen Robinson, Maria Cacratsis, Jeff Ho, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Miriam Fernandes, Hannah Miller, Dawn Jani Birley. Directed by Ravi Jain. Presented by Why Not Theatre. To April 29. The Theatre Centre, Toronto.


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