Canada Scene: Ravi Jain reimagines Canadian classic Salt-Water Moon

Ravi Jain. Photo Favid Leclerc

Salt-Water Moon is considered a classic of Canadian theatre. It has been performed everywhere in Canada but never quite like the version staged by Ravi Jain.

Jain, the founding artistic director of the Why Not Theatre company in Toronto, has taken this story of the romance between Jacob Mercer and Mary Snow and reimagined it. Why?

“For me it’s about exploring why these plays are relevant now. Classic implies timeless. It implies that it will forever be relevant. For me it’s important to provoke and challenge that and reinvestigate to insure that it remains relevant.”

Jain, who has emerged as a true force in modern Canadian theatre, believes it’s not enough just to “to do a play as a museum piece.”

It’s not so much a challenge, though, as it is an interrogation, he says. “An interrogation to find what it is about. With Salt-Water Moon, it’s really about this relationship that we all recognize. We have all had a love that is similar to this.

“When you strip away the specific context (Newfoundland in the 1920s), it reveals how relatable it really is to other people whatever context they are in. Unlocking this helps set the story free.

“Any play that I do, I am always investigating what is theatre. What is this live phenomenon? And how do different people in a room experience the same story. It is always about storytelling and the imagination.

In his take on Salt-Water Moon, Jain has added a third character who sings David French’s stage directions. In this way, he has put French on stage.

“The stage directions allow us to ‘see’ the world that’s presented. For example, it describes the location. In Salt-Water Moon, the location of the porch (around which Jacob and Mary meet) is what a lot of productions will try to create in a realistic (material) way.

“We said, ‘Let’s strip away all the expectations an audience might have about going to see this play’. If we do that, how do we help the audience imagine the world that we want them to see. So the stage directions provide ability to see what’s not there.”

He also decided to cast non-white actors.

“Canada … doesn’t look the way it used to (in 1984 when the play was written). For me it was also about saying how do we make this more open to a Canadian audience today.”

In Ottawa, Jacob is played by the actor Danny Ghantous, who is of Palestinian heritage. Mary is played by Bahareh Yaraghi who is Iranian. Both actors are immigrants to Canada. Ania Soul sings and is the voice of David French.

“This (cast) forces the audience to look at the relationship and listen to what the actors say, the pain they are in and the love they have and recognize it for what it is and go on the journey with them not asking any questions.”

In casting this way Jain has given work to artists who might never play a role like this.

“Nine out of 10 people of colour haven’t had the experience of acting in Salt-Water Moon,” he says. In his own case, Jain had never seen the play before directing it.

“I’d never engaged with it because I never had a reason to. It didn’t reflect my view of the world.”

Now he calls it “gorgeous.”

When Jain returned to Canada, after studying in prestigious drama schools in England, Paris and New York, he couldn’t get work. So he started Why Not Theatre.

“I did it because I wasn’t getting any jobs anywhere. When I first came back to Canada, I felt that people didn’t want to work with someone they didn’t know.

“A lot of my experience was international. When I came back it was ‘Why don’t people care?’ So I had to do it for myself. It has taken some time.”

It has paid off. Why Not is celebrating 10 years. It is a fixture in Toronto’s Theatre Centre. Jain is constantly working, creating and touring new works. In 2016, he was a nominee for the prestigious Siminovitch Prize for Theatre.

It has been harder that it should have been, he says, but now “I’m making the work I want to make.”

Jain’s Salt-Water Moon was first staged in 2016 at Toronto’s venerable Factory Theatre. The reviews were uniformly positive. Critics seemed to love the stripped-down sensibility that allowed for a focus on the spoken words.

Jain believes he did realize his vision.

“That the response was tremendous was really (due) to the fact we were very respectful of the piece. To have David French’s voice on the stage is about honouring him too.

“I had a wonderful teacher who said the role of the artist is to take the analog and make it digital … three-dimensional.

“I think we managed to do (the play) in a theatrical way (that allowed) people to get excited about Salt-Water Moon again. I am really happy about that.”

After the short run at the National Arts Centre, the play will be part of the Off Mirvish season in Toronto next fall. It will also tour to Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg.

He also believes that his version works for all audiences.

“During auditions, a number of people of colour came in and they said, ‘I have never heard about this play. Now I am teaching it to my students.’

“Having people across the country wanting to see the show speaks to a desire to see things in a new way.”

Salt-Water Moon isn’t Jain’s only “re-imagining.” He’s just put a twist on Hamlet in Toronto. His Hamlet is gender blind, colour blind and with actors of different abilities. The play now has a narrator, Horatio, who is deaf.

The result is a fresh take on Shakespeare that is much more that just setting the play in a different time. In fact it is a bilingual production — American Sign Language and English.

Jain actually started working on a reimagined Hamlet at New York University. It was the first play he did in Toronto 10 years ago. With the 10th anniversary of Why Not, it seemed a natural time for a remount with different lens.

Why Not Theatre does new work. It also tours around the world. Jain says the company supports other companies and other artists. They also present work from abroad, in different languages.

“We have presented shows from India, Tunisia, Brazil, in Toronto.” The idea is to open up theatre to an audience that doesn’t go to the theatre because it doesn’t speak English.

He’s even done a show with his mom, who is not an actor in any way. It’s the only show of his she has seen. He may have more work to do.

Salt-Water Moon
Canada Scene
Where: Azrieli Studio
When: July 6-8 at 7 p.m.


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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.