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Building “New” Audiences

Even though I went to NYU, it isn’t often I get to come back to New York City, and to be here as part of Under The Radar is—well I always wanted to be part of the festival in some way, and I never imagined it would be like this! So, thank you so much for having me, it really is an honor to be here and I appreciate the time to share some of my experiences with you.

My name is Ravi Jain. I’m the founder of an international theatre company based in Toronto, Canada, called Why Not Theatre. I started the company when I returned to Toronto in 2007, after training and working abroad for eight years. I had a stellar international resume, however, there wasn’t a lot of imagination to hire me, as an actor or director. I was constantly reminded that I was South Asian, and that my identity and skin color would limit what I could do in Canadian theatre. But I grew up in English-speaking Canada, in a Hindi-speaking home, going to a French immersion school. Identity for me was always hybrid; it’s the fusion…the in-between of cultures that excites me. So I founded Why Not as a provocation: I wanted to challenge not only how I was seen, but the status quo of what stories were told, who gets to tell them, and most importantly, who those stories are for.

Two people eat and laugh at a small table.

Ravi and Asha Jain in A Brimful of Asha by Ravi and Asha Jain, a Why Not Theatre Production. Directed by Ravi Jain. Set and costume design by Julie Fox. Lighting design by Beth Kates. Photo by Erin Brubacher. 

So, when asked to share some thoughts about the future of international touring, my first thought was the audience. When touring, I’m always surprised that people come to the shows, and it’s strange to think that after the show we usually never see those people again. What kind of relationship can international artists have with audiences in other cities over a long period of time? And what relationships are possible between the artist and the presenter, especially if the presenter is dealing with a “new” audience? 

“New” audiences is a term that I hear a lot in Canada. Since 2020, I’ve seen huge shifts in programming at local theatres and international festivals. I see more access being created for “new” voices with an eye on engaging “new” audiences. “New” seems to be the stand-in term for not white, straight, able-bodied. Pre-pandemic, at Why Not, we had mostly been touring smaller shows of two to five people, but all of sudden there was a lot of interest in two of the biggest shows we ever made—shows that reached those “new audiences.”

In 2022, our production of Hamlet, a fully integrated bilingual English and American Sign Language (deaf/hearing) production toured across the United States to seven venues. And in 2023, we toured our newest production, a three-part, seven-hour adaptation of The Mahabharata to the Barbican Centre in London, with over thirty-five people on the road.

While keen to get these “new audiences,” many institutions didn’t necessarily have the experience to understand what their needs might be. But we…with deep cultural and lived experiences in those communities, were able to anticipate the needs. 

Now, a common thing these two shows share is that they are made for hybrid audiences; that is, audiences from two distinctly different cultures. For Hamlet, as the show was bilingual and fully accessible to a deaf audience, it was important for us to welcome mixed hearing and deaf audiences to the theatre, and for Mahabhrata both an audience versed in Western theatre as well as many first-ever-theatregoing audiences from the South Asian diaspora. Over time it became clear to us that, while keen to get these “new audiences,” many institutions didn’t necessarily have the experience to understand what their needs might be. But we—the artists and producers of the work—with deep cultural and lived experiences in those communities, were able to anticipate the needs. So, I wanted to share a few examples that I hope will show how artists and presenters might work better together to share that knowledge and experience in order to find “new” ways to welcome “new” audiences.


We had premiered Prince Hamlet in 2017 in Toronto. The production featured a Deaf artist, Dawn Jani Birley, who played Horatio, and our adaptation centers Horatio as the primary storyteller. So while the other actors are hearing and speaking, the audience is simultaneously receiving the entire story through Horatio’s lens which is physical and visual. There was no ASL interpreter; all the translation was happening from within the artistic world. From the ground up, the production was made for both Deaf and hearing audiences; so experiencing Prince Hamlet is like experiencing two shows simultaneously.

Beyond the artistic success, we as producers of the Toronto production were most proud that we achieved a mixed audience. Dawn, a third-generation-Deaf person, advised us on particular marketing strategies for the Deaf community. We spent a lot of time on grassroots marketing, a ton of video and social media, and (most importantly) by word spreading in the community (Dawn assured us, Deaf audiences who have never been to a theatre wouldn’t come to see Hamlet without a credible source). We had an accessible ticket price (with the lowest ticket starting at five dollars ) and we staffed the front of house team with interpreters before and after the show, so that Deaf patrons could connect with the creative team if they wanted to. 

An actress in a suit performs onstage.

Dawn Jani Birley in Prince Hamlet adapted by Ravi Jain from Shakespeare, produced by Why Not Theatre. Directed by Ravi Jain. Set and costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne. Lighting design by Andre Du Toit. ASL translation by Dawn Jani Birley. Photo by Bronwen Sharp. 

Then five years later, when we toured the production throughout the United States, we were working mostly with American universities for the first time and we were overwhelmed by a bunch of factors: We were touring at the biggest scale we’d ever done (total of seventeen people on the road), we were coming out of/still in Covid, there was so much changeover in leadership and staffing and people starting new positions. We were also in a more traditional “Presenter - Visiting Company” relationship, where the presenter manages the marketing and the artists bring the production. As a result, we weren’t really able to have enough deep conversations with each presenter about how to reach out to their local Deaf community.

We had a ton of experience and expertise on our team but we didn’t have the mechanisms or time to really share that with the presenting institutions or for that to get to the specific people responsible for marketing and outreach. While there were some deaf audiences at the shows, it was a far cry from the almost 50/50 we had in Toronto. If only there had been a way for us to have a deeper connection with the presenter we might have reached a larger audience—and those critical “new” audiences—together. 


The second example I want to speak about is Mahabharata. We premiered Mahabharata at The Shaw Festival, a regional theatre that is an hour and a half drive from Toronto. It’s one of Canada’s largest institutions, and for its sixty-year history has mainly catered to an upper-middle class white audience. It was a huge move for the Shaw to commission, develop, and premiere our Mahabharata, both because of the content and because they had never partnered with a smaller company to produce a show from the ground up (in their sixty- year history)! Our major concern was that South Asian audiences wouldn't come out to see the show because of lack of familiarity with the Shaw Festival’s work, lack of accessible and affordable transit to Niagara on the Lake, and high ticket prices.

A group of performers dance onstage.

Jay Emmanuelle in Mahabharata adapted by Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes using poetry from Carole Satyamurti's Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling, a Why Not Theatre Production commissioned by the Shaw Festival and Baribcan Theatre. Directed by Ravi Jain. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Lighting design by Kevin Lamotte. Video by Hana Kim. Sound and music design by John Gzoski and Suba Shankaran. Photo by David Cooper. 

Since Why Not was a co-producer, we were able to help address those accessibility concerns. Shaw is hard to get to, so we encouraged the Shaw to charter buses that would travel directly from South Asian communities, to the theatre and back. While Shaw’s marketing was largely focused on digital, press, and radio ads, our Why Not Team did a ton of grassroots outreach to local temples, gurdwaras, restaurants, grocery stores and newcomer community groups… we were producing outside of their regular season and all of our approaches had led to us exceeding the box office expectations and a whopping 42 percent of our audience were first time visitors to the festival. It was amazing to see “old” and “new” audiences mingling in the lobby after the show after spending the whole day together.

One cultural collision that I’d love to share, is the culture of the theatre itself—which can present barriers to a lot of new audiences. Before one of the performances of Mahabharata, I was in the lobby, and the show was about to start. There was a little panic from front of house (FOH) to get things started and hurry people in. A family walked in— auntie, uncle, grandma, grandpa, two toddlers, one passed out in a stroller.

If we really, truly, want “new” audiences, it might not always be on our terms, and it has to be our job to make sure all feel welcomed—so that everyone decides to come back!

They were “late” and they wanted to change their seats. They had seen part one, but their kids were vocal and they felt bad annoying other patrons, so they wanted to move into the balcony. The FOH manager was imploding, she couldn’t compute the request and manage the pressure to start, and one of our understudies intervened and got the box office manager to help out—he was awesome. As they were walking up the stairs, half way the grandparents changed their mind and they were discussing in Bengali, whether they wanted to walk all the way up or go back to their original seats… meanwhile FOH is going bananas, Our understudy is speaking terrible Hindi saying “Jaldi Jaldi!” They get to the top of the stairs, park the stroller and they all head in, and the show was eight minutes late. I share the shortened version of this because it really was a clash of cultures for that theatre. The culture of the theatre and its “rules,” which are rigid, and the culture of (broadly speaking) Indian people, where time, tickets, everything is flexible. To me, it was hilarious. I could understand how stressful the situation was for the staff of the theatre, but the chaos of it, was so recognizable to me, so comforting to witness, because it was my culture. It felt right. If we really, truly, want “new” audiences, it might not always be on our terms, and it has to be our job to make sure all feel welcomed—so that everyone decides to come back!


A different kind of cultural collision happened in our collaboration with the Barbican Centre, which to me was a huge success. Beyond the Western and South Asian audiences, we had also anticipated that there were two different working cultures and styles between Why Not, a small Canadian POC led company, and the Barbican, a massive British institution. We knew there could be the potential for friction (as we had had with predominantly white institutions in the past), so very early on in the process we got all the key folks from both Why Not and Barbican teams together to have a conversation about values. To our surprise, the Barbican welcomed this invitation with open arms; they were thrilled to discuss the way we each worked, our expectations, how we would practice values-based decision making, how we would handle conflict if it emerged between the teams, and what we hoped the audience experience to feel like. Most importantly, the Barbican’s marketing team was part of the meeting, so what became evident through the values meeting, was that we needed to hire a South Asian marketing consultant (which we recommended through one of the actors in the company) to ensure we’d reach those first-time-theatregoing South Asian audiences that we were hoping to.

Not only did we sell out the entire run, but we were the second most successful show of 2023 to bring new audiences to the Barbican. It didn’t feel like a presenter/visiting artist relationship, and it wasn’t a co-producing relationship. It felt like—and was—a true collaboration. And standing in the lobby, being miles away from home, I had the feeling of home.

A beloved Canadian programmer, Norman Armour—the founder of the PuSh festival in Vancouver—who recently passed away, used to speak with me about touring in terms of hosts and guests. I think there is the potential for presenters to work with artists to create a new category of “Guest Host,” where we, the “guest” artists, can play a significant role in helping venues host “new” audiences.

Of course, not all artists will want to play this role, nor should they have to, but I offer these learnings as a way of helping to think about more deep and long-term relationships in touring between artists and presenters and audiences.

Being a good guest or a good host, is really about understanding the importance of generosity and what it means to share. And I think if we share the resource of the building, the theatre, the venue itself, between artists and presenters, we might find more creative ways to not only engage and welcome a “new” audience, but we might also find ways to better immerse ourselves in another’s story and authentically experience another’s culture. This is true for local, national, and international contexts.

I am sure many minds in this room are hard at work on this—so I hope sharing some of these experiences will help build on your conversations and ideas.

Thank you for your time and for having me here today!

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Thoughts from the curator

This series combines content from and about the 2024 Under the Radar Symposium, produced by the Under the Radar Festival and ArkType in partnership with the International Producing Commons (IPC), Creative and Independent Producer Alliance (CIPA), and HowlRound Theatre Commons. 

Under the Radar Symposium 2024


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