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Q&A: playwright Ravi Jain on his Panamania play, Gimme Shelter

The Panamania festival features 40 performances and exhibitions across Toronto to complement the games, most of which were commissioned specifically for the event. Award-winning director and playwright Ravi Jain was inspired to write Gimme Shelter, an adaptation of the Indian epic Mahabharata. The play opens on today at the Young Centre for Performing Arts.

Q&Q spoke to Jain about his creation process.

How did the idea for the play come about?
I had seen a photo online of a boy, aged about 10, from the Tuvalu islands in the South Pacific. Today, these islands face the worst ravages of climate change, with more deadly storms and cyclones. In 35 years, they are expected to have completely disappeared. Several Tuvalu families have gone to the New Zealand courts, and become the world’s first climate-change refugees. I wondered what it would take for us to empathize enough with this boy that we changed our actions. The drama was motivated by that question.

The play was commissioned by the Panamania festival. What impact did that have on the writing?
The Pan Am organizers were very supportive and open. They did not censure our work. For example, Barrick Gold is one of the sponsors of the festival, and it has come under criticism from several non-profits for contaminating the environment. In the play, we throw a dig at the company. The organizers were fine with it.

The previous play for which you are known, A Brimful of Asha, is highly autobiographical, as you navigate your family’s desire for an arranged marriage. Is Gimme Shelter also autobiographical?
Everyone expects that the play will be a family affair and that like A Brimful of Asha, my mum or dad will play a leading role. It’s not strictly autobiographical, but the spirit of the times always influences artists. Climate change is the leading question for our time.

You have an interesting and diverse background, as you studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and the movement-oriented Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. How did these disciplines influence your work in Gimme Shelter?
I’ve been fortunate to travel and work around the world and encountered different styles of storytelling in India, France, and the United States. Gimme Shelter uses many of these forms. The dance element is inspired by ancient Indian theatre. The Jacques Lecoq school taught me about the use of mask, mime, and the physicality of performance. In New York, I witnessed a more multi-disciplinary approach to theatre. The play opens with a Ted Talk–like monologue, moves into a mimed world of mask, becomes a dance piece, and closes with more traditional storytelling. It is diverse and ambitious. Most contemporary Canadian plays have fewer elements and are more linear.

Many works of fiction that discuss climate change (Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, or Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods) ask how people will behave in a dystopian future of planetary collapse. What sort of questions do you want us to ask about humanity with your play?
In the West, we have very privileged, air-conditioned lives. That’s fine for us, but someone on the other side of the world feels the effects of such energy waste. They are impacted right now, and unless we do something, we are headed towards planetary disaster. We need to be conscious of that.

The Mahabharata is considered one of the India’s longest Sanskrit epics, but like the Odyssey or the Bible, it is, in parts, extremely violent. It narrates the decade-long feud between the children of two royal brothers and it culminates in apocalyptic violence as the brothers fight to control India. What made you decide to choose such a violent epic to discuss ideas about land stewardship?
When you decode the metaphors in the Mahabharata, they are not concerned with the realities of war. On a deeper level, the text is a philosophical exploration of the battle that happens inside the individual. We are all both good and evil, and always at odds with these two sides of ourselves. That tension became interesting to me as a playwright, as it speaks to the choices we must make to address climate change.

After Panamania, what are your hopes for this play?
My other work has travelled internationally and I hope Gimme Shelter does the same. It’s important for it to have the widest possible reach because this is a global issue.

This interview has been edited and condensed.