Newcomer family enjoys their first theatre performance in Canada

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(L-R)Haigriva, Chetna, Dwiren, Hridey Kantharia before the play

By Pradip Rodrigues

Back in April 2016, it was reported that the Canada Council for the Arts would have a new funding model in place starting April 2017.

It would tie diversity to funding, so going forward theatre companies and organizers of cultural festivals who received funding would have to demonstrate some efforts toward diversifying their audience base.

Following that report, this reporter contacted Tim Jennings, Director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-By-The-Lake. We discussed ways Canadian cultural offerings could be marketed to ethnic audiences. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to bring ethnic minorities through those doors. This reporter pointed out, it was more important to find out what was keeping them out.

Following that meeting and  interviews with a cross-section of new immigrants over the next few weeks, it was clear that many would be open to attending a theater performance but were reluctant. The reason being they’d be out of their comfort zone.

According to Vaidehi Bhagat who can be identified as an upper-middle class newcomer it is not so much the cost of a ticket that keeps new immigrant families away from experiencing a theater performance, but wariness at being conspicuous in a sea of Caucasians, or feeling out of place. “Many of us may not know what to expect, how to dress etc. Also many don’t want to stick out in a crowd,” she said. That feeling was echoed over and over again. So the trick was to make non-Caucasian immigrants feel welcome.

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This reporter then proposed that he invites a newcomer family to the Alice in Wonderland play currently staged at the Shaw Festival Theatre and record their experience.

Alice in Wonderland an adaptation by Peter Hinton is visually spectacular and is something that is leaving theatre goers mesmerized by the special effects and brilliant technology.

Many South Asians who’ve gone to school in India are familiar with the story Alice by Lewis Carol, including Dwiren Kantharia, who we invited along with his family for the play. The story begins on a summer day in 1862, ten-year old Alice and her two sisters were told a story about a little girl, a white rabbit and a trip down a hole into an astonishing world. It is fascinating to watch Alice try to make sense of this world of grown-up nonsense.

The thought of going to their first Canadian and arguably a world-class theatre performance filled the Kantharia family with a mixture of nervousness and excitement.

Here below is an post-performance interview with the family

What was your overall impression of your first theatre experience in Canada?
“Our family will always remember the day- May 28, 2 PM, when we got the opportunity to venture down the rabbit hole at “The Shaw Festival” to explore wonderland of Alice. The entire team of “The Shaw” made our first theater experience in Canada one of the most memorable events we’ve had since immigrating to Canada seven years ago.
We were little bit apprehensive about the dress code and etiquette required to be followed. We were sure that lots of Americans and Canadians attended the Shaw festival theatre and there would be few if any immigrants like us in the audience. All our anxiety was put to rest when we arrived at 11.30 am for the Alice Backstage tour.

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The backstage tour
It was a great way to understand what happens behind the scenes to make the on-stage performance possible.

Normally we spend two or three hours watching a play and give all credit to the actors on stage but real credit goes to the backstage crew who tirelessly work to ensure the on-stage actors can perform without a flaw. The backstage was full of surprise as below the stage there were three different motorized cranes. The costume designer works almost six months in advance to design and stitch different costumes. The Shaw Company also tags each costume with name of character and their physical measurements which can be quickly referenced for future use. There were more than 400 lights used and all controlled through only one console/ computer. Can you believe the temperature in auditorium is deliberately  kept low so actors on stage are comfortable given the amount of  heat generated from these lights? The floor on stage is assembled and dissembled as per the requirement of the play.

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We learnt so much about what is expected once actors are contracted by The Shaw Company, for example they are expected to maintain the same hair styles and almost the same body weight. Even the wigs used for actors are from real human hairs which are not chemically treated that includes shampoo.

Here are each of our reactions to the play:
I was really amazed by the fantastic visuals and use of projection technology to enlarge Alice with huge tear drops. – Hriday

Larger than life scenery and sets, wonderful music, fantastic actors, unbelievable costumes and use of technology you would have never seen on stage. – Chetna and Dwiren

Impressive use of technology to showcase the Cheshire cat. Most amazing and dramatic Queen of Heart. – Haigriva

This was amazing experience and we would look forward to explore more theaters in Canada. – CINEWS

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