October 30, 2013

Spotlight on Alumni: Owais Lightwala

Owais Lightwala Owais Lightwala

Owais Lightwala (BFA Theatre 2012) is Artistic Producer at Why Not Theatre, and has also worked as a technician, lighting designer, graphic designer, and sometimes as a Dora-nominated actor. He's done a lot and achieved a lot in his first year out of the program! He shares his point of view on opportunities for recent grads, and for new students to York, too.

Owais Lightwala at the opening for Dear Liar Owais Lightwala at the opening for Dear Liar

Right about the same time as I was finishing my last assignments at York in April 2012, I got involved as a producer on a fairly large international presentation by an independent theatre company called Why Not Theatre. Until that point, I had only ever produced a fringe show and mostly worked as a technician, lighting designer, graphic designer, and sometimes actor. The project involved two shows from India, one in English and one in Urdu, two major celebrities from Bollywood in the cast, and the opening of a brand new space in Regent Park, all on a shoestring independent budget. [see Mooney on Theatre's review of Dear Liar.—ed.] Leading that project, I basically got a 6 month intensive crash course in producing and ended up selling out both shows.

Since then, I've become the company's Artistic Producer, which translates to being the lead on the “business” side of operations, and I led the company's formal establishment as a non-profit organization, including a board of directors, applied (and successfully received 2 out of 3 levels) for operating funding and have been writing endless grants and budgets for our upcoming season of touring, presenting, producing and more.  As a result of my experiences in producing and marketing culture for the South Asian community, I also began working as a consultant for other organizations looking to reach a more diverse audience. Our clients so far include Small World Music (a world music presenter), Canadian Stage (one of Canada's largest theatre organizations), and Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival (a Pan Asian film festival).

When I'm not working my primary job as a producer, I continue working and training as an artist, and earlier this year I assistant directed for Daniel Brooks on Race (Canadian Stage) and acted in a show by Jordan Tannahill called rihannaboi95 (for which I was nominated for a Dora). So it's been a busy year since getting out of school!

What was one thing you enjoyed about York that was outside of the Theatre?

I absolutely adored my philosophy electives. At one point I considered making it a minor, but it was too much more work (and crew takes a lot of time!) and would have meant I couldn't take other electives that I was interested in, like economics. In retrospect, a lot of “theatre school” felt like working in an apprenticeship program, whereas it was my electives that felt more like “university”, by which I mean the learning was much more academic and formal. The philosophy courses in particular really opened up my vision and horizons as an artist and as a person, and taught me how to (attempt to) be a rigorous and thorough thinker. I've had the privilege of working with quite a few people who I consider to be great thinkers, and the common thread amongst all of them is a highly developed ability to conceptualize and articulate complex ideas and arguments in a way that makes sense to anyone.

Do you have any advice or tips for York students just entering the dept.? 

I would repeat advice that was given to me when I started York, and that is be open to everything. Become Jim Carrey from that movie Yes Man, where he says Yes to every opportunity that comes his way. Whatever it is, however new, dive in and commit 100%. I had no idea what I wanted to do or be when I was starting out, and every great opportunity and gig that has come my way has been a direct result of me pursuing some other seemingly less glamorous opportunity. Yes, sometimes taking risks will mean falling flat on your face, but those experiences are just as important to your growth as the ones where you soar.

Do you have any advice or tips for York students just about to graduate? about to join the job market?

People like to hire people they know. I have yet to get a single gig, job or part because of a resume, application or auction. I worked my way into the right circles by showing up everywhere, and being the first to raise my hands whenever a volunteer was needed for anything. Ultimately, I want to hire the person who is most likely to show up and get the job done, and the easiest way to demonstrate that is by making a habit of asking to help and then showing up. This also ties in with the “yes man” attitude and not showing up with a narrow mind and closed definition of who you are and what you do. The hardest part is getting in the door, doing anything, and once you are in it is a lot easier to figure out what you want to do.

What did you learn at York that has been of greatest value?   

The importance of time management. And by time management I mean learning how to plan properly so that you have enough time to deliver on all your commitments (on schedule), eat properly, pay rent and get 8 hours of sleep. Full disclosure, I am still working on this one, but I learnt at York the hard limits of what my body is capable of. Working 3 different jobs, being in crew, and having a full course load is not something I would want to put myself through again, but it taught me the value of a healthy balanced lifestyle.