4 Questions: Owais Lightwala
This article is part of our series 50 Years of Disruption, in celebration of the Department of Theatre’s 50th Anniversary. In it, we’ll ask each participant four questions about themselves and their time at York.
1. Who are you?
I’m Owais Lightwala (BFA Theatre Production & Design 2012), and I’m mostly a theatre producer, and occasional theatre artist and web/graphic designer. I spend most of my days as the Managing Director of Why Not Theatre, an independent theatre company I helped build from basically the ground up into one of the country’s fastest growing, and I would argue, most exciting companies. I also do a bit of work as a strategic consultant and have worked with all kinds of arts and culture orgs on things to do with changing who’s in their audience, innovating new models, and anything to do with numbers. I didn’t really plan to be here—back when I was graduating from York I was a bit of a jack of all trades. At 21, I was finding myself reasonably successful on many fronts, had a consistent stream of lighting and sound design gigs, was Assistant Director to Daniel Brooks on a mainstage show at Canadian Stage, got nominated for a Dora for acting, and had worked in a devised collective creation ensemble that performed in the Fringe. Around the same time, I was assisting Ravi Jain (now Artistic Director of Why Not Theatre) as a producer, and through a series of chance events, found myself with the responsibility of co-leading the producing of a major project Ravi had been asked to present in Toronto. It was 2 shows that we called “Beyond Bollywood”, involving a legendary Indian movie star couple, and we had 2400 tickets to sell and a hundred grand to raise in 6 months to make it happen. I didn’t know any better, so I thought I could do those things, and in the end it became a crash course MBA in producing theatre that nearly killed me, but we pulled it off. Ravi and I then decided to work together more formally, and we incorporated Why Not as a real non-profit, got a board, and I learnt about things like accounting and operating funding and we gradually built a company. For most of the last 6 years I’ve been at Why Not, I tried to maintain an artistic practice on the side, thinking I would be able to pursue both the producing and artistry simultaneously. Recently, I’ve become much more comfortable just calling myself a producer and saying no to the artist side of me, mostly because I get to have such a big impact in this role and, because of how quickly we have grown and are growing, I have a lot of learning still to do. For the first 4 or so years, I was learning how to make things happen, and the last 2 years our team has grown rapidly and now I’m learning how to lead other people in making more and bigger things happen. I didn’t really have any sense that this would be after theatre school, and still don’t really know where its going to take me, but I’ve learnt to embrace the uncertainty of the long term and focus on giving 150% of my energy to the opportunities in front of me today.
2. What was your favourite moment during your time in the Theatre Department, and why?
I really loved curating the Scenes By Design exhibition in my 4th year as my Production practicum assignment. I had not had the chance to lead a team, in all that entails—creating a vision, inspiring others with that vision, executing and following through with the vision—and it was a formative experience for me. In a way, it was the closest thing to being a director, which was a role I was always interested in but there weren’t any opportunities at York for at the time.
3. What comment, quotation, statement, or action that a professor—or classmate—offered had the greatest impact on you?
Pretty much everything Peter McKinnon said would answer this question. I still quote Peter-isms to people I work with and mentor, things like “if you don’t ask, the answer is no”, and “the producer is an agent on behalf of the audience”. He has a way of packing incredible amounts of wisdom (accumulated over a lifetime of experience) into witty one liners that meant they actually stuck with you for a long time.
4. Is there a way you incorporate a particular aspect of your theatre training in your current work?
This is hard to answer. I incorporate all of it. As a producer and arts manager, I am involved in making decisions about every aspect of theatre making, and so everything I learnt at York, including how the Wardrobe works, or the actor’s process, or how to hang a light—it all informs me to making the best judgements. I also have a much easier time communicating with people who we hire or work with in almost every role, because I have actually tried some version of it at some point or the other. I would not have been able to do the work I do without that solid foundation of the fundamentals of the theatrical process.