"Community is a two-way street. You have to put something into it to get something out of it."
Toronto performing artist Shawn Ahmed currently appears in the Shaw Festival’s production of ‘Mahabharata’ in conjunction with Why Not Theatre and in association with the Barbican, London, England.
In reading recent reviews of the production, I hear tremendous praise about the five-hour show. Yes, five hours, but there is a break in between the two performances. More about this shortly.
Ahmed earned a Specialist in Economics at the University of Toronto. When did his desire to become an actor enter his mind?
He says it was always something in the back of his head:
“I just had no tangible way of achieving that goal. Before university, I attended Wexford School for the Arts. I had a huge introduction to the musical theatre there, to acting, dancing, and singing. It was always something I really loved in creating stories, listening to stories, watching stories, reciting stand-up.”
Ahmed had an agent at this time, but he didn’t really see a place for himself in the industry. That’s when he attended U of T to study Economics. He remembers his agent telling him that she could still send him out to auditions since he was in Toronto. He could do commercials and make some extra pocket money which he thought was a good idea. He did that and while he studied at school Shawn was auditioning. In his second year that’s when he booked the substantial job of filming ‘Flight 93’ in Vancouver, the first film made about 9/11. (Side note: I did see the film and it is worth viewing. You can YouTube it).
Shawn recalls being treated like an actor in that film. The experience was so profound for him that he had to decide how to make the industry work for him. He finished his degree, part-time over the next four years while doing sketch comedy, auditioning, and writing things. He also recalled working in the backs of bars wherever he could.
Once he finished his degree, Shawn shifted focus and dove headfirst into the industry and moulded his life around how he would make a living in this business.
He is very excited to be back in the theatre doing what he loves even though our world is still in Covid’s embrace. Hesitant about the theatre for the last couple of years Ahmed focused on the film and tv industry. However, in the last six months, he feels there has been a resurgence in theatre in Toronto and at Shaw. He feels there is an appetite as audiences and artists are hungry for live theatre again and for its storytelling. Voice and storytelling at its core, the really simple stuff, carry us forward while the other elements of the production lift it up.
Currently, he is deep into performances for ‘Mahabharata’ at the Shaw Festival billed on the website as: “a contemporary take on a Sanskrit epic that is more than four thousand years old and foundational to Indian culture. This gripping story of a family feud is an exploration of profound philosophical and spiritual ideas.”
When I asked Shawn to describe the plot synopsis, he had a good laugh and said: “If I distill it to one line, I would call it Indian Game of Thrones.”
The Mahabharata is a 4000-year-old Sanskrit poem that has been told for obviously a very long time. If recited in its entirety, Ahmed says it would take 21 days to recite it. The production is a condensed version of the poem.
For Shawn, what’s interesting about the story? It’s an Eastern story but it’s being told at a Western theatre for a Western audience by predominantly artists who grew up in the western hemisphere. It’s an event. At times, it’s a spectacle. The challenge is to honour what is in the original text, but the vision is to make it palatable for a western audience.
‘Mahabharata’ is many different stories, some related and some not, that have different lessons. Each story can be dissected in different ways. Each story is meant to be heard, listened and digested over and over again because you’ll get something different out of it every time. At its core, ‘Mahabharata’ is a love story where two people fall in love. As a result of that love, there are two different brothers that lay claim to the throne of Hastinapura. Each of these brothers has children and these children, who are cousins, will fight for what they believe is their rightful place.
Ahmed describes the Shaw performances as ambitious but fantastic and adds: “It’s been a very difficult process, not from a place of tension but from a place of being expected to do a lot. The artists have had to do a lot. I’ve been pushed personally I think further than I have been pushed as an artist physically and emotionally, and mentally just timewise more than I’ve been for another show that I’ve done in recent memory.”
Shawn stipulates he likes working hard for things he likes to do. It’s been a great learning experience. He’s proud of ‘Mahabharata’ and praises the work of writers Miriam Fernandes and Ravi Jain. Jain also directs the work. What Ahmed has found remarkable is the element of trust that has been established from and in everyone within the room towards Miriam, Ravi, and their vision for the work. An international cast has been assembled for the show and Shawn also finds that exciting. The expectation hopefully is to tour the show to as many audiences as possible.
The story is very special to Shawn, and he reiterates how important it is to see both parts. Audiences are into it. The current production is told in many ways. It’s not simply a stand-up story. For example, there’s dance, music, opera, and clown influence.
Outside of his work as a professional artist, Shawn heartfully spoke about his involvement in helping marginalized youth and young people break into film, television, and the theatre. He calls this initiative a community and it is a beautiful thing to him. It helps support everyone in that community and makes their lives better, their careers better and their quality of life better.
Community is a two-way street for Ahmed. You have to put something into it to get something out of it. He sits on the board of directors at POV Film, a charitable organization founded in 2007 by Edie Weiss and Jeff Kopas. He proudly recalled how a lot of people stepped up along the way to help him out. Now, Shawn wants to give back and help marginalized youth break into the film and television industry through training, mentorship, job placement, and professional development.
Shawn also co-founded Crazy Shirt Productions. This is a place for him and his creative peers to write, direct and produce. His projects have toured festivals worldwide and garnered awards and accolades. He just wrapped on the feature, ‘Sanctuary’, a Get Out-esque thriller, which he produced. (Hmmm…something else to watch for in the future).
What’s next for Shawn Ahmed after ‘Mahabharata’ has concluded its run:
“I am producing a movie that my buddy Scott Leaver wrote and directed called ‘The Devil Comes At Night’, a feature-length horror film we shot during pandemic times. We went to a cabin with a bunch of actors and crew for two weeks and shot it out. It had its premiere at the Blood and Snow Festival last November with Super channel and will have some sort of a release this year. There’s another show I produced called ‘Right Under My Roof’ through POV Films. It’s a six-part series told through found footage. The story is told through social media essentially.”
And on a personal note, Shawn shared: “There are wedding bells in the future.”
Always great news to hear.
‘Mahabharata’ runs until March 26 at the Shaw’s Festival Theatre. The production is divided into two parts. To learn more and/or purchase tickets, visit shawfest.com or call 1-800-511-SHAW.