Artist Profile: Qasim Khan of Theatre Direct’s “Beneath the Banyan Tree”
Interview by Brittany Kay
A sit down with Qasim Khan is like no other. He radiates positivity and hilarity, making him perfect for Theatre Direct’s current run and tenth anniversary of Beneath the Banyan Tree.
With Britney Spears blaring over the radio, Qasim and I spoke about the reality of life after theatre school and how to persevere in order to succeed.
Brittany: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Your journey, as you will, to where you are now.
Qasim: I was raised in Newmarket, which was a great place to grow up. I moved there when I was 6 months old from Scarborough and went to school like normal people go to school. I guess I started doing music stuff in elementary school. I wasn’t a drama kid ever-ever. Even in high school I had the mentality that if I didn’t go into a theatre school, I was going to go into vocal jazz school.
Brittany: You don’t say.
Qasim: Yeah… drama kids were really loud and really confident and I was not. I was singing a lot. Started doing some theatre in the last couple of years of high school and community musicals. The first show I ever did was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and I played Benjamin, the baby brother. It was an amazing experience and they brought in an Equity choreographer and it was just…so fun. That sort of gave me the first taste of what doing this all the time could be like.
The show came at a time when my dad passed away in grade seven and I kind of feel like I had stopped talking to people. Being around people with the same interests and who were very nurturing, made me talk and communicate and be a human again. That was a really important thing for me to do. I then did more of it and then somehow got through high school and passed everything. Maybe it’s because I loaded my schedule with like every music class I could find.
I then auditioned into the circuit people do when auditioning for theatre schools. I had my heart set on going to the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts because it would be a musical theatre program. The only fight I’ve ever gotten into with my mom is about what school I would go to and she wanted me to go where I went – The University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM/Erindale) joint program with Sheridan College – and I wanted to go to Randolph and so we didn’t talk for a week and then we got over it.
Brittany: Yes, the parental debacle of what college versus university theatre school seems to be a very universal artist experience.
Qasim: Then I moved away to university when I was seventeen and did four years at “Sherindale”.
Brittany: haha….Sherindale nice.
Qasim: Had an okay time at Sherindale I suppose. Theatre school’s weird. Theatre school is weird when you’re seventeen. I graduated from UTM and started auditioning for stuff in my fourth year and got an agent. I moved to Toronto and then promptly didn’t work as an actor for like two years where I was working in the box office at The Young Centre for Soulpepper. Then I needed money, so I started working there full time. I did get to see a lot of the stuff that Soulpepper was doing. I didn’t know much about the company before working there except for the people – I knew I wanted to work with those people one day. I would do the odd TV thing. There was a lot of film and TV auditions and I was very unsuccessful booking most of them
Brittany: I hear that…
Qasim: Right!? I did get a couple. My first TV role was playing a terrorist on Little Mosque on the Prairie, which made my mom super proud.
Brittany: So how did you decide to audition for the Soulpepper Academy?
Qasim: There was a weird bridge into introducing myself as a performer at Soulpepper. The notice came out for the academy auditions and at the same time I was offered a promotion in the box office that would have been a great salary and great normal job. The message from my boss was that if you take the promotion, you won’t be taken seriously at your academy audition, but if you go to the academy audition we’re going to fill this position. So pick one. It was….terrifying. I said no to the job and yes to the audition.
Brittany: Talk to me about the audition.
Qasim: My first audition for the academy was hilarious. I knew all the actors in the building kind of casually… like I would book their comps.
Qasim: I booked off vacation time from my box office job before the audition and after because it would be very embarrassing if I did very poorly. I’d still be in the building and I’d still be booking their comps.
So Mike Ross came out to call the next person and when he saw me he was kind of confused as to what I was doing out there. When I came in they all asked if I needed something and I was like, “Um I just want to audition,” and they kind of chuckled. The audition went okay I thought, but I ended up getting a call back and eventually being a part of the Academy.
Brittany: How did your experience in the Academy shape your future as an actor and performer?
Qasim: Soulpepper came at the right time for me. I was burned out from auditioning all the time and, being close to so many ‘breaks’, was constantly questioning whether I should be doing this, and was also getting really unhealthily overweight from stuffing my face after bad auditions and working jobs I hated.
Qasim: My time in the Academy refueled me and gave me a year of not having to worry about auditioning, working side jobs, and I was able to get back in touch with my creativity and artistry, and get healthy again. I learned the value of mentorship at Soulpepper, which is sort of the foundation of the company. I was mentored by so many actors and directors whose work I grew up admiring. In many ways, it was a dream come true.
Part of the experience at the Academy is being cast in scene studies and productions in the season, and when this happened, my experience shifted a bit from what I expected when I entered the program. I could see my classmates being challenged and pushed and given opportunities to progress, and that was not my experience. Regardless, in the end, what I took away from Soulpepper when it comes to being in a production is how to be a great teammate. I learned how to support action on stage and how to be in an ensemble. It was humbling and I’m very grateful for that experience.
Brittany: And after that?
Qasim: I felt like I needed a bit more experience, especially when it came to Shakespeare, which I didn’t get to really bite into in the way I wanted at the Academy, and that lead me to pursue an opportunity at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, UK. In 2013, I did a Fellowship at the Globe, which is a short residency with the company – every two years they invite 20ish actors from around the world to come, play, learn, and perform. At the Globe I was given great roles to work on, great scenes to play in, and it was the perfect button on my two years of ‘upgrade training’.
Brittany: What made you want to become an actor?
Qasim: In high school, one of the only plays I did was Morris Panych’s 7 Stories and it’s a very funny play and I’m a funny person.
Brittany: Really!? I didn’t know that…
Qasim: That was the first time I realized I could be funny and that I could control people’s laughter. I remember doing the play one afternoon for my school and immediately people were laughing at me. That moment was so exciting and truly eye-opening. I think I may have been good at other things but I didn’t pursue them out of fear that I would be really good at them and wouldn’t be able to do this. I kind of just always knew that this is what I wanted to do.
Brittany: So how did you get involved with Theatre Direct?
Qasim: Lynda Hill gave me my first professional theatre job out of university and it was a workshop. We added each other to Facebook and I really liked working with her a lot. She sent me a message about the possibility of a remount and I came in to audition for the part I have today.
Brittany: What is “Beneath the Banyan Tree” about?
Qasim: The play is about the story of a girl named Anjali and it’s the day of her 12th birthday. She has just come from India to Canada with her family. It sort of centres on her first day of school and on her birthday where her grandmother, Ajji wants to celebrate by putting her in this beautiful salwar kameez, which is this beautiful traditional dress. She doesn’t want to because she fears she will be made fun of at school. We follow her as she makes a new friend named Mason that encourages her to share her culture and to be confident about it. She realizes she can be Canadian and Indian at the same time and those things intersect in a really beautiful way.
Brittany: Tell me a little bit about your character.
Qasim: I play a character named Maitri who is the spirit of the Banyan tree, and also three animal characters from the Indian fables of the Panchatantra. The fables and stories provide the framework for the play. Maitri acts as Anjali’s confidant throughout the play and helps her along her journey.
Brittany: I know there is big element of the fantastical in this show, especially with your character. How are the elements of fantasy created on the stage?
Qasim: There is a lot of puppetry, which is gorgeous! When the play veers into the fantastical it’s done though movement. Our choreographer Lata Pada is an amazing and really well known Bharatanatyam choreographer. Cheryl Lalonde’s set design and Michael Kruse’s lighting really help create this fantastical world. The set is essentially a big tree and things can come in and out of it in really magical ways.
Brittany: This is a show that is primarily aimed for young audiences. What are the important lessons they are to take away from this play?
Qasim: Acceptance – that’s the biggest one. How can kids accept other people and feel accepted in their day-to-day lives. Friendship – which is how Anjali gets comfortable in Canada. Roots – which is a big theme because the focal set piece is a tree. The conundrum that Anjali is in is how to preserve the roots she has in India while being quote on quote Canadian and what is the right way to do that. She learns there is no right way to do that – she’s just doing it by being herself.
Brittany: How has it been having young people as the core of your audience?
Qasim: This is my first time doing a show for young audiences. It’s been a good lesson of how to preserve the quality of the show without playing to the ages of the children. You’re also always trying to keep everyone engaged. A lot of my stories are out to the kids. I get to connect to the audience in a different way than the other players do, which is kind of fun.
Brittany: Young audiences can be extremely vocal at times. Have there been any instances that stick out?
Qasim: One of the puppets I operate is an elephant and I need to make elephant noises with my mouth. When I did the sound a kid really loudly yelled, “Did you just fart?” And I wanted to be like, “No, I don’t do that… I’m polite,” but I couldn’t.
Brittany: That’s amazing. How has it been having Lynda as a director?
Qasim: She’s been with the show for ten years and originally helped develop it. The show means a lot to her. She’s taken a lot of care with the play while keeping the same solid work that has happened before. It’s been remounted several times for a reason – it’s a great show. We were still able to explore our artistry in the process and during the show. I love working with her because she gives us the frame of the show and because of the audience and specificity of the play, a lot of it works like clockwork. The fun thing for me is finding freedom within the constraints of the show. It’s been lovely to work with her and spending time with her again. She really knows how to curate a visual story for young audiences. And the cast is super fun.
Brittany: What do you want audiences walking away with?
Qasim: I want them to have just experienced a visual feast. I want them to laugh a lot. I want young people to have seen a play they can identify with. While the story is very specific about a girl coming from India, the stuff she deals with is the same stuff that kids deal with on a regular basis. When young audiences see their own experiences reflected on stage, they can relate and reflect it back onto their own lives.
Rapid Fire Questions:
Favourite book: Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
Favourite movie: Anne of Green Gables 1 and 2
Favourite musical: It changes everyday, but recently Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Favourite play: Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov
Favourite place in Toronto: King East, like Church and Parliament. The history and the architecture are amazing.
Favourite Food: Hamburgers. I love fast food.
Best Advice You’ve Ever Gotten: Don’t quit and stick with it! Most importantly, surround yourself with people who can give you air.
Beneath the Banyan Tree
Written by Emil Sher with choreography by Lata Pada
Directed by Lynda Hill
Costume and Set Design by Cheryl Lalonde
Lighting Design by Michael Kruse
Music by Edgardo Moreno
Recommended For Grades K – 6 | Ages 4 & Up
When: March 5 – 28
Where: Wychwood Barns
Tickets & Info: http://www.theatredirect.ca/