Adapting to Diversity: ATP’s new artistic, executive director Rohit Chokhani sees a way for theatre to move forward while still maintaining its classical form

On the very day Rohit Chokhani arrived in Calgary to start his new job as artistic and executive director of Alberta Theatre Projects, he had a chance to see the closing night of Stealing Sam, ATP’s first production in the Martha Cohen theatre since the closure of theatres in March 2020. 

“I could see people as they were coming out, and they were all so glad,” he recalls. “Many of them were there for the first time watching a live performance after god knows how many months, so it was powerful … The feeling of being back in a live space, feeling safe and being able to watch was very good to see.”

Theatre people have spent the last 18 months speculating about how the pandemic will affect theatre in the coming years, and Chokhani is no exception. His last gig involved transforming the Vancouver Fringe to accommodate pandemic restrictions — all while trapped in India by border closures himself and working long distance. But unlike some, he doesn’t see the art form disappearing or going forever digital.  

“Theatre has always had challenges as a medium and we have always innovated,” he says. “This might be one of the biggest challenges, because we (couldn’t) even go into the theatre, but it’s not the first time we’ve seen it. Television has challenged it before, and different pandemics have challenged it before. 

“I really believe in the resiliency of theatre artists, so I think we’ll find a way.”

That said, the 2018 winner of the Vancouver NOW Representation and Inclusion award and former producer of the province-wide Diwali in BC festival wouldn’t be averse to a bit of a shake-up.  

“The world is changing,” he notes, “and quite frankly as an artist of colour and a leader of colour, there’s a part of me that does not want to go back completely to what it used to be.” 

Chokhani says diversity in the theatre is about more than just casting — it extends to the stories that are told on stage, the leadership models at theatre companies, the way that the box office handles language barriers, and what is served at the lobby bar. 

“These are detailed things that you are not going to see change the first time you see a show at ATP after I’ve arrived, and this isn’t going to change in the industry the first time we are talking about it,” he says. But he sees the industry changing relatively more quickly recently.  

“It’s about finding a balance. I don’t think it’s an ‘either/or’ choice — it’s an ‘and.’ What’s working should continue. But we can’t get complacent with what’s working, because there’s a whole demographic change happening societally, and that needs to be reflected in what we do.” 

The Mumbai-born Chokhani has an eclectic background, with a masters degree in computer science in Boston that initially led him to the digital entertainment industry and producing video games for giants like Fox, Pixar, Disney and Nickelodeon. Since moving to Canada from the US, his theatre pedigree is extensive and he has become well-known for “putting bums in seats” as the theatre expression goes, but bums that sometimes haven’t found themselves at live theatre before. So he knows the move toward diversity can’t be framed as a bitter pill. 

“This can’t be a draining, baggage-unpacking conversation,” he insists. “We should have those difficult conversations as well, but we should also not forget what we do at the heart of it, which is to create art, which is to create joy. We are storytellers, and that needs to be the heart of the work.”

So as ATP nears its 50th anniversary in a post-pandemic world with increasing emphasis on diversity and inclusivity on stages, Chokhani sees an opportunity for the company to engage with the community to reimagine its hopes for the next 50 years.  

“Any company of the size of ATP or Theatre Calgary has to find a balance between work that is risky — but we still have to take the risk — and the money makers,” he concedes. “That’s just how we have to balance the budget. What I can say is that we’re not going to go away from what ATP is known for, which is creating new work. That’s something that is nationally known and nationally recognized, and something we take pride in, so that’s not going to change. 

“In terms of what it needs to become, I’m kind of excited by us all being concurrently in this moment to try to figure it out and redefine what the future of theatre is.”

ATP’s current production In Wonderland by Anna Cummer and directed by Haysam Kadri, runs until Dec. 26, 2021 at the Martha Cohen Theatre in Arts Commons.

(Photo courtesy Vitalii Nikonorov.)