Young big-city hotshot leaves Toronto, travels west, and finds a financially shaky but ultimately noble calling in a small community of lovable eccentrics. Hilarity ensues.
Are we talking about Zaib Shaikh, U of T graduate and co-founder of the Whistler Theatre Project in British Columbia? Or are we talking about Amaar Rashid, Shaikh’s character, the flustered imam on the CBC comedy Little Mosque on the Prairie? Turns out it’s a bit of both.
“The character is very similar,” muses Shaikh. “This big-city kid who decides to take on something greater than himself.”
Shaikh, 33, graduated from the University of Toronto Mississauga’s theatre program in 1997, and has worked in stage, film and television ever since. Last year, he and two friends started the Whistler Theatre Project in a resort town better known for its skiing than stagecraft. The theatre company’s inaugural production – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – was a hit, and a second season is gearing up.
And speaking of hits: Little Mosque broke the viewership record for a CBC-TV première and grabbed headlines around the world with its culture-clash comedy premise. The show centres on a group of Muslims establishing a mosque in small town, Saskatchewan. The mutual xenophobia, of both the town’s white-bread populace and its emergent Muslim community, is at the core of the show’s cultural satire. But the concept became a political hot potato long before the first episode aired. “I don’t think anyone anticipated the human-interest story that we would become,” says Shaikh. “We were just trying to do a good television show that makes people laugh.” Turns out it did, and so Little Mosque will also have a second season.
Whether it’s bringing Shakespeare to the ski slopes or comedy to the Koran, Shaikh says he wants to make a lasting contribution to Canadian drama. “That’s very idealistic, I know, and potentially naive,” he says, “but that’s how I got here in the first place – by being idealistic and naive. And so far, it’s working out.”
A U of T lab is working with actors, writers and directors on how they could harness AI and other emerging technologies to generate new ideas and – just maybe – reinvent theatre