Local actress nurtures safe space for side-lined stories

By Natasha McKenty

Since its inception in 2004, the Multicultural Theatre Space (MT Space) has become known as a safe dwelling where marginalized stories (and its actors) are both nurtured and shared authentically. Before MT Space, “a great void in a community of many different peoples” was felt.

During a short intermission from touring abroad, Pam Patel, local actress and current MT Space Artistic Director (AD), shared the realities of running a culturally diverse organization within Waterloo Region, and how the recent (and sudden) loss of its founder has affected the company.

Sitting in the comfort of a furnished room within the First United Church (a temporary headquarters), Patel offers an animated recollection of the first time she met MT Space founder, Lebanese-Canadian-born Majdi Bou-Matar.

She recalled how entering the room with the acclaimed director, actor, and dancer was both “incredibly inspiring and very intimidating.”

“Majdi was this huge personality, and I could feel his presence reverberating to the walls. I watched the performance; it was a series of vignettes of immigration stories, a hybrid of live music and dance theatre, and very interdisciplinary.

“And I had never seen anything like that. So, for me, it wasn't just the art form but also seeing so many differently cultured bodies on stage like that,” she said.

“Shortly after, [Majdi] called me in for an audition. He told me about this show that he was conceiving called The Last 15 seconds and how he had a vision of its casting. There were three generations of women, and he was still looking for the youngest generation, and he said, ‘You know, I think you could play that part, but we need to see if we work well together.’”

As the relationship unfolded, Patel shared that they “understood each other,” and she was cast in the production that still tours today.

The actress, who was raised in a “low-income household” in Cambridge, counts herself fortunate for turning her passion into a career that allows her to “experience different cultures and cities” around the world.

“I had decided to take vocal music as an elective in high school.” Her family could not afford lessons, but a teacher recognized her gift. “He supported me by offering me this bursary program through Saint Andrew's Church. They have these choral scholarships, and he offered a position to me,” Patel said.

Now trained in classical music, she brings her South Asian background and Canadian upbringing into every character she plays. However, she admits it is her role as mentor and role model that has made her most proud. And her drive to create a safe space for often side-lined stories elevates and gives strength to the voices of those who come to MT Space to explore their talents in an environment that nurtures equality, diversity and revolution.

As AD, Patel oversees the creation, production, and performance of “work that is accessible and affordable to low-income families while creating a space for Indigenous, immigrant, refugee, and marginalized voices to be heard.”

As news of Bou-Matar's sudden passing circulated throughout the community, Patel realized a new role: “to continue his legacy.” The Last 15 Seconds recently performed at the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre. The production, co-created by Bou-Matar, “explores the topic of terrorism starting with the tragic death of Syrian-American filmmaker Mustapha Akkad and his daughter Rima during a series of coordinated attacks that hit three prominent hotels in the Jordanian capital Amman in 2005.”

Describing “harmful and violent experiences” that the Company has been exposed to (right here in Waterloo Region), Patel finds purpose in the initiation of “uncomfortable conversations.”

“I think it is pretty clear that the Company has shifted under my leadership and in a way that I know Majdi knew would happen.” She adds: “If we're going to get somewhere, we must let things get messy. Messy can shed a lot of light.”

Through performance and storytelling via dance, music, multimedia, and circus performing arts, Patel aims to challenge preconceptions. Since becoming AD, she said she has seen a shift in the conversation and an openness to listen.

“But when I think about the end-game, we have a long way to go before we get to a point where MT Space is no longer needed.”

Find out more about MT Space's performance schedule here and programs here.

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