- Building Community and Occupying Space:An Interview with Majdi Bou-Matar1
Majdi Bou-Matar is a theatre director, choreographer, and performer who immigrated to Canada from Lebanon in 2003. In 2004, he founded the Multicultural Theatre Space (MT Space) in Waterloo, where he has directed numerous productions and “theatre for social change” projects. He is also the Artistic Director of IMPACT, a biennial international theatre festival and conference in Kitchener-Waterloo that, at the time of this interview, was about to happen for the third time.
Doug Borwick’s book Building Communities Not Audiences makes a distinction between “community” and “audience,” and addresses this difference in terms of the very survival of the arts in the twenty-first century. How does the MT Space make a distinction between these two terms?
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I think we are increasingly dropping the term “audience” from our company’s vocabulary—which in its negative connotation means “bums in seats” or number of tickets sold, or some other statistic—and we are [End Page 75] moving more toward a concept of working within a community or communities, in how we create performance. And I think, in part, this is coming from the very fact that we can’t compete with the mainstream, large theatre organizations or “roadhouses” that exist in our region, such as the Stratford Festival, Drayton Entertainment, or the Centre in the Square. For example, when Wicked or The Wizard of Oz plays at the Centre in the Square for two nights, each of these productions will be seen by two thousand or more people. This same number of people attending one of our productions at the Registry Theatre or the Globe Studios would give us an audience for about a month … for all kinds of reasons, this is simply unrealistic, and this is so mainly because we have a very different relationship with the people who attend our shows.
Early on in the development of the MT Space, I started thinking about impact, and the role our work played in the lives of those who attended our shows, and vice versa. This was a way of contextualizing our practice, or to put it in a context that makes sense for us. From this perspective, we might then ask, what was the impact on two thousand people who saw The Wizard of Oz at the Centre in the Square? Those are a lot of bums in seats. But does this have more impact on the region than a workshop and series of performances we would create with the Working Centre or the Crime Prevention Council, where we would work with fifteen at-risk youth, who are then seen by another fifteen youth, using theatre to address specific social problems, from substance abuse, to mental health, to the influence of gangs, etc.? So thinking about the impact of theatre on our environment, and on making the world a better place, I discovered that this small project that only involved thirty people has changed lives, and made an impact—not just on these kids but also on the policymakers, on the social service providers, and the friends and family of these participants.
Of course, it is not only us; there is this kind of awareness happening across the country—with the arts councils, with the funders, and with other companies. So you see reports such as the Ontario Arts Council’s commissioned study, by WolfBrown,2 which for the first time, to my knowledge, measured levels of engagement in the arts, and the results were stunning. For example, the study found that First Nations communities were the most engaged in the arts—in terms of the number of people who participate—followed by African Canadian communities, followed by other “ethnic” communities, and so on down the list. The last groups represented were white and of European heritage.