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Seema Jethalal, managing director of the new arts and cultural centre in Regent Park. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Seema Jethalal, managing director of the new arts and cultural centre in Regent Park. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Q&A

Meet Regent Park’s cultural revitalizer Add to ...

The highly anticipated creative hub of the city’s Regent Park reboot throws open its doors this weekend, with a giant arts party featuring music, dance, spoken word – and a mural made entirely out of house keys.

The Regent Park Arts and Cultural Centre – freshly renamed the Daniels Spectrum after a $4-million gift from the project’s developer – is home to seven cultural organizations, including the Regent Park School of Music, the COBA Collective of Black Artists and the Centre for Social Innovation. Operated by the non-profit Artscape, the 60,000-square-foot facility boasts 10 indoor and outdoor performance spaces. And, according to managing director Seema Jethalal, it’s booking up fast.

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At just 30, Ms. Jethalal has built an impressive CV running arts-driven non-profits such as Manifesto Community Projects. She sees the centre as an artistic and social anchor to the neighbourhood, which is currently undergoing a massive revitalization after decades of neglect and notoriety. She spoke to theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck about her new gig.

How would you describe the new arts and culture centre?

It’s a place where, at the core, cultural diversity is celebrated. That’s really the heart and soul of what we’re doing. I often say it’s rooted in Regent Park, and open to the world.

I always get excited when new theatre spaces open in the city. Native Earth Performing Arts is a main tenant in the smaller theatre?

Native Earth has three resident companies – Fu-Gen, Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, and Cahoots Theatre. They all share their 115-person black-box studio theatre. Pretty much during throughout the year, those four theatre groups will have amazing productions running.

I think my first trip down will be to see a show in the larger, 425-seat theatre – Why Not Theatre’s Bollywood double bill of Dear Liar and Ismat Apa Ke Naam.

They involve Bollywood legends, but they’re not quite Bollywood in nature. Dear Liar is adapted from correspondence with George Bernard Shaw and the other one is based on short stories by one of India’s most beloved writers. Their website is called Beyond Bollywood, because they want people to start thinking about South Asian culture in a way that’s breaking boundaries.

Given the state of some of the other mid-size theatres in town, there must be a huge demand.

Oh, yes. My phone is ringing off the hook. I would estimate at this point that we are pretty much 80-per-cent booked up until the end of 2012. The spring is almost fully booked as well.

So can any theatre or dance company book the centre?

Absolutely, 100 per cent. Naturally, we aim for things to be in a certain spirit of being socially inclusive and so on. But we’ve got groups of 15-year-old street dancers that want to use it for a showcase and we’ve got the Canadian Opera Company bringing The Brothers Grimm.

How will community artists be able to afford to access a facility professional enough for the COC?

We’ve created this structure where we have six different rates according to the capacity of the user. Essentially, if you are part of a Regent Park community group, chances are you’re not going to pay for it.

You’re originally from North York. When did you first discover Regent Park?

My first time working in the neighbourhood was back in 2008. For Luminato, I ran a city-wide street-art exhibition, with the main site being anchored in Regent Park. I partnered with my friend Devon Ostrom, a great curator, and we developed a 10-week workshop series where we involved 15 youth working with different street artists from across Canada. Through that I met [Luminato co-founder] David Pecaut and joined [CivicAction’s] Emerging Leaders Network.\

What kind of impact did the late Mr. Pecaut have on you?

He was an huge inspiration for me. He made me think of myself as a leader for one of the first times. My desire to blend the arts with social good – I didn’t really appreciate that I could do that and have a serious impact until I met David.

What’s your favourite thing about Regent Park?

One hundred per cent the people. There’s really an incredible sense of community that I don’t necessarily get to enjoy in other parts of the city. When something happens, word catches within a split second. Everybody’s got each other’s back.

What will Torontonians who have never spent any time in Regent Park or may have avoided it discover when they visit?

We’re going to reframe the way people talk about this beautiful community. A lot of people don’t think about arts and culture when they think about Regent Park, but that kind of baffles me.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

For information on the opening weekend events, visit regentparkarts.ca.

Follow on Twitter: @nestruck

 

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