Actors often sit around waiting for the phone to ring – when they’re not clearing tables or working another job. But Rahnuma Panthaky is having none of that. “Don’t wait, just create,” she says. As the co-founder of two rising theatre companies, she’s doing just that.
One of Panthaky’s aims has been to broaden opportunities for women and South Asian actors. She graduated from the University of Toronto at Mississauga with a theatre and drama studies degree in 1992, only to find a world greatly resistant to the idea of colour-blind casting. “There was nothing out there,” she sighs. In those days actors were pigeonholed in specifically ethnic storylines, instead of playing a character whose race and culture were immaterial to the story. But things are getting better, says Panthaky, thanks in part to companies such as the Maya South Asian Theatre Company, which she started with several other enterprising actors of South Asian descent. They’re currently planning a classical piece, titled Four Chapters, by Rabindranath Tagore (known as “the Indian Shakespeare”), “but we’ve also talked about taking a Noël Coward play and casting it completely with South Asian actors, which in itself would have an impact.”
Panthaky works for social equality offstage, too, and has been involved in the Department of Canadian Heritage’s March 21 Campaign to stop racism, among other initiatives. But art, not politics, is where her heart lies. “I personally am not a very political person – my art is my art, and I don’t usually mesh the two,” she says.
Since first playing a small role on Degrassi High, Panthaky has been a frequent fixture on television, radio and stage, and performed in a five-month run of The Vagina Monologues at Toronto’s New Yorker Theatre. But while guest spots on hit shows like Monk, Blue Murder and DaVinci’s Inquest may sound glamorous, they do mean a certain amount of sitting around. “A lot of the time when you’re on set,” she says, “it’s just hurry up and wait.” Which is clearly not this particular actor’s style.