Theatre is Territory

10 questions: Michael Rubenfeld

1) What the fuck is going on?
First Burma, and now the earthquake in China. Seems like the earth is trying to get rid of us humans.

2) Does your new play, My Fellow Creatures, arrive at any conclusions about “the nature of adult men who love children”?
Conclusions? No. But it does ask the audience to perceive these men as living, loving, breathing human beings rather than as evil or psychopathic. I don’t really believe in conclusions. I believe that the questions get more and more complex the more we choose to ask them. I also believe that humanity is often driven and destroyed by contradiction rather than celebrated. I also think there are conclusive answers to all questions. I’m also as full of shit as I am knowledgeable. We all are.

If someone tells me that they’re attracted to a child and wants to have sex with that child, who am I to judge them? Do I think its wrong? Yes. Absolutely. Do I know why I think it’s wrong? Yes. Should I judge someone for having this instinct? No. I don’t think it’s helpful.
I would stop them if they actually tried to go through with that act – but I think it’s also quite crucial to go further into understanding why an adult would want to have sex with a child – where that instinct comes from. Nature vs. Nurture. Is nature nurture? Pedophelia and the desire for children has so many more layers of emotional complexity than we give it credit for . . . which is also, more or less, the centre of everything I write about, and what keeps me moving forwarding in the world. Going deeper. Asking more questions of humanity. Getting to our source – which, for everyone, is usually connected to love.

3) What research was involved in figuring out how to deal with the play’s more taboo themes?
There’s a lot of material surrounding Grecian and Roman societies that condoned certain man/boy love. There’s also a pretty intense group called the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). They petition for equal rights to men who love boys. There are a great many people who cite pederasty as a sexual preference, similar to hetero/homosexuality. There was also the Gerald Hannon (ex-Ryerson Journalist) letters, advocating pedophelia. And, if you pick up a newspaper, there’s practically a new case daily. The Michael Jackson trial was pretty prevalent in the years prior to beginning the piece, as was a guy named Cory Newton, from a small town in Ontario, who was on trial for molesting many, many children. I was also influenced by films like Mysterious Skin and Sins of the Father.

4) How does this piece fit in with Absit Omen’s mandate?
Our mandate is to ask large questions that challenge our perceptions of social order. Our perception of these men is pretty narrow, in my opinion. I would never condone any of their actions, but what I believe we often fail to see is that often, at the heart of their actions, is an intent to love, and not an intent to harm. The piece is important because once we start to see these people as men, and try to understand their actions, we may be able to actually do something about it. Writing something off as evil or all bad is a simple and, I believe, ineffective approach to effective problem solving.

5) How much overlap is there between your approaches to writing, directing and acting?
Plenty. I direct how I wish I to be directed as an actor – with rigour and special attention to specificity and story. With intelligence and awareness. With a sense of collaboration. I find myself getting frustrated by how often productions have a feeling of arbitrariness and generality. I find that good plays are often very poorly interpreted because of a director’s obsession with conveying their vision, which ultimately overrides the vision that is already in the script. A good script reveals all. As a writer, I create work for actors. My acting background has helped train me to create work that, I think, actors really love playing.

I also think that the work can be much stronger if you understand how to translate your own writing for actors and for the stage. I believe MacIvor and LePage do so well because they can play all the parts, rather than just one. There is much less potential for the work to be lost in translation.

Also, in film, most of the best work is being written by those who are directing them. I can’t quite understand why that doesn’t happen more in theatre.

6) What quality do you most dislike when you see it in other artists?
Laziness of thought and unearned ego. That’s two. If you’re going to have ego, you better well deserve it. There are a handful of very opinionated artists in this community who are producing some of the most unintelligible, thoughtless dreck imaginable. I mean, really, do we need to be producing plays about porno? Really?

I had somebody once actually pitch their production of Julius Caesar to me by telling me about the fight scenes and how life-like and amazing they were. Um. So, that’s what’s important about Caesar? The fights? Please. I’d rather see a bad play that is actually trying to communicate something interesting than a good production of a play without a soul.

Also, there are a series of brilliant people who are creating lazy art because they can. Because we will reward that art despite its weaknesses . . . and so, instead of these people actually trying to say anything, they say half-a-thing and collect the rewards anyways. This too also upsets me.

What is the intent of the work? Why are you writing this? Why are we doing this? If the answer is “to be awesome” or “to get attention” or “because I’m the best” or “because I’ve tricked everyone into thinking this is about anything” then there’s a problem. Unless you’re 14 or 15 years old. Then, it is absolutely appropriate to write about how awesome “fucking chicks” is . . . and even then . . .

7) What have been some of your biggest challenges as the new Artistic Producer of SummerWorks Theatre Festival?
The learning curve. I’ve produced some successfully shows in the past, but the workload for the festival is pretty shocking. I feel like I’m learning a new lesson each and every day.

Also, remembering that when I have an idea, no matter how good it is, it has to then be implemented, which means MORE work on top of the work I already am doing. That’s a difficult one to negotiate, because there’s lots that I want to do, and I am the first to admit that my ambition sometimes gets ahead of what is actually humanly possible.

Lastly, I’d have to say the negotiation of power, and finding new relationships to diplomacy. I had a couple people send me fairly insulting, accusatory emails when they didn’t get into the festival, and while I had the instinct to be reactive, my job description now involves having to spend more time accepting certain new ways of needing to handle certain situations. Which, ultimately, has been a great blessing for me. I am understanding more and more why some people may have thought I was a dick-head when I was younger . . . or perhaps they still do. That’s okay, though, as I’m fitting much more comfortably into understanding what it is I am doing and why I’m doing it . . . what my own personal vision is. There’s been a real freedom to coming to that sort of conclusion.

8) What was the jury looking for in deciding which shows to produce at this year’s festival?
First and foremost was intent. The point of the piece. What the artist is trying to say, and why they are saying it.

Also, the aesthetic of the work. We talked a lot about where we saw piece fitting. Often, we chose work that we did not see fitting anywhere than the SummerWork Festival. That is not to say that the work would not work at the Factory or Tarragon, but we certainly are targeting an urban audience with our festival.

There were also a series of really well written plays, but it feels like, sometimes, there are a lot of writers who are more interested in how clever and witty they can be rather than putting thought into what the hell they are actually trying to communicate. A play can be very smart, but if I ultimately don’t care, then I ultimately don’t care.

I have always seen the festival as a home for alternative, diverse and provocative work, but most importantly, I want the writers to actually give a shit about something – rather than just write for the sake of getting to write, or for the sake of getting their name out there. If you’re going to write a love story, you need to be aware that there are millions of love stories . . . and just because the story is close to your heart, you need to ask yourself “why is this particular love story more interesting or different than any other?” If you can’t come up with that answer, you need to be putting more thought into the intent behind the work.

It’s also important that people are coming to the table with a precise vision and also that the work fits into an urban setting. There is some work that we review that is quite wonderful, but we felt would work better in other venues.

And, lastly, sometimes it came down to sheer numbers. We accepted only 33 local shows, and received almost 180 submissions.

Bruce Willis and Michael Rubenfeld on the set of Lucky Number Slevin.

9) How do you feel about the quality of theatre criticism in Toronto?
I think its confusing. I’m not sure what the role of a critic is anymore.

I don’t know how critics make their decisions on what is good or bad. There are some in this city who seem to think that criticism is about finding the most eloquent ways to tell people that their work is garbage. This is frustrating to me, and actually breaks my heart a little. Artists put their souls into their work, and there are some critics in this city who seem to think it appropriate behaviour to attempt to humiliate artists in their reviews when they don’t feel like the work meets their standards.

Good art is often about compassion for the human condition. It is a wonder that reviewers are in direct opposition to that very idea. I’m not quite sure how, as an artist, to negotiate that. There is also so much subjectivity in art. When critics become cruel, or bullies, it does not foster stronger, more interesting work . . . it only puts fear into the hearts of the artists who will often sometimes then try and create work for the sake of reviews, and not for the sake of art.

10) How do you feel about the state of the Canadian theatre industry, generally?
Industry? That’s funny. The idea of theatre as industry. Maybe we should be thinking of it more like that. I sort of think that it really doesn’t have any chance at all. We need an Off-Broadway house in Toronto. We need a place where top shows from seasons are taken and play for extended runs. We need shows like Scorched, East of Berlin, Bigger Than Jesus, Blood Claat, (new MacIvors), etc, to have unlimited runs, so that people will actually have the opportunity to see the shows that are considered the best in our country and in smaller theatres.

There are way too many limitations. It’s insane, really. My Fellow Creatures is running right now . . . and it kind of doesn’t really matter if the reviews are strong, but the run is not long enough to actually garner any attention. By the time people may have heard about it, it will be long gone. This is the usual model.

People don’t go to theatre because it is too risky, and in this city, people don’t have time to be bored. We need some independent rich people who love theatre to help us out. Seriously. Put together a season of the best work from the previous year, co-produce with the companies who originated the work, do a profit split, and put Toronto Theatre on the map. Shows win Doras, and then, nothing. Take the Dora-winning shows, and remount them immediately. I bet people would come. We need more smart business in the theatre.

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10 Responses to “10 questions: Michael Rubenfeld”

  1. mike says:

    woah. that was a good interview.

    i’m betting this page gets read 100 times next january when folks are applying to the 2009 Summerworks. it’s really great to have an expanded idea of what the jury is looking for and why…especially to have more ammunition to send Michael insulting emails when we don’t get in.

    what? people really did that? are they nuts? what the f?

    i also totally agree with your answer to #10 Michael- the whole indie system with short runs and an inability to make a lasting impact really needs to be reformed.

    richard rose seems to have arrived at this conclusion already as the first two shows you listed are in fact being remounted at the tarragon next year, which is great because i didn’t see either of the 1st time around. it would be great to have a way for kickass shows that aren’t connected to a major institution to have that opportunity too though.

    I do have one small quibble regarding semantics:

    “off-broadway”

    we have a serious identity problem in the t dot as the much maligned little brother (or sister) that hopes to grow up to be just as great as our uber-successful NYC brother. we’re only going to come in to our own when we realize that we’re presenting our own things in our own way. and that’s awesome because the stories we’re telling are awesome.

  2. michael says:

    awesome.

  3. Simon says:

    “Also, there are a series of brilliant people who are creating lazy art because they can. Because we will reward that art despite its weaknesses . . .”

    True isn’t it, and a solid indicator of a green theatre town, audiences with no tradition of theatre exposure to develope comparative standards and a common language. Sounds just like Van. The ubiquitous standing O. And not enough competition amongst companies pushing each other to a higher standard.

    Also an indicator of a town that wants, and is ready for, more theatre. Challenging theatre, like My Fellow Creatures sounds to be.

    Great interview, candid and inspirational, thank you.

  4. mary says:

    Yes, yes, yes. In those moments when I’m feeling lost in a world I can’t relate to, I’m gonna want to go back and re-read this interview. Thanks for this.

  5. SeeDoubleYou says:

    “There are a handful of very opinionated artists in this community who are producing some of the most unintelligible, thoughtless dreck imaginable. I mean, really, do we need to be producing plays about porno? Really?”

    THANK YOU.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Doesn’t strike me as a target worth striking, really. Perspective.

  7. shira says:

    I don’t know which particular porno play was the offensive one but I think there are plenty of interesting questions to ask and stories to tell about porn. I don’t know that there’s any topic that “we” no longer need to explore, if there are interesting questions asked.

    I also wonder if just having well-funded extended runs is The Answer. Is this what you’re suggesting? Probably not. There’s a lot of really great work out there that can barely get an audience out to 15 shows.

    I just don’t think that a lot of people find theatre relevant. It’s just not that important. It’s so easy to live without. I feel that myself sometimes (which is sad). The ‘scene’ can feel so insulated, as well. That’s what keeps me away sometimes. I think your offering could be an important piece of the answer to fixing what’s broken with theatre in this city, but holy moly, there are, like, hundreds of pieces to this puzzle. What do you think?

    And lastly, I think that people make work for all sorts of different reasons. I got the impression from this interview that there is A Correct Way, or maybe a few variations of The Way. Sometimes that impulse for me comes from wanting to explore a particular aesthetic, or from a way of telling a particular story that may be familiar, rather than exploring a difficult question. Maybe it’s the same thing, and maybe that’s what you meant, I don’t know.

  8. Michael says:

    I think its absolutely great and necessary to explore a certain aesthetic, but I think that if you ask an audience member to watch an exploration that is not under the context of being a workshop … or if the artist is presenting a work because they had an impulse, and haven’t actually spent the time to understand where that impulse came from, and what and why they are trying to communicate–they you will ultimately alienate a good portion of your audience. And its great if a few people think its amazing, but if the majority are confused or bored, then, if I were a new theatre goer, I wouldn’t blame them for not wanting to go see another “exploration”.

    And, while there may be some interesting stories about Porn, my question is whether or not they need to be produced on a Toronto stage, and why?

    Work can barely get audiences, because people are trained, myself included, to believe that most theatre is going to be boring. Audiences aren’t coming because Toronto audiences, en masse, have no relationship to independent theatre. By running shows for longer periods with strong funding, we can work to try to re-habitualize audiences into looking forward to independent theatre, versus it being a thing people go to because their friend or friend-of-a-friend is in it.

    People don’t find theatre relevent, because, often, I don’t think it is. I often walk out of plays totally confused … not that the play was confusing, but with no clue why the hell I needed to see it. Why should I go see a play about porno, when I can just watch a porno–or one of the billion documentaries that are likely far more interesting.

    Theatre will only become relevent if theatre artists work harder to make theatre relevent. You can pick out some of our most successful theatre artists, and I can guarantee that the amount of thought put into the “why” is very strong.

    Theatre comes from an impulse. All theatre does. But an impulse doesn’t mean its good or relevent … unless we are making theatre just for ourselves, or for the artist creating the work.

    Theatre needs better work and better business. I agree, there is a ton of good work, but not a lot of great business.

    From what I can tell, the theatre that is well attended is so because people KNOW about it. Evil Dead is getting houses because they have a good marketing budget. Tarragon gets audiences because they have subscribers and a good infrastructure. Mirvish gets houses because they have thousands of subscribers and a marketing budget.

  9. shira says:

    Let me be clearer – I think an exploration of an aesthetic can develop into a fully realized piece of work. It may not be your cup of tea, I think it is often mine, but some people (like me) are very very affected by the visual (for example), and I think that non-conventional ways of working or beginning points or questions don’t have to be boring. They will be to some people. Everything is going to be boring to someone, right? I often find mega-hits boring. Obviously the majority would disagree with me there. Please don’t assume that working in a different way equals not taking time to understand where an impulse came from, or not working one’s ass off.

    About the porn thang, I’m really interested in some porn, or stories about porn or sex workers or what it must be like to work in porn or in questions that I can’t even imagine because I’m so far removed from it (I mean, I ended my porn career like a year and a half ago). That doesn’t mean that I’m going to write a play about it, but I’m open to the possibility that there are people out there who have interesting and valid questions to ask about it. I don’t know what there are. But why not here? Is there no porn industry here? Do people not interact with it here?

    I agree with your thoughts about relevance, but I don’t think that I need to eliminate an entire subject matter just become someone wrote a shitty play.

    I absolutely disagree that success if very often based on rigorous thought and hard work. I think that is only one piece of it, based on what I can see. My coworker said something interesting – that a big part of ‘success’ is how much one is willing to sacrifice. I think that sacrifice can come in many forms, and I think she’s really right about that. But there are so many variables here.

    But more importantly, I think there’s also this misconception that everyone has the same definition of success. I understand that, and it’s a struggle to remember what my goals are compared to what I think they should be, or what I’m told they should be.

    I agree that so so many artists are poorly trained at the art of business. I’ve been working and learning development and sponsorship for years now, but I still think that there is some work that just lives outside of the system (for lack of a better word), and that from what I understand about art history, there’s often this sort of trickle-down effect where some people make work that is hard and maybe alienating and maybe boring, but that eventually the work filters down and sometimes enters common practice and vernacular. And those people making that work have different goals, and are tremendously important to the ecology of theatre and art even if their contributions are more obscure. I’m thinking about Robert Irwin (in the visual arts world), and maybe in this city, someone like Ker Wells, whose work is different and beautiful and important but who has not cracked the bigger theatres, partly because I don’t think he wants to and partly because he’s trying to accomplish something else, whatever that is…

    And also, I think people partly go and see Evil Dead because it sounds like fun.

  10. MK Piatkowski says:

    Totally agree with #10. I had a dream a couple of months ago of having the millions to buy up the old typesetting plant near Tarragon and turn it into multi-performances spaces to create this kind of thing. So where do we find the rich person to put their money into this?

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