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.