SummerWorks Interview with Artistic Producer Michael Rubenfeld

Michael Rubenfeld & Mehdi Moradpour
Michael Rubenfeld & Mehdi Moradpour | Michael Rubenfeld, photo: John Rieti / Mehdi Moradpour, photo: Neda Navaee

German author and interpreter/translator, Mehdi Moradpour chatted with Michael Rubenfeld, the Artistic Producer of SummerWorks, Canada’s largest curated performance festival of theatre, dance, music and live art.

SummerWorks began in 1991, created by a group of five artists. The Festival began as a fringe-style festival and has evolved into Canada’s largest curated performance festival for contemporary performance. The 25th Anniversary of the Festival offered an opulent program over 11 days in August 2015. Under which artistic visions did you and your team bring people together?

When I first became the Artistic Producer in 2008, the Festival was operating primarily as a theatre festival. A culture is more vibrant when diverse and multi-disciplinary, so over my eight years at the Festival, I evolved it into a multi-arts festival that includes music, dance and live art as well as theatre.

Despite music and theatre happening live in front of audiences, the experience of a music show is vastly different than that of a theatre performance. I began partnering theatre artists with musicians to see what they would come up with. That’s when things started to get really interesting, and the performances started feeling original. Simultaneously, I initiated the “Live Art Series” which created a deliberate space for work exploring unique audience/performer relationships. Live Art is a term out of the UK that helps free artists from the shackles of genre. In 2015, I began a dance series, because although we were often programming dance, it was important that dancers had the opportunity to self-define rather than be presented under Live Art or Theatre banners.

One of the workshops I attended was titled, “What the Hell is Out There?” centering on various forms of theatre outside of North America. What connections do you see between SummerWorks and the European/German theatre scenes?

A lot of European theatre work is very director-driven. In Toronto and Canada, we are mostly playwright-driven. Creating ambitious concepts around a playwright’s text is not as common in Canada as in Europe, and can be frowned upon by industry that places a strong value on honouring a playwright’s text. Unfortunately, this often means we get a lot of work that looks very similar and traditional. In Toronto dance, the work is more adventurous and Montreal also has an exceptional dance culture. This is more difficult in theatre because of language barriers; Montreal is often French-speaking, whereas Toronto is English. Of course, there are certain pockets of artists who are trying to be more original, and they will often find a home at SummerWorks.

The German scene thrives on new forms of creation and production, installations, action in urban space, research and documentary theatre. On the other hand, authors and their linguistic expressions or political positions are becoming more present. What are the positions of theatre in Canada? What are the obstacles and opportunities for playwrights?

The obstacles are that there are not very many theatres that present new plays. There are few places that support ambitious new writing, and those that do, don’t have enough money to support large-scale visionary writing. In Germany, there is more state funding to employ large casts and support large productions. This encourages and enables writers and directors to create epic performances that are rarely possible in Canada. I think the strongest pathway for writers is to be ambitious as early as possible. A young Toronto artist, Jordan Tannahill, has done a very good job at carving his own path and giving himself agency in his creative practise by producing multiple times at SummerWorks, starting a venue and writing a book. Now large theatres are all working with him.

The search for new aesthetics and thematic impulses in Germany in recent years has pushed the discourse to a so-called post-migrant cultural production, which has changed the German-speaking theatre world. It aims to promote fair representation of the artist's work and seeks to provide critical questions about inclusivity and awareness in the theatrical landscape. Is there something similar in Toronto?

Toronto is one of the most diverse and multicultural places in the world; I believe that for culture to maintain relevance, it must be representative of its city’s residents. There are more and more deliberate actions being done to encourage people from diverse backgrounds to contemplate the theatre as a space to explore their narratives. It’s our responsibility to ensure that our story is told from multiple perspectives, including our Indigenous peoples’ voices and representing our colonial history.

After visiting several European festivals, which theatrical esthetics did you notice?

There is a lot of concept- and director-driven work, autership, companies that have directors who are also defined as creators, companies who work together regularly and build a repertoire and a language around creation, a lot of visual artists who break all the rules and are making, perhaps, more interesting work than all the trained theatre artists. Also, most international festival presenters are not interested in traditional plays.

At the same time, at least in Germany, there is also an intense discussion about liveness in mainstream performances, influenced by market logic and competitiveness. Does theatre need to overcome or renew narrative structures?

We should always be trying to renew structures–theatre is an ideal place to explore possibilities of renewal. Society is consistently negotiating systemic trappings, and through renewing structures, the theatre can enable a kind of lens into reality – which is that reality is much more flexible than most recognize.

You wrote once, “Art is an antidote to nihilism. Theatre is a laboratory for aesthetic and social experiences.” How do you imagine, as an artist, social influence? How can theater change the future?

Art is the space where we access our humanity. Most information comes to us through the lens of politics and media (often at the same time), but you will rarely find humanity there. You find it with real people talking about real things and concerning themselves with humanity, which also means mortality. Being alive is very complex and dealing with that can be an excruciating experience or a wonderful experience — it’s art that encourages us to embrace the complexity of existence, which allows us also to revel in it.