What the SummerWorks Festival’s All About

Artistic Producer Michael Rubenfeld talks theatre, experimentation, and the wonderful craziness of SummerWorks.

Thus Spoke... is part of the National Series at the 2014 SummerWorks Festival, and is one Michael Rubenfeld's personal picks. Photo by Stephane Najman.

  • Multiple venues
  • August 7–17
  • FREE–$20

It’s early August, and we’ve all had our fill of Jays games and beach days, right? (Maybe not.) But anyone with their leisure time properly scheduled has a few spots open for the SummerWorks Performance Festival—because who doesn’t want to see Canada’s best artists at their riskiest and wildest? From the theatre series, to the musical works in concert, to readings and conversations at festival hub at The Theatre Centre, the performances at Canada’s largest juried arts festival will give you stories to tell your wide-eyed friends who missed out on all the fun.

Torontoist spoke to Artistic Producer Michael Rubenfeld, who has spent much of his tenure in the role diversifying the genres of performance represented at SummerWorks, about each series of the festival and what he’s most looking forward to in the 2014 edition.

Torontoist: Describe SummerWorks in a sentence, if you can.

It’s a multi-arts performance festival that features some of the most adventurous and interesting new works in development in the country.

Are all the performances works in progress, or have they been performed elsewhere before?

It’s primarily works in development, but there are works that have been featured elsewhere, but they might be developing new audiences. So, for example, there’s a show coming from Victoria called El Jinete—it’s a mariachi opera. And they did a run in Victoria, and then decided they’d come to SummerWorks because nobody knows this company called Puente Theatre that has actually been in business for quite some time in Victoria. They’re making really interesting work in Victoria, and similar to, say, a show like Ride The Cyclone, no one has ever heard of them.

One of the great things about SummerWorks is that it brings out genres, or combinations of genres, that we’ve never seen or heard of before—like a mariachi opera, for example. Is this something you strive for in your programming, or something that happens naturally?

The fact is that if something grabs my attention or is something I find surprising or if something excites me, then there’s a good chance that I’ll be drawn to that. And that’s a hard thing to do just because I’ve seen so many works. When something surprises me, it’s a really exciting moment. And what a gift to be able to offer an audience, something surprising. I feel this way about a piece called Thus Spoke… I was in Montreal, and I kind of wandered into this show, and I was genuinely surprised by it.

This reminds me of the music series at SummerWorks, which pairs a musician or band with a local theatre or dance artist to create a new show—for example, this year pairs director Brendan Healy with Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning. What’s behind this approach?

The reality is that when I go to music shows, I often want it to feel more like theatre, and when I’m at the theatre, I also want it to feel a bit more like a concert. And, well, I thought, “What would happen when we put theatre and dance artists together with musicians?” And it has created some of the most memorable evenings of performance for me that I can remember.

One of the pieces I’m really excited about is from the band The Bicycles, which we invited to do the music series last year. And they decided they were going to compose an entire rock opera in a few weeks. We thought they were bonkers. And I was so shocked by how good the music was and how strong the visuals were that I invited them back to the festival. So I’m excited to see what began in the festival last year, which we’re running for four nights and coincides with the release of the album they recorded of the show.

Explain what the Live Art series is.

When I first took over the festival, I started to ask myself if there was a context where we don’t give the audience the opportunity to get bored. Because a lot of people think theatre is boring—sometimes I think it’s boring … I heard about a movement called “live art,” and often it involved the inclusion of the audience in the dramaturgy [or creation] of the work. I find often people make a piece of theatre and think about the audience afterwards, but live art considers the audience at the same time as the content. That really spoke to me, for me this was a way to include work that was deliberately including the audience. Everyone’s in a room together, and the art is created by both the audience and the performer at the same time.

I’m looking forward to Benjamin Kamino’s piece; he’s doing a six-hour work with his father and his brother. He’s quickly becoming my favourite performer. He’s going to dance for six hours while his father makes little robots, because he wanted to see what being in the same space as his father for a long period of time would do to their relationship.

Because the Live Art series is often free, very short, and usually a very personal experience for the audience, I often find it’s a good place to start for people who aren’t familiar with SummerWorks. Is there a strategy you’d recommend?

For the durational works, they’re an option because you can enter and leave at your leisure. But the thing about SummerWorks is that it’s not huge—there’s not a ton of work like, say, in the Fringe Festival. The best thing to do is commit to a few shows. Read the descriptions on the website, and try a few things out. Because it’s all juried, we’ve made a choice to put on this work because we think it’s good. Some are more extreme than others, so maybe don’t go see Fuck You, You Fucking Perve if that’s not your thing. But, alternatively, And Now, The End is a musical … We don’t program to sell tickets exactly—our interest is in bringing relevant conversations to Toronto.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

CORRECTION: August 6, 2014, 00:00 AM This post originally referred to Michael Rubenfeld as the executive director of SummerWorks, when in fact he is the artistic producer. We regret the error.

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