Praxis Theatre is currently on hiatus! Please find co-founders Aislinn Rose and Michael Wheeler at The Theatre Centre and SpiderWebShow, respectively.
August 3, 2009, by

5 tough questions for SummerWorks Artistic Producer Michael Rubenfeld


Last year the Festival got a lot of press with some controversial YouTube videos you produced. Is that the strategy this time round?

The strategy is to be provocative and playful. The controversy last year was great, as it attracted a lot of people to the blog, and started a really compelling debate. The intent, however, was not to be controversial, but to be playful and provocative. I’m a big believer in provocation… I like taking questions I have and turning them on their ass a bit. This theatre community needs to be braver. We’re all much too precious, in my opinon. We take ourselves VERY seriously, and attach a certain preciousness to what we are doing that is often standing in the way of creating an HONEST dialogue about real things. There is too much bullshit, if you ask me. Too much talking AROUND issues. If we want people to actually give a shit about theatre, we have to start making work that people actually give a shit about. That doesn’t happen often enough. We spend too much time trying to please each other, than ask each other to have legitimate thoughts and feelings about things. We’re too afraid of being disliked–as if being LIKED should ever be the goal. How about making something INTERESTING?

This year your first video about a “Typical Canadian Play” pokes fun in particular at art councils for supporting queer and First Nations oriented material. Was there any intention to tie this message to the critique you made of the Dora jury system on the Globe and Mail website the day after Agokwe swept the Doras?

The intent was not to poke fun at art councils, but to poke fun at Canada. Its no secret that we, in Canada, put a lot of effort into supporting ideas of diversity. You may have interpreted the video as poking fun at Arts Councils, but really, the joke was about a white man trying to appropriate as many cultures as possible to try and get some money from an arts council. Personally, I happen to think its very important that there is support and continued development of voices from as many cultures as possible. I don’t happen to think we do a very good job at it, mostly because we’re too afraid of NOT supporting diverse cultures, that we often throw money to anything resembling diversity. And so, I happen to think the idea of using diversity as a ploy to get arts council money is very funny. I’m not blaming anyone in particular… I’m just interested in trying to get conversations that we’re not having, going. Anand Rajaram has written a really great piece about this in our upcoming issue of WORKS.

My critique of the Dora Jury system had nothing to do with First Nations culture, and everything to do with mediocrity. Kelly Nestruck questioned why Agokwe got as many nominations as it had despite his belief that it was mediocre. And so I explained how, often, mediocre work will get a lot of attention at the Doras because of the specific points sytem the doras use. I think it is flawed, and I also think there should be more than 10 jurors, and I think there should be criteria for the jurors. If we ever want to take the Doras seriously, there should be a lot more thought put into how decisions are being made. I understand, though, that this is difficult given that Jurors are donating their time.

Also, my critique was prior to Agokwe sweeping the doras, not the day after.

Alon Nashman, NOW Magazine’s top theatre artist of 2008, stars in the first video promoting this year’s SummerWorks Festival.

What’s up with the small animal theme to the SummerWorks brand?

They are Toronto’s downtown animals — squirrels, racoons, pigeons and skunks. They are often given a bad rap, and so we thought it would be nice to throw some love their way. We’ve also given them sashes, turning them into a sort of beauty pageant contestants. The irony makes me happy. The design is also pretty. I think they’re all kind of cute. A re-contextualization of “pests”.

Canadian Actors’ Equity Association is working on a new agreement they say will be more responsive to membership taking place in festival like SummerWorks. Have they contacted you for any feedback or input? Have you heard about them asking anyone for input? What would you like to see in it?

No, CAEA only gets in touch with us when they want to make sure we are not breaking any rules. I would love it if they asked for our input. I would also love to see CAEA having a universal agreement that would let people produce their work under any name, despite their history, at the festival, without having to jump through hoops. To be honest, though, I’ve never really had a problem with equity when I was producing at SummerWorks in the past … when writing to Equity they didn’t really offer me any answers except for that individual companies should be contacting equity themselves.

Going into your second full year as Artistic Producer of SummerWorks, what is the one thing you wish wasn’t part of your job description?

Having to be both the Artistic Director and General Manager, with not enough money for myself or my staff.

The SummerWorks Festival runs August 6 -16th.  

It has a great website here.  And a cool blog here

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  1. […] click here to read Praxis Theatre’s new interview with SummerWorks AD Micheal Rubenfeld, in which he discusses said logo and the […]

  2. Wow! I congratulate Michael on his controversial stance. He’s right. Many artists and producers from the dominant culture exploit Aboriginal and other cultural imagery, stories and spirituality to try and get funding, without ever pursuing a genuine interest or knowledge in the cultures they are ‘borrowing’. Weirdly, these plays end up with bigger budgets and profiles than the genuine and stunning work being done in these communities, like Agokwe. How clever of you to point this out.

  3. tarab says:

    dude. i was just posting a thing on my fbook thing about this very thing.

    yes! tokenism is barf. it is also sickening to me that people legitimately believe that the arts councils prioritize “other”ness above artistic merit. anyone who has ever sat on a jury knows that the strategic priorities like Regional or Aboriginal only come into the equation for deadlocked tiebreakers. if you don’t get a grant that you applied for, go ahead and cry (i have) but don’t go pointing fingers at such glorious theatre works as Agokwe or Where the Blood Mixes. if you didn’t get your monies, or you didn’t get programmed, or you didn’t get a dora nom, it’s because a jury of your peers (or some AD whose logic cannot be accounted for by your own logic) felt there were a number of other projects that were better for one reason or another. your opinions simply differ. it can hurt, but boo fuckin’ hoo.

    and anyone who doesn’t see the need for those factors to come into play as tiebreakers is as ignorant as alon is pretending to be in this video. working any jury is laborious and thankless, but if we take from the communal bowl we must put in when we can.



  4. Leah B. says:

    I think it is fantastic that SummerWorks has begun a discourse on the intricacies of Feminist Theatre (last year) and now Aboriginal and Queer Theatre!!!

    Minorities need to see how their stories are viewed/ appropriated by the mainstream. I can’t wait until next year when hopefully (crosses fingers) SummerWorks looks at Black Theatre and of course the loaded theatrical discussion on Lesbian one legged Scots who self identify as Transgendered Disabled Pirates.

    Thanks SummerWorks!!

  5. Michael says:

    I can’t decide if I like Michael’s answers or the comments better, but I like where this post is going a lot.

    With regards to Michael not having any trouble with Equity as a producer in SummerWorks: Dude, I wish I was as lucky as you!

    I am estimating the my labour devoted to receiving “one time only non-precedent setting” Fringe Waivers for both Tim Buck 2 and Underneath as the second biggest time-eater of my responsibilities as Praxis AD this summer. Ironically, this was all time I could have been spending fundraising and doing publicity to make the show more worthwhile to their members.

    Also very much agree with the importance of being interesting over liked. I would say it is a uniquely Canadian problem. When I went to theatre school in The States they didn’t have that problem down there.

  6. StoneFacedSavage says:

    It’s always entertaining when the priveledged children of the dominant culture whine about not getting the same treatment as minorities. In terms of aboriginal theatre sometimes it is a feat worthy of an award just to get our stories in front of an audience in the first place. And also who cares… do the Dora awards mean so much to your sense of self worth that when someone else wins the only way you feel you can distract yourself from your own feelings of inadequacy is to say “oh right, its because he’s native… they felt sorry for him…” Is that not really what your saying? It would be better if he was jewish perhaps, or anglo, hell even franco, just not brown though, and definatley not native, because all that drumming and hey ya hey ya stole my land, raped and murdered my reltaives and please get your big black boots off my neck talk is making you question your country. Clearly the jury was just being PC, favouring the uncommon diverse voice (singular) over, say, the very common, regular ones (plural) we’re soooo used to hearing…. Right?
    “Then he would have deserved the award,or the arts council grant because, then, I could relate!!!”

    -“I don’t happen to think we do a very good job at it, mostly because we’re too afraid of NOT supporting diverse cultures, that we often throw money to anything resembling diversity.”-

    Please ellaborate, because it sounds like your head is shoulder deep up your artist practice and you’re talking to your kidneys.
    Are you suggesting to me that non-diverse that is mono-cultural work doesn’t get done or funded in this country? Is that the unspoken suggestion, by saying the only way a white or pale-like person can get funding from an arts council is to play Indian. Authentically diverse shows are rare, aborignal artists in particular are rare. Your shit has been getting funding since they started building natioanl theatres, Statford, Shaw, Regional and National Theatres from sea to shining sea, in every bloody province gleefully programming Noel Fricken Coward! So don’t comnplain to me about diverstiy trumping Mono-culture. Eat your bagel be happy we don’t road block your community theatre.

  7. I would like the last comment by StoneFacedSavage a lot more if the author used their own name and didn’t write the last sentence. As is, anonymously, and with vaguely racist undertones, it deflates what could otherwise be a potent argument.

  8. Kevin Loring says:

    I was made aware of this video a while back and have been biting my tongue for a few weeks about it so as not to give the jackasses who made it the pleasure of knowing that they did indeed provoke me. However, I have to say that StoneFacedSavage’s remarks have emboldened me to enter the fray.
    It’s interesting Michael that you find StoneFacedSavage’s last remarks racist yet have no comment about the overtly racial slant this so-called “satire” of a video holds towards aboriginal culture, artists and the continual use of tokenism in lieu of authenticity. Forgive me for getting on my high horse here but isn’t this video supposed to be an advertisement for Summer Works? So, to me, the question is how do the sentiments put forward by this video represent SummerWorks as an organization? What are they trying to say to me?
    The interesting thing about his video is that we have Rubenfeld’s interview to go with it. So on the one hand the video takes specific aim at a cultural group, and on the other hand Rubenfeld is able to say that his remarks about Agokwe being mediocre have nothing to do with native culture. And yet he produces a video that openly mocks native culture and the struggles of native and gay artists, as an advertisement for a theatre festival?
    Again, what is the intended message of this video? How were we supposed to take it? Clearly the subjects of this satire were intentional… the actor pretending to be an idiot did not “try to appropriate as many cultures as possible” as Rubenfeld contends, he states specifically who he was intending to mock. The subjects of the satire are not arbitrary, though; I am sure that the authors of the video would like to argue otherwise, however if the subjects were that arbitrary Rubenfeld wouldn’t have to clarify his remark about Agokwe’s perceived shortcomings. So clearly the subjects were intentional.
    It makes me wonder if perhaps the contempt that is displayed by this video and Rubenfeld’s contradictory remarks speak to a deeper sentiment within the organization; that diverse artists (or perhaps only artist who are both gay and/or aboriginal in particular) are the benefactors of a degree of favoritism that allows for inherently substandard work to be produced , and any recognition of diverse work is also biased and therefore illegitimate, and that all things being equal this work would never be considered by any jury of “peers” as worthy of recognition or funding unless bias reinforcement came into play. Is this a proper distillation of the argument?
    If I were to follow the arguments presented by this satire and the comments of Rubenfeld: my own work and the work of artists like Marie Clements and Margo Kane, Thomson Highway and Daniel David Moses, must also be substandard and mediocre, unfairly supported by biased funding bodies and juries, too eager to support “anything resembling diversity.”
    Which I’m sure that if you were to ask the handful of aboriginal artistic directors in the country is why they are enjoying:
    a) substantial operating budgets in contrast to their non-aboriginal peers
    b) the ability to produce “anything resembling diversity” because of the sheer volume of grants that they are able to acquire by the benefit of cultural bias in Canada
    c) their own theatre to present their work at instead of having to convince presenters that their work is relevant enough for their stages because “Aboriginal stories are Canadian stories too. No… really they are.”
    d) None of the above.
    I too would like to challenge Rubenfeld to clarify, how not funding diverse work will benefit the quality of art in Canada?
    There are many Canada(s). The one I am witness to, does not look like the one you experience. And our people haven’t had as much practice articulating our experiences in this language as your people have. Nor do we have the same resources to do so.
    So please, do, pull your head out of your ass.

  9. Michael says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for commenting, I hope you will continue to enter the fray.

    Hey ho, don’t put words in my mouth though. I wrote very specifically that the following sentences has racist undertones:

    “Eat your bagel be happy we don’t road block your community theatre.”

    Do you disagree? I think the willingness to use this type of language goes a good way to devaluing a critique that seeks to empower diverse voices in theatre.

    As the dude who thought of and published these questions, I believe there is an inherent comment on the content of the video and its relationship with tokenism etc. But since you challenged me, I will say this about my own opinions on funding and diversity:

    As a healthy white guy who grew up in The Beaches area of Toronto before getting a fancy education that cemented my upper-middle class socio-economic status, I recognize that I am and should not be the PRIMARY focus of public funding. This identity has given me a number of formal and informal networks and resources to rely on. However, some amount of public funding is required by any successful, sustainable, professional, non-commercial, form of theatre.

    This is a major dilemna of the art form. Even selling avery ticket to every show will not pay for a show. You have to receive support from the private and public sector just to exist. I think the graph above Lindsay’s Soul Circle article illustrates this very well. Because we all need some kind of varied access to these public funds, there is bound to be conflict over who should get how much of what.

  10. ben says:

    I think satire is just that. It’s an old art form of making fun of something serious. And the reason it’s serious is because that’s what we humans get up to. But what is being made fun of is the human aspect: the pride, jealousy, fears, resentment, stubbornness, and frailty of man. In the original satires, the comedy came from extreme exaggeration. Perhaps because the subject was too hot to sit down and rationally discuss.

  11. Kevin Loring says:

    Look that’s all fine and dandy Michael; yes we are all drawing from the same funding well. And until relatively recently there was little to no monies available for diverse work. It has taken an incredible amount of work over several decades of crusading to establish diverse companies to the point where they are today, and like I said in my earlier post we still don’t have the resources that were and are available to healthy white anglo type companies anywhere in the country, its not just about your funding well. And yes I shouldn’t put words into anyones mouth.
    The focus of this string are the interview and video. I can forgive the vaguely racist rantings of previous post when campared to the overtly racist rantings of the video authors aka. the orgainizers of SummerWorks festival who feel that mocking aboriginal culture is an effective way of advertising thier festival. So, again, I reiterate my main point: This video was meant as an advertisement for a theatre festival. What message is this particualr theatre festival and it’s orgainizers trying to send to me as an aboriginal theatre artist?

  12. Well clearly I am not qualified to answer THOSE questions. Looking over this string it occurred to me that I have been posting comments under Michael and Michael Wheeler for anyone who might be confused about that…I’m not bailing on this convo – but I am starting an internet free vacation this evening – so I look forward to seeing where this conversation has gone (if anywhere) when I get back.

  13. Megan Mooney says:

    Okay, I realise this isn’t about the debate at hand, but this debate has made me realise I need to look a bit more closely at things like race and socio-economic status and so on.

    Until this debate I basically hadn’t registered that the fact that it’s a native show and a queer show would have anything to do with the Dora’s. I still don’t really think it is, but the fact that it didn’t even occur to me, well, that seems like something I should examine a bit more closely.

    So, basically, this is a comment to say thank you for this discourse, I like it when things happen that make me question things.

    Also, I really miss writing about this kind of stuff, how long before babies can take care of themselves? 😛

  14. Hi Kevin,

    Your post asked a lot of good, challenging questions. I’ve been thinking about this all week.

    I was nervous when we made the video. We were aware that it would open up a dialogue—one that I think is important. I can see why it was interpreted as you have. The intention of the video, however, was different. Please allow me to clarify.

    We made the video as an attempt to speak towards cultural appropriation.

    When we sat down with Alon and Margo, the conversation was that we wanted to create a video where a white man appropriated different cultures in an attempt to get a grant. We asked him to say and do whatever he could to get the grant, and that’s what the improv was. We thought this was a funny idea, because it was a ridiculous way to get a grant, and also, because it is rooted in a belief that exists that this is, in fact, the way to get a grant. It was agreed by all that it was something that resonated as funny and good satire because it was something that they see all the time at the Arts Council, and it is a subject that that is often hotly contested.

    We were never ever trying to say that there is no merit in diverse work. It was actually trying to mock those who would. We are making fun of the white actor in the video. We are making fun of ourselves. We tried to make it clear that the arts councilor is horrified by his behaviour, and that the empathy lies with her having to deal with this fool.

    That said. I can understand how the edit of the video may not make that clear, and may not make the original intention clear.

    The response to the video has been personally very illuminating—mainly in that what I perceived the video to be saying was clear to some and unclear to others. Upsetting to some, and not to others. I did want to have a dialogue about ignorance, particularly around diversity, and yes, the video does seem to focus in on Aboriginal art. That choice was made because it resonated as a key funding issue in this country, and so, when speaking about funding, it felt like the most recognizable issue. I would never begin to contest the reasons why, nor say that it should be contested. I do think it should be understood. I think your argument is incredibly compelling and important and one that needs to be heard more. I am really appreciative for your response, and in fact, I am just trying to incite the conversation. This was the intent. I think this issue is important and actually key to the future of art in the country. I think that we are afraid of the dialogue because there is a general feeling that diverse programming and funding is something we should be doing, but not talking about—as if talking about it would somehow be inappropriate or give less value to the art. It is, however, an issue, and one that is too often spoken about in hushed tones, mainly because we do not know the difference between how we can and/or cannot talk about it. I believe this is creating a culture of fear when speaking about diversity. The conversation does not happen as often as it should and generalities are formed that are often ignorant. The video is trying to speak to that. It is trying to say “Here. This is what we are afraid of. Being this ignorant.” I think that is clear to some, and unclear to others. It is an attempt at satire.

    We take many different angles when promoting SummerWorks, and we’ve tried to model the marketing so that it parallels the experience of seeing work at the festival. Some of it will be very slick and cool, some of it will be playful, some of it will be poignant and some of it will be provocative. This experience mirrors that of spending time watching work at SummerWorks. It is not just one thing, it is many different things.

    Also, we were never trying to mock Agokwe. I recognize why it seems that way. I have never once called Agokwe a piece of mediocre theatre. In an earlier debate, I responded to a question about how mediocre work can get Dora attention. Kelly from the Globe had reference Agokwe, but that was never what I was speaking towards. I was only trying to explain the points system at the Doras and that I think they are flawed.

    It is unfortunate that the video seems to be mocking Agokwe. That was never our intent. This was an oversight on our part, and if anybody is hurt by that, then I do apologize. This was pointed out to me during the festival by a friend who had this explained to him. He then explained it to me. Upon watching the video now, yes, of course I can see how that parallel has happened. Again, that was not our intent, and I regret that this seems to be the intent. It never was.

    Thank-you. It’s been incredibly challenging, and also scary, and I appreciate you asking me to explain.


    Michael Rubenfeld.

  15. Falen Johnson says:

    This video released was an attempt to show how some people appropriate other cultures in order to garner funding. Yes this does happen. However, the video that was released does not show, say a man in black face, then someone pretending to be Chinese, then someone pretending to be an Native. No. The video released focuses on a very specific group of people.

    We live in a world where there are the Cleveland Indians, Wooden Indians in front of stores where you can buy an “instant Indian kit.” These things much like this video are painful to see as a Native person. They make me feel invisible and dead, like I don’t exist to the outside world.

    Racism has almost become a fashionable thing these days. An attitude of, “I can make this joke because I am SO not racist” seems to exist. People think because they have been to a Pow Wow or have a Native friend that they are not racist but racism doesn’t work like that. This is why these jokes cannot be made. This is why videos like this cannot be made.

  16. So where do you think the disconnect is? Why is it that videos like this are made, and why do some people think it is funny and poignant, while others think it should not have been made in the first place? Is everyone who finds this video funny a racist?

    Is the issue that we should have appropriated more cultures? (We did try to do this, as the actor singles out gender, sexuality and race). Or is it that you think we should not have approached this issue in this way at all. What is the part about the video that is most upsetting?

    Why do we live in a world where “Wooden Indians” and “Cleveland Indians” can exist? What do you think has to happen for that to change?