SummerWorks Theatre Festival gained international attention when it came under scrutiny by the Canadian government for supporting terrorism. Having moved past the controversy, the festival, opening on August 9th, is bigger and better than ever.
The festival (running August 9th through the 19th) features nightly live music from celebrated Canadian bands and artists (including Hawksley Workman and Buck 65), a performance bar live art, as well as its juried selection of over 40 plays from across Canada.
Started in 1991 as a way for Canadian theatre artist to have their independent work be seen and noticed, SummerWorks became fully juried between 2000 and 2004; it's since become one of the country's pre-eminent places for high-quality independent work. For instance, Mr. Marmalade, by acclaimed American playwright Noah Haidle, had a sold-out run at last year's edition of SummerWorks; it's enjoying a successful and highly-acclaimed site-specific remount this summer in Toronto. As well as offering theatre goodies, SummerWorks also acts as a sort of cultural ambassador for other art forms, which explains its expanded roster over the last few years to incorporate contemporary indie rocks sounds into a more theatre-centric milieu. Along with Workman and Buck 65 (aka Rich Terfry, host of CBC Radio 2's weekday afternoon program), the festival will also feature genre-busting musician Sandro Perri and folk-rocker Bry Webb (ex of Canadian band The Constantines).
It takes chutzpah and no small amount of talent to orchestrate something as ambitious as SummerWorks. But actor, writer, director and producer Michael Rubenfeld is up to the task. As Artistic Producer since 2008, Rubenfeld has an impressive creative background that helps to deepen and strengthen the artistic mandate of the festival. He appeared on Canadian news program The National in 2009 as part of a feature on The Book Of Judith, his play detailing his complex relationship with a disabled woman; it was a riveting piece of performance, one that saw him strip down (physically as well as emotionally) before audiences on a regular basis. To put it plainly, the guy has balls.
They got a workout again in 2010 - metaphorically- when he rallied Canada's arts community over the festival's funding being cut over false allegations that it was promoting terrorism through its production of Homegrown, work that explores lawyer/playwright Catherine Frid's friendship with one of the suspects in the Toronto 18 terrorism plot. Happily, this past June, the festival's funding was reinstated for reasons unknown, although Rubenfeld's tireless work, as well as the multiple national readings of Homegrown, organized by theatre artist Michael Healey, surely helped. Healey, a strong supporter of Canadian theatre (not to mention cultural shit-disturber in his own way), acted as emcee for a dinner soiree organized by SummerWorks in early July of this year.
Partnering with locavore chef Mark Cutrara, guests enjoyed live music, raffles, an auction, stories about past productions, and a clever "advice" booth in the style of the Peanuts gang. The evening was a clearly encapsulation of the eclectic offerings and artistry of SummerWorks. Rubenfeld recently offered thoughts about partnering with the foodies of Toronto, bringing a new blogging voice to the fest, and he thinks where SummerWorks fits within the North American theatre scene.
How did the idea for a local-based dinner come about?
Last year inaugurated this idea, as we wanted to start offering a laid-back dinner to help fundraise and introduce the festival to folks who might not interested in attending some of our rowdier parties. SummerWorks spends a lot of time thinking about how art can integrate community, so the idea of having a local restaurant cater a meal for us was an easy connection for us to make. We've been working with Fadi Hakim and the Lakeview for a couple of years now, and so it was a natural fit to have his restaurant, The Lakeview, working with us the first year, and with their new restaurants, The Samuel J Moore, opening in September, having their chef, Mark Cutrara (Cowbell) work with us was another natural fit.
How much do you think the arts community benefits from partnering with figures in the city’s foodie movement? (and likewise?)
Working with sector other than our own helps introduce the Festival to people who might have not otherwise heard about it. The nice thing about SummerWorks is that everyone loves it. Everyone also loves food. It's a perfect match.
Canadian theatre artist (and SummerWorks board member) Ruth Madoc Jones speaks onstage during the SummerWorks Soirree in early July. The dinner was prepared by locavore chef Mark Cutrara and took place at the Great Hall on Queen Street West. Various members of Toronto's cultural scene were present, including actors, writers, musicians, and local media.
During the dinner you shared stories about plays the festival had produced (including the much-laudedWhite Rabbit, Red Rabbit) -how does this relate to a larger vision for the festival?
SummerWorks is always thinking about immersing audiences. A good Festival makes a festival-goer feel like the Festival is theirs. And SummerWorks is. It really belongs to the audience. We're just the conduits. SummerWorks has produced a number of very remarkable pieces that have great stories attached to them that only stay alive as memory if their told. That's the beauty of the theatre. In one moment it exists, and in the next it lives only as memory.
What positives came out of the the ‘terrorist play’ / funding debacle?
It forced people to think about the artist's role in society, and also exposed the very palpable value that SummerWorks has in this community.
Blogger Casie Stewart is doing the Summerworks blog this year; she admitted that despite her vast experience with online work, she doesn’t know the Toronto theatre scene very thoroughly. What does she bring to the festival?
She brings an enthusiasm for engagement and a whole slew of people who have no relationship to SummerWorks. Many people are in the same boat as (her) ...the nice thing about Casie is that she makes a living being curious about the world -and it's intoxicating. Hopefully it will encourage a whole slew of new SummerWorks audiences.
Toronto blogger Casie Stewart (L) chats with journalist Catherine Kustanczy before the SummerWorks Soiree in early July. Stewart, who worked as the community manager for MuchMTV Group at Canadian broadcaster CTV and received mentions in the Wall Street Journal and Mashable (among others), is in charge of the festival's blog this year.
Two of the musicians on this year’s concert roster include Hawksley Workman and Buck 65 - artists known for being genre-defying in many senses, & their theatricality too - how much do they encapsulate the future of SummerWorks in a broader sense?
They are pretty representative of a lot of the type of work we are presenting, and will continue to present. I am very interested in ideas of auteurship and virtuosity. Thinking too much in terms of genre can get in the way of people pushing their own limits and boundaries. We need to be spending more time stripping away our boundaries -that's where possibility exists and the place we need to go to tap into our own virtuosities.
Where do you see Summerworks fitting within a wider continental arts scene?
Performance-based art is happening all over the world. The more we can be a part of that conversation, the more we can maintain artistic relevance. We want people to come to SummerWorks and have their minds blown. We can't do that if we're recycling old ideas.