Michael Rubenfeld is stepping down as artistic producer of the SummerWorks Festival – after eight years during which the Toronto indie theatre and performance festival doubled in attendance, broadened its mandate and launched a winter spinoff focused on international work.
Oh, and found its programming condemned by the Prime Minister's Office. But more on that in a moment.
"I've been able to do a lot of the things that I was hoping to do," Rubenfeld says of his reasons for leaving, speaking with The Globe and Mail ahead of an official announcement from the festival's board of directors. "In a way, I feel like everything that I have to contribute to the festival, I have."
It's difficult to underestimate that contribution: SummerWorks, as it is known now, is essentially an invention of Rubenfeld.
The festival began its life in 1991 as a kind of overflow for the Toronto Fringe with participants selected by lottery. By the time Rubenfeld took over in 2008, it had been transformed into a juried festival for a number of years under Franco Boni and then Keira Loughran.
But Rubenfeld helped the festival achieve a new national influence as a showcase for the newest and most exciting Canadian work – at times, becoming a one-stop shopping spot for artistic directors from across the country programming their future seasons.
Playwrights Nicolas Billon, Hannah Moscovitch, Erin Shields and Jordan Tannahill – to name simply the Governor-General's Award winners – all had plays premiere at SummerWorks during Rubenfeld's tenure, while innovative or unusual works of musical theatre such as Ride the Cyclone (now headed to New York under the guidance of a Broadway producer), The God That Comes and Counting Sheep had notable runs.
Nevertheless, in recent years, Rubenfeld reinvented SummerWorks again and again – producing fewer plays and expanding into a multiarts festival that included music, dance and live art. Last year, he moved selection away from a jury system to a group of revolving curators – and also launched a winter sister festival called Progress with the Theatre Centre. (He will stay on as a curator for SummerWorks in 2016 – and has yet to determine what his involvement will be with Progress moving forward.)
Some of the most memorable work at SummerWorks under Rubenfeld was decidedly outside the box – such as the series that tapped into the vibrancy of Toronto's indie music scene by pairing the likes of Brendan Canning, Maylee Todd and Buck 65 with theatre directors and choreographers.
"Essentially, the festival used to really be a home for the theatre community and I believe it's now a home for the entire performance community," Rubenfeld says.
Of course, the most notable – or notorious – part of Rubenfeld's tenure must be the controversies that erupted on a regular basis in the first years he was artistic producer.
Initially, these were minor – as edgy, satirical videos commissioned to promote the festival featuring female playwrights in a pillow fight and a man appropriating different cultures in an attempt to get a grant led to outrage, discussion and the occasional apology from Rubenfeld.
But these were overshadowed in 2011, when SummerWorks programmed Homegrown, a play by Catherine Frid about the Toronto 18 terrorist plot that received a negative review from an unlikely critic: former prime minister Stephen Harper. "We are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism," Andrew MacDougall, a spokesman for the then-prime minister, said at the time.
These words sent a chilling effect into the Canadian theatre community – but when SummerWorks soon found itself without the funding it was counting on from the Department of Canadian Heritage, theatre artists mobilized.
Staged readings of Homegrown – part protest, part fundraiser for SummerWorks – were held from coast to coast, including at such major institutions as the Vancouver Playhouse and the Shaw Festival.
"[Homegrown] was both one of the low points and one of the high points," Rubenfeld now says. "It was terrifying and confusing, but I think the way we handled it actually allowed us to strengthen our relationship with [Canadian] Heritage."
Indeed, the festival got its funding back a year later – and hasn't made any unpleasant headlines since. Rubenfeld leaves the festival with attendance hovering around 18,000 – and an annual budget that has doubled as well, to $600,000.
From here, Rubenfeld has no immediate plans to run any other festival or artistic institution (no, he's not in line for the Luminato job) – but will focus on his own work as a producer, playwright and actor. He's in the upcoming off-Mirvish production of Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced.
And the SummerWorks board of directors is on a hunt for a new artistic producer – to start work on the 2017 edition. Rubenfeld will be a hard act to follow.