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Yonge Interviews: Michael Rubenfeld, Artistic Producer of SummerWorks

Artscape's Artistic Producer Michael Rubenfeld

The Wooden Sky to perform walking tour during SummerWorks

Sook-Yin Lee the artist in residence at SummerWorks

Schutzen SummerWorks Performance

Originally a fringe-style theatre event, SummerWorks has grown to become the largest juried festival in Canada. It now features performances, plays, live art, and a music series, each encompassing an element of theatre. In one production, local band the Wooden Sky will go on a travelling tour, performing in various back alleys around the Ossington area, effectively turning the neighbourhood into a stage.
In 2008, Michael Rubenfeld came on board as the festival's Artistic Producer. He is essentially responsible for curating the entire event. This year, he's moved SummerWorks west to the Ossington Strip, one of the city's cultural epicentres. If you're in the mood for music or art, you can find it along Ossington any night of the week. The streets are always busy. With it, the strip has transformed. New restaurants and galleries continue to open, bleeding into the surrounding Dundas West area. 
Rubenfeld moved to Ossington and Dundas in 2002 and has seen the area develop. Yonge Street talks to him about his observations and how SummerWorks fits into this narrative. 
Hi Michael. You've been on board since 2008, why don't you tell us a little about this year's edition of the SummerWorks Festival and perhaps how it's different from previous years?
The interesting thing about the way the festival works is the trends of the festival are often defined by zeitgeist, by what people submit to us. Every year, the work is incredibly diverse because we get over 200 submissions and we spend a lot of time making sure the identity of the festival mirrors the identity of the zeitgeist and the city.
What about these trends, have you noticed any common themes?
There are certain trends, but I think the only real identifier of the festival is the quality of the work and the nature of the investigation. For example, what's really important to me is that the work is asking complication questions of the world. I'm particularly interested in work that questions our systems. That's my biggest obsession I suppose, or necessity, that the work has to be asking complicated questions, work that potentially challenges our systems of thought. 
That's the overall trend, but it's certainly a deliberate trend. We have one German piece from Berlin called Schützen that I invited to the festival because of the way it speaks about and investigates the extremity of the war. We also have an artist coming to town named Aharona Israel who is interested in looking Israel from the inside as an Israeli. Then we have another piece by a Canadian named Daniel Thau-Eleff whose written a piece called Good People Bad Things that's also a look at Israel from the outside. So it's interesting, this trio of work looking at Israel.
Let's talk location. SummerWorks is kind of taking over Ossington for the duration of the festival. What attracted you to that area specifically?
When I first started with the festival I made the decision to keep it along the Queen West strip, so we've always programmed work all along Queen Street. We used two theatres at Bathurst and Queen, we've always used a theatre called The Theatre Centre, which is at Dovercourt, and a few years ago we started using a theatre called the Lower Ossington Theatre on Ossington. 
I'm attracted to the area for a couple of reasons. I think that it's just nicer to be able to walk from space to space or be able to hop on your bike. It's conducive to a festival vibe. Over the years, obviously, Ossington has become a cultural hub. When I first moved to Toronto, I moved to Dundas and Ossington, so I've seen it evolve. I moved before there was a place to drink. The only place you could drink was at a Portuguese bar that sold $7 pitchers. 
Part of it also is this partnership we've had with Lower Ossington Theatre. They give us a lot of  freedom in their space to do interesting things. We've ended up making it our hub because we can. For example, they have two levels and they have a parking lot in the backyard that we've been able to work with the school behind them to turn it into a patio. A lot of it has to with accessibility, but, also, it's Ossington.
On that note, have you seen the arts scene along Ossington grow in parallel to the revitalization of the neighbourhood? I mean, with all the new bars and galleries. 
The cultural world is rooted in gentrification. I think that artists define the culture of any space. Ossington became attractive because artists were making it attractive or a certain kind of culture was making it attractive. It started with places like the Communist's Daughter, the Dakota Tavern, and Crooked Star. Those were the three places to drink. I would say for the most part they were artists opening up bars and people trying to find sustainability and it became cool. As soon as something becomes cool, people want a piece. It becomes cool because artists make it cool or other people decide its cool because of what artists are doing in that region.
Artists have to sustain themselves. They have to make businesses and their businesses are probably going to be more interesting than the commodified businesses because those are made by capitalists, but small stores are made by artists.
How crucial do you think the arts are to city-building as a whole and making the city a better place?
Any major metropolitan city has only become so because of art. Capitalism comes later. If we think of any of the cities that people want to go to, the first places that come to mind are places like Paris or Vienna or New York or London and I don't think people want to go to those cities because they've heard the banks make tons of money there, they're interested in going there for the culture. That's why people go to cities. They go because they can make money, or they go because they can experience interesting culture. 
Without artists you have no culture, your culture is capitalist culture. Inherently, we weren't put into the world to make money. There's no real logic, it's just what we do to sustain. Most people are attracted to art because its much more rooted in the existential quest. It just makes more sense that we would make art than money. 
And how many artists exactly are involved in SummerWorks?
It's an impossible number to tell you. We present about 43 plays, eight nights of music, about 12 live art pieces, 10 nights of our performance bar, each night we have two or three new artists, in each of the pieces there's at least 5-10 artists connected to it, whether they're actors, designers, directors or stage managers. There's so many artists. I would say most of the performance community becomes somehow connected to SummerWorks. I don't think 1,000 is too lofty a number.
Thanks Michael! Any final words?
I think SummerWorks is actually one of the most important and exciting things that happens in Toronto and if you have not experienced it you're missing out. 
SummerWorks runs from August 8-18. For more information, check out www.summerworks.ca
This interview has been edited and condensed. 
Sheena Lyonnais is Yonge Street's managing editor. This interview is part of an ongoing series featuring creative thinkers in Toronto. If you know of someone you think might be a great fit, you can submit a recommendation here
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