Michael Rubenfeld is Talking to Chris Dupuis

Check out the latest issue of Xtra Magazine to read the story about Michael Rubenfeld's new play My Fellow Creatures being produced by Buddies and Absit-Omen at Theatre Passe Muraille. The show runs for a limited time May 15-June 1.

Read the full interview below!

Michael Rubenfeld's new play My Fellow Creatures about a couple of convicted paedophiles in prison together is being produced as part of Buddies season as an offsite show at Theatre Passe Muraille. Rubenfeld and I met up last week to talk about sex, making theatre, and why we write plays about men who like to fuck boys.

I've found that anytime our culture has a dialogue about the issue of adult/child sexual relationships, we're required to say "But they're sick and it's wrong!" No matter what else we say about it, we have to insert that statement into the mix.

I can't say I disagree with that. I think that children can be really fucked up by having these experiences. In the context of our current society it's not condoned, but usually children don't know that until after they've had the experience. That's part of what is so difficult about it for them. They are told repeatedly that this relationship that may have really important to them is bad, which they then interpret to mean that they're bad.

As a heterosexual man, I'm curious about your relationship to the subject matter. You didn't choose to write a play about men who fuck little girls. You chose to write a play about men who fuck boys. Why?

I'm starting to realize that just about everything I write is a case study on men. I am fascinated by men and how we function. The men that I'm most attracted to as human beings are gay men. I feel like the relationship heterosexual men have to ourselves as emotional beings is problematic. I think that's why I have a tendency to write about men who are trying to get to the root of their emotions, to love and give love. And as a man, maybe it was easier for me to write about men who love boys because with a young boy it was easier for me to see myself
subconsciously in that person.

When I get into a dialogue about this subject matter, and it did come up a few times during Wash Me Clean, I frequently preface a my comments by saying I grew up in a household with a father who worked for The Children's Aid Society. As much as he tried to shield our family from the truly horrific things that he had to deal with a work, it would trickle down and we'd find out some of the things he saw. What I think is interesting is that as a culture we lump all of these different kinds of experiences on to one plate; The experiences of children who are being literally raped against their will are considered equivalent to kids who are actually engaging in something that's totally consensual, minus the fact that they're not of the age of consent.

I think there's a big difference. There's also a difference between a child who's gone through puberty and one who hasn't. I don't remember myself ever wanting to have sex at eleven. It took me a long time to figure out the ages that people needed to be for this play.

Part of what inspired Wash Me Clean was the hockey scandal, where that Maple Leaf Gardens employee was exchanging sexual favours with teenage boys for money, tickets to games, etc. I went to school with a lot of hockey players and I don't know if they were doing everything they were saying but they were sure as hell talking about fucking a lot of girls at thirteen or fourteen. So then to take those kids who are more likely than not sexually active with girls their own age and to take away their right and responsibility to consent to sexual activity with
an adult man seemed wrong to me. Most people enter puberty around the age of fourteen and before that I'd agree that it's not appropriate for kids to be engaging in sexual activity with people who are older than them. However, once you cross that line into sexual maturity, it's not fair to say that you don't have the right to make those decisions for yourself.

Sex with anyone is always an odd thing. When I was fourteen, what the hell did I know about sex? The feelings that kids have at that age are kind of ill informed. They are rooted in hormones and connected to things we're told we shouldn't do. I don't think it should be illegal to have sex once you've entered puberty. When you're ten or eleven you're not having sexual thoughts though. You just think girls have cooties.

From the time I was five or six years old I was doing sexual things with other kids.

Really? Was it because of curiosity or because of hormones?

I don't really know. Even looking back I'm not sure I have the perspective to know where it was coming from. All I can say is that it was an impulse. The same way that as an artist you have impulses and you can't explain where they come from, but you just know you have to do certain things. Anyway, enough about my sexual history. What do you want the audience to take away from the show?

I want people to gain a sense of understanding; A sense that the people who have these impulses aren't crazy psychopaths and that they're human beings. I want people to understand how these things happen.

I've always thought that one of the big issues in dealing with these kinds of relationships is the fact that we can't talk about them at all. I've had this discussion with my father, who works in the "industry" and he's sort of at a loss as to what to do about it as well. If you are someone who has this desire what the hell are you supposed to do? If you go and tell your doctor, the doctor has to call
the police by law. Just admitting that you have the desire in the first place can get you in trouble.

I think that's the problem. If people were able to talk about it, it would be more manageable.

Coming from a sex-positive background, I also think a big part of the issue is that it's about a sexual act and that's why we can't talk about it. In 2004 our supreme court upheld the rights of parents to beat their children. I don't know what that says about our society, that people has the legal right to hit children, but not to engage in consensual sexual activity with them.

I don't believe that it's okay to have sex with children but after making this show I think I understand where the desire comes from. I think the act of sex itself can be very intimate and very confusing. As adults it changes our relationships to people and things dramatically. It's such an intimate act and without a fully examined real understanding of what it is, it can be really confusing and harmful, much more so than getting hit. Taking off your clothes with a person, even as an adult is a really different thing than getting hit. It's a whole different kind of vulnerability to experience sexuality with a person. The power of sex is much greater than hitting or being hit. I think it would have fucked me up a lot more if my parents had had sex with me, rather than hitting me every once in a while.

One of the concerns I had with Wash Me Clean, because the writing has was so intensely personal and the character was speaking in a voice that people could immediately identify as mine, was that people would actually think the character on stage was me. Was that ever a concern for you while you were working on this piece--that people would look at it and say this is Michael Rubenfeld on stage?

A little bit, sure. When I'm talking about the piece I often clarify that I was not abused as a child, though I never specify that I'm not attracted to children. I just assume most people would know that and I think my opinion in the play is clear. At the end of the show, this child has been destroyed by the relationship he had with the older man. I think that the fact that I wasn't abused is part of what enabled me to write the play. People who've read it who have had the
experience have told me that it's very authentic. There's a part of me that has started to wonder since I wrote this play if maybe I was abused and I don't remember.

With Wash Me Clean, the desire and the uncertainty that the character expresses is one hundred percent from me, though the object of the desire is different. With My Fellow Creatures I wonder if the desire for a purer kind of love that Arthur is seeking is something that you've experienced in your life.

Of course. For me it's a play about unrequited love and it just happens that he has an unrequited love for a young boy. I had my heart broken in the middle of writing the play and that certainly helped me in the process. It informed both what Arthur's heart was going through and also Kelly's desire to be loved again; That feeling of heartbreak when you want something that you can't have that's totally unattainable. For Kelly, he wants to be a kid again. He wants that
relationship back, which I understand. We all want the best time of our lives to exist always and forever. But I think that's all that people have when they write plays, unless they've gone through the experience themselves.

I'm curious about how you see you work falling into a greater context of works that tackle this subject. I just re-watched the film Mysterious Skin recently, which I thought it was a really interesting take on the subject because it talks about two very different experiences of children being sexually abused by an adult. For one,
the experience is so traumatic, that he ends up blocking it out and suffering through all sorts of health and psychological complications. The other is a willing participant over a long duration of time, continues to have fantasies about the experience as an adult, and continues to seek out men who physically resemble the person who was abusing him as sexual partners.

I found that piece incredibly helpful. It made me think about the relationships in a way I hadn't before. It helped me understand what the central character of my play needed.

Are there any other works that you referenced during your process?

I saw the film Deliver Us From Evil while I was writing as well, about the Catholic priest who was sexually abusing children, and kept getting moved from one parish to the next. The amount of harm that one man inflicted on hundreds of people--I found it so upsetting. It was one of the most powerful films I've ever seen. There's a scene with one of the fathers talking about what the priest did to his daughter...

The part where he breaks down crying…

I started to cry when I saw that part. It was so shocking. My play tries to go there. I think it's important for us to see just how damaging these things are. And I actually think contextually it could help people who are having these feelings, help them think about what they are doing. Not so much in questioning the desires, as I believe the desires are authentic, but the sexual act itself. I think we have to think about it as a sexual preference.

As I said, I think a big part of the problem is that it's something were not even allowed to have any sort of dialogue about.

Those are the things that I'm interested in writing about. My last play Spain was about two straight men that have an attraction to each other and don't know what to do about it. They don't want to have sex, but how do they reconcile this attraction? It's a big question for me
of how men love each other. I think it's really hard for straight men to love other men.

I've never been straight, so I don't really know what that experience is like.

How many straight men can you say, "I love you" to?

That's an interesting question. A few years ago I was in this friendship with this straight guy and we were kind of in love, in a way. There was a lot of physical intimacy in our relationship and we told each other we loved each other. He was always really clear about the fact that he was straight and we'd talk about his troubles finding girlfriends. I think it was fulfilling a need for both of us at the

Did you believe that he was straight?

The way that I tend to look at sexuality in that context, is that until you say to me "I'm gay and I want to fuck you" I'm just going to consider that you're straight. I'm not going to go to that point where I start analyzing things and wondering about possibilities. Some guys are like that, but I have enough people that want to have sex with me and I'm not interested in aggressively trying to pursue someone who
may not be interested.

I can often get a read if a woman has a sexual inclination towards a man, even if it's not necessarily me. (pause) I feel like I have a sexual relationship to most things. Or a sensual relationship.

What's the difference?

There are a lot of people that I feel physically attracted to, but when I imagine being intimate with them I don't want that at all, even though I'll still feel drawn to them. You just know the difference.

It is kind of an instinctual thing that you just learn as you get older. We should probably talk a bit more about the play, as interesting as this dialogue is. And who knows what'll make it onto the blog.

I like your blog. I've been reading it.

That's good to hear. It's always a bit strange when people tell me they read it. I'm always sort of like "Really?"

Well, that's why it's out there--you want people to read it.

I know but it's strange. As a writer you just don't know if anyone is reading your work. As a playwright it's different because you can go to a specific space at a specific time and see who is hearing your words, but with my other writing work, I have no fucking idea who is reading what I'm writing. It's a pleasant surprise when you do hear it, because there's a feeling of "Oh, somebody's actually reading what I have to say!"

I feel that way when people notice my direction on things. When people comment on it, I often have to question it, saying "Didn't you just notice the play and the great actors?" I almost don't believe it sometimes.

I feel like direction is something you have to have a certain amount of technical knowledge to be able to spot, to tell that something is a directing choice beyond just a sense that the actors are great.

Sometimes you can't tell if something is a directing choice or an acting choice though.

Ultimately I think that everything that happens onstage has to be considered a directing choice. If you aren't happy with something an actor is doing it's your responsibility to change it as the director. Sometimes you are limited by what an actor can give you in that particular moment, but ultimately if you're putting it on stage and you're letting people see it I have to assume that it falls within
your range of choice.

I've worked with a lot of directors and some of them were really crappy.

Let's talk about directing then. You went to school as an actor and almost immediately started directing.

The first piece I did was Don Mickelson's Kyke Cabaret at Rhubarb. That was a hard show to direct. I think I've only more recently decided that I am a director, but only because I've had my heart broken too many times by awful directors or shows that could have worked that didn't because they had the wrong director. It was either become a director, or spend the rest of my life complaining. Although I think now I've realized at heart that part of it is wanting to be in

I remember when I was doing my undergrad; there were people in the acting program that kept saying the whole time they were there that they wanted to direct. Did you feel that way when you were at NTS?

My last year of high school I took the drama program twice, the first time I was acting in everything and the second time just because I wanted to direct. When I got into NTS I was excited about directing, but NTS was such a hard process for me I just thought mostly about
surviving to be honest. The idea of doing anything professionally, including directing, I couldn't imagine so acting felt like a smaller more manageable thing I could take on. It wasn't until I got out and worked on a few shows that I started to feel like it was something I was able to take on. Early in my career I wrote a play that I gave to someone else to direct. It got bad reviews, and at that point I decided that if people don't like my work I want to be entirely responsible for it.

When I was studying I knew that I wanted to be a playwright/director. One of the problems I had at school was that in directing class we always had to bring in old material. We were never allowed to create our own work. And in playwriting they were always adamant that we had to have other directors for our workshops and readings. I understand those choices on a certain intrinsic level, as there are specific problems that can happen when a writer directs their own work, but I
think ultimately for me as a creative artist working in the theatre, it's the only way I can be totally satisfied.

I think if the playwright is a director themselves, chances are they'll do as well directing their own work, if not better, than someone else. Directing your own work you can really cut down the time it takes to figure things out. When I did Spain in 2004 I cast it and directed it and it was really scary, but really good. I was really proud of it.

It was quite successful when you did it. Do you think if it hadn't been successful it might have altered your trajectory a bit?

I think so. I didn't really know what I was doing at that point. I didn't think that much about it. I just did it. I remember on opening night I almost passed out because the reality of what I was about to do hit me.

There's a part in the process as a director when you hit this beautiful moment, usually around dress rehearsal, sometimes a bit before, when you accept the fact that there's nothing else you can do for the show. It just is what it is. Obviously with My Fellow Creatures you have a bit more time before you get there.

I knew I needed a lot of time with this process so I pushed for a full three weeks of rehearsal. I'm pretty scared about putting this out since it's my first full-length piece of professional theatre outside of a festival.

And it's a really different context to have your work judged as part of a main stage season versus a festival.

True. I think it's a much better play than Spain and it's a much more complex piece of theatre. Some people are going to hate it.

You think so? Just because of the subject matter?

Probably. There's a reason why it's never talked about. People are afraid of it. Some people are going to come to see this piece and not be happy to be going through the experience of it. It's a very intense piece to watch. I have moments in rehearsal where I find it really
hard to watch.

After I did Wash Me Clean there was a guy who accosted me at the gym to tell me what he thought of it. Up until that point all of the feedback about the piece had been incredibly positive and full of complements and the first thing he said to me after mentioning that he'd seen the show was "Well, you're not saying that's okay, are you?" And my immediate response was "If that's how you feel about this why
are you talking to me about it?"

That's not a bad response because you can then turn it around and ask them what they think. I'd take that response any day, over people hating it because it's not a good play. If people don't like your work for the right reasons that's okay. If people don't like what I'm writing about I don't really care. If people don't like how I'm writing about it that might be a bit harder to deal with.

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