Finding the future in the past

Left to right: Michael Rubenfeld, Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke in We Keep Coming Back, which plays March 13 and 14 as part of the Chutzpah! Festival. (photo by Jeremy Mimnaugh)

At first, we expected the piece to focus mainly on the past and how sad the absence of Jewish life in Poland is. After going and also spending more time in Poland, we now propose that it is through focusing on the present and future, with an aim at building positive perspectives, that will ultimately lead to transformation and genuine healing,” said Michael Rubenfeld about We Keep Coming Back, which plays at the Chutzpah! Festival March 13 and 14.

Rubenfeld created the multimedia work with Sarah Garton Stanley, as well as his mother, Mary Berchard, and filmmaker and translator Katka Reszke. Rubenfeld and Garton Stanley are co-directors of Selfconscious Theatre. We Keep Coming Back is based on a trip that Rubenfeld and his mother took to Poland in 2013.

“It was always our intention to make a piece of theatre and the trip was connected to a desire to explore intergeneration trauma and, also, more specifically, the problems in my relationship with my mother that stem from unresolved trauma and disconnect from our family’s roots in Poland,” said Rubenfeld. “So, the trip was an experiment of sorts; to see if going to Poland with my mother, visiting her mother and father’s hometowns and going to Auschwitz, would give us the opportunity to mourn together, which might also bring us closer together.”

According to a blog on Selfconscious Theatre’s website, after surviving the Holocaust, “Berchard’s family moved from Poland to Sweden, where she was born. They then immigrated to Canada in 1951, where she grew up and eventually had a son, Michael.”

Rubenfeld and Berchard were in Poland for about two weeks. “My mother has since been back three or four more times, and I now have a home in Poland with my wife,” said Rubenfeld – the couple lives in both Krakow and Toronto. “We’ve toured We Keep Coming Back to Poland three times,” he added.

The project has worked to bring mother and son closer.

“It’s been really nice for us to have a piece that we do together,” said Rubenfeld. “It gives us an excuse to spend time together to do something we know we’re going to enjoy. It’s also given us commonality, which has been really essential for our relationship.

“My mother has always been very supportive, though we don’t always have a lot in common. This project has changed that. We also now have Poland in common, and our mutual interest. My mother really loves it in Poland. She’s also become quite interested in uncovering more about our history and has started researching and archiving our family tree. It’s brought her a lot of happiness and has been a really healing thing – which, in general, has been good for our relationship as well.”

We Keep Coming Back “speaks so openly and honestly about what it means to love a parent, or to be loved by a child, and how so many of the resources for a good and enduring love were torn apart by the Holocaust and all of the horrors, throughout the generations that linger,” said Garton Stanley, who is also associate artistic director of English theatre and interim facilitator for indigenous theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

“Honestly, as someone on the ground since the get-go, I was most curious about Michael’s developing love for Poland and how, over the course of the play’s creation, he not only fell in love with a Jewish woman from Poland but that he now lives there,” she said. “Michael and I are very interested in the line between fiction and reality and the space for realizing possible worlds through dramatic form. Michael now speaks some Polish. He’s making deep-rooted reconnections and helping contribute to a vibrant Jewish life in Poland.”

Garton Stanley and Rubenfeld met just over 10 years ago, after she saw him in a show. “He was performing in it with my partner at the time,” she said. “He was amazing. We became fast friends shortly thereafter.”

At Selfconscious Theatre – which they started together – the two have also co-created The Book of Judith; Mother, Mother, Mother; and The Failure Show.

For We Keep Coming Back, Garton Stanley is not only co-creator but the director. “My co-creation,” she explained, “was part facilitator, part conceiver, part devisor, part writer, part mediator, part friend and always enthusiast.”

How Reszke became involved in the production is a little more circuitous and fortuitous.

“Once we decided to take the trip to Poland, we connected with a producer named Evelyn Tauben, who was doing research around contemporary Jewish Poland,” explained Rubenfeld. “Through Evelyn initially, we started learning about the renaissance of Jewish culture in Poland, which, at the time, I knew nothing about. Once learning about it, we determined that it was important to us that we engage with it on our trip, and that’s when Katka came into the picture.

“We knew we needed a translator to join us, and we also knew we wanted to document the process. We joked that it would be incredible if we could find someone who could both translate, film and be a Polish Jew who might want to collaborate with us artistically. On a lark, we Googled ‘Polish, Jewish, filmmaker,’ and that’s how we discovered Katka. We sent her an email, and one thing led to another.”

“Mary Berchard and Katka Reszke,” added Garton Stanley, “are fascinating performers and neither of them has any training in this area. Their stories and their curiosity combine with Michael’s to create a new family. And this feels like one of the piece’s hidden successes.”

As for what has most surprised her about the project, she said, “That we are still doing it and learning from it. And learning from the audiences whose histories intersect with Michael’s, Mary’s and Katka’s own generational challenges and traumas. And that the piece resonates as deeply as it does. It has a beautiful heart and this is always surprising, in the best way.”

“I believe that, in our desire to never forget what happened during the Holocaust, we have also forgotten that Poland was one of the most important contemporary homelands for the Ashkenazi Jewish people for over 500 years,” said Rubenfeld. “So much of our contemporary culture was bred in this land, and we forget that the Jewish people were happy living in Poland before the war. We are raised to think of Poland as only the place of tragedy. While I understand why, I think that it’s essential to remember and celebrate a time when there was such vibrant Jewish culture. Most was destroyed because of the war, and it’s impossible to not feel sad. But, as we move into the future and the pain continues to recede, it is just as important to remember the incredible prewar Polish Jewish world of Poland. It was very profound.”

For tickets to We Keep Coming Back at the Rothstein Theatre, and for the full Chutzpah! schedule, visit chutzpahfestival.com.

Balaklava Blues is a musical meditation of hope against the backdrop of Ukraine's chaos

Mark and Marichka Marczyk first met during the 2014 protests in Ukraine. Each day thousands of people gathered on the Maidan — Kyiv's central square — and rallied against the government strengthening ties to Russia while abandoning plans for a closer relationship with the European Union.

"What struck us most was the humanity of everything," says Mark. "Even in struggle people were so welcoming and warm. They were creating a real community, not just through politics but through sharing stories."

Mark, best known as the ringleader for Toronto's klezmer-party-punks The Lemon Bucket Orkestra, and Marichka, a trained ethnomusicologist, would perform traditional folk songs on the Maidan. "We wanted to help however we could," adds Marichka. Using their artistic talents, they added a soundtrack of resilience and hope to the demonstrations in their homeland.

The protests eventually turned violent, and soon after Russia annexed Crimea. Those events became the beginning of a civil war with Ukraine that is still going on today.

(balaklavablues.com)   The degradation of the Kyiv protests were the backdrop for   Counting Sheep  , an interactive theatre experience created and performed by the Marczyks and Lemon Bucket Orkestra. The show cast audience members as protesters, encouraging participation with the cast through food, video installation and live music.  Counting Sheep  was developed in Toronto and toured internationally. The show received critical and commercial success, winning numerous accolades and awards, including the Scotsman Fringe First and Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award at the Edinburgh Fringe.  This powerful theatre project makes you a protester in the Ukrainian crisis  The success of  Counting Sheep  was a mixed blessing for the couple. They were grateful that their art was impacting others, but it was birthed out of a moment of crisis both personally and for their country. As the tour of the show concluded, things in Eastern Ukraine continued to escalate. A commercial aircraft was shot down in Ukrainian airspace. Friends of Mark and Marichka were killed during conflicts with pro-Russian separatists. Media outlets lost interest in the ongoing conflict.  The Marczyks have been reckoning with the experiences of present-day Ukraine, and the events both the couple and their peers went through. Not knowing what else to do with the multitude of emotions on the subject, they did the only thing they knew how: they made art.

(balaklavablues.com)

The degradation of the Kyiv protests were the backdrop for Counting Sheep, an interactive theatre experience created and performed by the Marczyks and Lemon Bucket Orkestra. The show cast audience members as protesters, encouraging participation with the cast through food, video installation and live music. Counting Sheep was developed in Toronto and toured internationally. The show received critical and commercial success, winning numerous accolades and awards, including the Scotsman Fringe First and Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award at the Edinburgh Fringe.

This powerful theatre project makes you a protester in the Ukrainian crisis

The success of Counting Sheep was a mixed blessing for the couple. They were grateful that their art was impacting others, but it was birthed out of a moment of crisis both personally and for their country. As the tour of the show concluded, things in Eastern Ukraine continued to escalate. A commercial aircraft was shot down in Ukrainian airspace. Friends of Mark and Marichka were killed during conflicts with pro-Russian separatists. Media outlets lost interest in the ongoing conflict.

The Marczyks have been reckoning with the experiences of present-day Ukraine, and the events both the couple and their peers went through. Not knowing what else to do with the multitude of emotions on the subject, they did the only thing they knew how: they made art.

Balaklava Blues — the new stage show written and performed by the duo — seamlessly integrates Eastern European folk music, hip hop, documentary film and Russian cartoons. The show, which premiered at Luminato Fest this June and will travel to the U.K. later this year, is an earnest and engaging reflection on post traumatic stress and the attempts we make to move forward.

"We look at the content we have, how we feel about it, and that informs the form of the art," says Mark. "For Counting Sheep we made an immersive experience because we wanted people to understand the protest experientially through participation. For this show, things are different. There is such a complex relationship between the past and trying to move forward to the future, between wanting to move West to Europe and that strong Ukraine identity...we didn't want to just look at the conflict of those ideas. We wanted to celebrate what we had in common. That looks like music — traditional Eastern European folk, but also elements of EDM and hip hop. It looks like the cartoons we grew up on. It looks like documentary footage from our peers."

Throughout the Luminato performance, audiences were transfixed by the music of Mark and Marichka Marczyk. Although the language in the songs and the accompanying multimedia may have been new to the spectators, the warmth and vibrancy of the performance invited audiences into the mindset and mentality of the musicians. And while   Balaklava Blues   has elements of a concert and an art installation, maybe the best way to understand it is a shared experience. For the creators, that's an important thing to be offering to a world that seems increasingly chaotic.

Throughout the Luminato performance, audiences were transfixed by the music of Mark and Marichka Marczyk. Although the language in the songs and the accompanying multimedia may have been new to the spectators, the warmth and vibrancy of the performance invited audiences into the mindset and mentality of the musicians. And while Balaklava Blues has elements of a concert and an art installation, maybe the best way to understand it is a shared experience. For the creators, that's an important thing to be offering to a world that seems increasingly chaotic.

 

We didn't want to just look at the conflict of those ideas. We wanted to celebrate what we had in common.- Mark Marczyk

"The main idea for me is giving people a chance to connect with one another," says Mark.

Adds Marichka: "We are looking for opportunities for peace."

Michael Rubenfeld on bringing CanadaHub to the Fringe

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MICHAEL Rubenfeld never meant to start CanadaHub when he brought hit show Counting Sheep to Edinburgh two years ago. As producer of the Lemon Bucket Orkestra’s self-styled guerrilla folk opera about the build-up and aftermath of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution of 2004, Rubenfeld couldn’t have predicted the effect Mark and Marichka Marczyk’s messy mix of east European klezmer and interactive re-enactments of key events connected to the revolution would have on what happened next.

Influenced by international Edinburgh Festival Fringe showcases such as Big in Belgium, Rubenfeld pitched something similar to visiting Canadian dignitaries. Last year, the first CanadaHub took up residence at the King’s Hall as part of Summerhall’s programme with six shows by young Canadian companies. This included the Herald Angel-winning Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story as well as Fringe hits, Mouthpiece and Foreign Radical.

This year, the second edition of CanadaHub returns to the King’s Hall with five works. These include First Snow, or Premiere Nege, a collaboration between Quebec-based companies Theatre PAP and Hotel-Motel with the National Theatre of Scotland. The show also forms part of the Made in Scotland programme. The rest of CanadaHub goes beyond conventional play-writing in a showcase highlighting a generation of theatre-makers operating in radically different ways.

In Ming Hon’s piece, Chase Scenes, three women act out a series of chase scenes culled from films and presented using live video feeds, props and costumes in a DIY film studio. In a similar vein, Famous Puppet Death Scenes finds The Old Trout Puppet Workshop company doing exactly what the show’s title suggests.

The other two shows are both solo works. In Daughter, performer Adam Lazarus confronts toxic masculinity in ways which on previous runs have seen many audience members walk out. Huff, meanwhile, sees playwright Cliff Cardinal play two indigenous brothers caught up in a world of solvent abuse and loss. For those in search of light relief, CanadaHub will also host CanadaClub, a late night programme of Canadian cabaret and comedy.

“Canada is sometimes seen as a country that’s trying to survive,” says Rubenfeld, ‘and we’re not often seen as a country in a global context, so our response with CanadaHub is to be able to create a space where we can have all these complex conversations that are going on right now.”

Scotland’s theatrical relationship with Canada and Quebec has long been a fertile one. Thus far that relationship is probably best known for Scots translations of plays by Michel Tremblay, with works such as The Guid Sisters and Solemn Mass for a Full Moon in Summer produced by the Tron and Traverse theatres respectively.

Other work by Quebecois writers seen in Scotland include Daniel Danis, whose play, Stones and Ashes, was seen in a translation by Scots playwright Tom McGrath, while Reel of the Hanged Man by Jean-Mance Delisle was produced by the Stellar Quines company. The company also co-produced a production of audacious feminist play, Age of Arousal, by the late Linda Griffiths.

Quebecois maverick Robert Lepage has performed his epic works in Edinburgh and Glasgow at various points over the years, while the Calgary-based One Yellow Rabbit company has visited several times.

“People know about our stars like Robert Lepage,” Rubenfeld observes, “but they don’t know about the rest of Canadian theatre.”

CanadaHub arrives in Edinburgh hot on the heels of controversy concerning Lepage’s forthcoming show, Kanata, which aims to tell ‘the story of Canada through the prism of relations between whites and indigenous people.’ An open letter signed by prominent indigenous actors, writers, activists and artists and published in Quebec newspaper Le Devoir, and written in response to an interview with Ariane Mnouchkine from Theatre du Soleil in Paris, where Kanata will premiere, aid that no North American actors will be appearing in the show. The letter decried the ‘invisibility’ of indigenous people in Canada and Quebec, with its signatories saying they were fed up ‘of hearing other people tell our stories.’

Rubenfeld is conscious of such tensions, and has remained sensitive to them in CanadaHub, particularly through Huff.

“There is so much still to do in relation to indigenous people,” Rubenfeld says. “and it’s a problem we’re probably still about a hundred years away from solving. I don’t think most people know much about the intensity of the indigenous experience in Canada, and a show like Huff gives people a taste of the quality of indigenous work. It’s a hard piece to watch, but it’s one of the most successful indigenous shows in many years.”

While there is undoubtedly an element of political branding behind the various international showcases that now exist on the Fringe, the packaging of the likes of CanadaHub, Big in Belgium and Made in Scotland also provide something of a selective crash course in a country’s theatre scene that puts it on a global stage.”

“What’s great about Edinburgh and the Fringe is that the world comes here,’ says Rubenfeld. “The world is both big and small right now, so how do we learn about the people who live in it? The international showcases can make a huge difference to that.”

For CanadaHub in particular, in Rubenfeld’s view, it helps show off some of the complexities of a country through its theatre.

“First and foremost, he says, “I think that, through CanadaHub, audiences can get a really nice taste of what’s going on in Canada. For me as well, what’s really important is that we hold on to the nuances of things when we talk about being alive. Right now I think we’re losing that. There are so many terrible things going on in the world right now, and what’s nice in Canada is that we can still have complex conversations about things, and hopefully the shows in CanadaHub reflect that.”

Canada Hub, Summerhall@ King’s Hall, Venue 26, August 1-26. Daughter, 12.30-1.40pm; Chase Scenes, 2-25-3.25pm; Huff, 4.15-5.20pm; First Snow / Premiere Neige, 6.10-7.40pm; Famous Puppet Death Scenes, 8.30-9.40pm. CanadaClub, 10.30pm-12.30am.

www.canadahubfringe.com

www.summerhall.co.uk