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20 Questions with Michael Rutenberg Also see Kevin's Waiting for Godot

A year ago, I attended a play reading of The Fist by Misha Shulman. It takes place in Israel where a young soldier refuses to serve because of the conflict between Israeli and Palestine forces. He will serve prison for his refusal and has yet to tell his family. At that time, I did not understand what the fuss was all about, but what drew me was the director's devotion to the work, even though some audience members were expressing their disdain for the subject matter involved. His confidence showed as he answered all questions asked of him and fielded negative comments with ease.

Little did I know that one year later, I would meet this director again. And after a few rewrites, I had the opportunity to audition and perform in the world premiere of The Fist here in Ft. Lauderdale. The director was Michael Rutenberg.

Michael Rutenberg received his B.A. degree in Theatre from Brooklyn College, and his M.F.A. and D.F.A. degrees in Directing and Dramatic Criticism from the Yale School of Drama. As a playwright, he has written Edward Albee: Playwright in Protest, A Polite Case of Murder, The Candidate, and has his own translation of Seneca's Oedipus.

Dr. Rutenberg is also the former Head of Israel's National Conservatory of Stage and Cinematic Art - the only American to hold that position. Currently, he resides in New York, where he is a theatre professor at Hunter College in Manhattan.

After our production in South Florida closed on February 15th, Dr. Rutenberg was ready to mount The Fist for its New York premiere at Theatre for the New City, which opened on March 25th. (His student, Misha Shulman, headlines the cast.) I caught up with Dr. Rutenberg to ask him about the future of the play and his attitude toward directing, playwriting, and teaching:

How did this collaboration between you and Misha Shulman come about?

Two years ago Misha took my playwriting class at Hunter. He turned in a provocative one-act play depicting the Israeli/Palestinian crisis that I thought had great potential. I asked him to take Independent Study with me the following term, and turn the play into a full-length drama, which he did.

How did this play affect you as a person?

It clarified some basic history of the Middle East and helped me better understand what has been an irreconcilable situation.

Did you think The Fist would get this far, by receiving a New York premiere?

I always thought it would get to New York, but it needed to go through the traditional development process first, so we did a workshop production of it at Hunter, which was quite successful. Then I took the play to David Bernstein of the Public Theatre of South Florida, and Jim Tommaney of Edge Theatre, and asked both of them to sponsor a staged reading of the play.

The response was overwhelming. We had to turn away many people even though the theatre sat about 140. Because of the success of that reading, Randy del Lago, artistic director of the Delray Beach Playhouse, arranged to have two more staged readings at his theatre. Both sold out, which meant that more than 600 people in the South Florida area saw those three readings. For both the Ft. Lauderdale and the Delray readings I invited Dr. Shari Raz, a local psychologist who specializes in conflict resolution and has worked in Israel with victims of trauma, to speak at talkbacks after the readings. Her presence helped clarify the issues presented by the play.

The continued success of The Fist convinced David Bernstein to present its world premiere this past January at the Public Theatre of South Florida, which led the way for the New York premiere.

Besides Florida and New York, do you think other regions are ready to hear Mr. Shulman's story?

Absolutely. The problems of terrorism and conscientious objection to the occupation of other people are of worldwide concern. There are plans for me to direct the play in Israel in 2005. We've also have had many requests to bring the play to various synagogues in Florida and New York. I'm now working to get Misha's play published, which would make the play more accessible to groups who might want to produce it in the U S. and elsewhere.

Do you think the Israeli audience is ready to hear this?

Any audience is ready to hear a play whose theme is to stop the violence. It is only the lunatic fringe that wants to perpetuate terror. The vast majority of Israelis are tired of living under the constant threat of another suicide bombing. They will embrace a play whose goal is to remove barriers between diverse cultures and different religions, and encourage debate to reduce ignorance in the hope of initiating positive social change and eventual peace in the region.

Will you be ready for their reaction?

I grew up under the First Amendment. Freedom of speech is the basis of democracy, and Israel is a democracy. So I will be ready for a vociferous diversity of opinion whose end I would hope is to be able to put one's self in another's shoes.

Who are your favorite playwrights?y

Obviously, Shakespeare heads the list. After him the ancient Greeks. Also, the turn-of-the-century Europeans: Chekov, Strindberg and Ibsen.

As for modern American authors, I still don't think we have seen better playwrights than O'Neill Williams, Miller, and Albee, or more recently Kushner and Mamet. On the other side of the Atlantic there's Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter and Donaugh. I also like the plays of Athol Fugard.

How many plays have you written?

I've only written two full-length plays, both of which were adaptations. One from a little-known mystery novel entitled Kilo 40, which I renamed A Polite Case of Murder, and the other a contemporary adaptation of Seneca's Oedipus. I've written three other original plays, but they have all been short pieces that run from ten to thirty minutes. I've been lucky to have seen all of them produced at various venues. The two adaptations I directed myself.

What type of plays entice you as a director?

Plays that help me better understand my place in this universe, my relationship to God, and my responsibilities to other human beings.

What annoys you most about actors?

There are actors who are drawn to the theatre to exhibit themselves. I try to stay away from that type. Stanislavski said "love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art."

How do you feel when actors bring their own creativity to the stage instead of you having to instruct them?

Actors are not puppets. The job of a director is to create an environment in which actors can feel free to create out of their own uniqueness. You don't instruct professional actors, you guide them. I once studied directing with the great director José Quintero. He said that when he directs, he sees the actors walking ahead of him on a road through a forest. Whenever the actors step off the path and into the woods, it was his job to guide them back to the road that leads out of the forest. I thought that was very good advice.

It has been said that playwrights directing their own work is taboo because the playwright has no objectivity. Are you capable of directing your own plays?

Your question brings up two assumptions, one less directly related to it but relevant. The two plays of mine that I directed were both adaptations, so technically I was still directing someone else's work mixed in with mine. However, the first argument you bring up about not having any objectivity is dubious at best. Directors directing someone else's play may have some objectivity about the play, but they don't have much objectivity about their own directing, and they shouldn't. We tell actors to stop watching themselves while they are acting. We don't want them to be objective about the work. We want them to be subjective and intuitive. The same holds for directors. However, the old adage is really based on something simpler. Most playwrights are not directors. They don't have those skills. If they do, then there is no reason not to direct their own plays.

Harold Pinter was first an actor. It helped tremendously when he began writing plays. No one said he shouldn't write plays because he was an actor.

The second and less obviously connected answer to your original question is that I don't believe in compartmentalizing. It's a carry over from the anthropological territorial imperative. Don't tread on my turf. I don't agree with that. When August Wilson came out and said that he doesn't want white directors to direct his plays, he was operating under the same misguided belief. Only this time, it took the form that the black experience is so special it can't be understood by anyone who isn't black. If you take that hypothesis to its logical conclusion, then white audiences cannot understand his plays, which isn't true. Oppression, disenfranchisement-even slavery - can be understood and felt by many people regardless of the color of their skin.

If a playwright has directing ability, there is no reason not to direct his or her own play. And if a director does not have the life experience of the characters in a play, but is moved by their experience, it is his job to find equivalent experience within his own life. Otherwise I would be forever consigned to plays by Neil Simon.

What do you think of our South Florida theatre scene as opposed to other cities or regions?

South Florida has one of the most flourishing theatre scenes of any city in America. The amount of annual productions almost rivals that of New York City.

Who are your heroes, your inspirations?

I was lucky to have studied with great teachers from the beginning. First with Vera Soloviova who was an actor under Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre. She came to New York and opened her own studio when I was in my early twenties. She was in her sixties. Then, when I began to study directing my teachers were José Quintero, Alan Schneider, and Frank Corsaro. As a member of The Actors Studio, my acting teacher was Lee Strasberg. At Hunter my colleagues were Harold Clurman and Lloyd Richards from whom I learned a great deal. From Harold I saw the kind of energy and commitment needed to work in this business. From Lloyd I began to understand the art of diplomacy. But I was most inspired by the productions of Elia Kazan, Peter Brook, and Jerzy Grotowski.

How long have you taught at Hunter College?

Long enough to have the children of past students taking my classes.

What courses do you teach?

Acting, directing, and playwriting.

What makes Hunter different from other 4-year arts institutions?

First of all, Hunter is not only an arts institution. It's a liberal arts college. We offer both the Bachelor and Master of Science, as well as the Bachelor and Master of Arts degree. But to more specifically answer your question, Hunter has the largest minority enrollment of any four-year college in the country. This plethora of various cultural, religious, and ethnic student groups makes Hunter one dynamic place to teach. I often have students in my acting classes prepare scenes both in English and their birth language, so that the class can see how language influences behavior. It also gives students an opportunity to see and discuss how other cultures would perceive the same dramatic situation. We also have many seniors who register for classes, so it is especially beneficial to our productions when we can cast age appropriate actors. I have taught students as young as 16 and others well into their 80s.

During your tenure, have the students that you've seen improved?

Because of the Internet (we are not as isolated from the rest of the world as we used to be), students today are much more worldly. Consequently we no longer live in an age of innocence, which works both ways. Actors need to retain a sense of innocence, so their reactions do not become jaded. Yet, being less naive about the world creates a more interesting actor. So it isn't a matter of whether they have improved as much as understanding the world we live in has changed, and this change is reflected in today's actor both for the better and for the worse.

What advice do you give students when they thinks they're ready to pursue a professional career?

I tell them that if they hone their skills, are tenacious, and can accept a life of constant rejection, they have a chance to make it in this business; that, and a little luck.

What is your philosophy of teaching?

The same as for directing. I try to establish a trusting environment of mutual respect and empathy between student and teacher, and actor and director where individual creativity can flourish without needless stress and fear. The Russian Director, Boris Zakhava, called this approach "creative reciprocity," and Stanislavski said: "Only in an atmosphere of love and friendship and of just criticism and self-criticism can talents thrive." That is my hope.

Michael Rutenberg has recently been awarded a Fulbright fellowship to Israel as Writer/Artist-in-Residence beginning February 1, 2005. The Fist will conclude at Theatre for the New City on April 11th of this year.

See the current theatre season schedule for southern Florida.

-- Kevin Johnson

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