Profile with Banuta Rubess

Banuta Rubess (Ontario & St Antony's 1978) is a writer and theater director living in Toronto. She writes plays and libretti, as well as essays, screenplays and articles, and recently completed her first novel. A scholar of Latvian history and culture, Baņuta spent many years in Latvia with her late husband and two children. She holds a DPhil in History from the University of Oxford and a BA (Hons) in History and Drama from Queen’s University in Canada. She currently teaches at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Baņuta Rubess: My home is wherever my family and friends are; since they are scattered, I guess it is in several places. I’m in Toronto, Canada right now, and there was a time when I would have called Latvia my home, though I don’t see it like that anymore.

Rhodes Project: How did you come to live in Latvia?

Baņuta Rubess: My parents were Latvian refugees after the war, and they carried the nationalist torch over the years and made sure their kids carried it too, living in Toronto. I went for a visit in the 1970s when it was still the “big bad Soviet Union,” and I fell in love with the suffering people of the country and their wild emotionality and attitude towards life. I worked in theatre there during the transition to independence, and in 1998, moved there to help the accession process to the European Union. My husband and my two kids came along and we stayed until 2012.

Rhodes Project: How did your degree at Oxford inform your career trajectory?

Baņuta Rubess:  Academically, the playwright I was studying was a Latvian revolutionary and it really brought me into the world of Latvian history and the concept of art changing the world. But the real effect was the other students I met in Oxford. I met Neil Bartlett there, who was an undergraduate at the time, and we conducted many theatrical experiments in Oxford and then subsequently founded a theater company together called the 1982 Theatre Company, which really launched my career.

Rhodes Project: What are your sources of inspiration as an artist?

Baņuta Rubess: Human experience, especially when it’s stamped with the words ‘rise above’ - the struggle of humanity in a really violent and cruel world. Whether I’ve worked on a scene sparked by feminist history, or created documentary plays, or whether I’m creating big spectacles, the work I’m most inspired by is based on some kind of struggle for meaning in life - or even survival. In terms of inspiring people, I would say the grand Pina Bausch. I was lucky enough to see her work and she had an extraordinary impact on my art. And the other artists I work with – and of course my husband – my great muse.

Rhodes Project: How can theater be used as a social tool?

Baņuta Rubess: Theater can change your perception of reality, even just stylistically, by making you see events in a different light. Not just events, but how reality is constructed. It can also have a social impact, as a kind of cheerleader. I’ve made very important plays about violence against women, for example, that continue to be done, and continue to inspire artists and audiences to see what is happening in society. Theater can also have an impact by uniting an audience, because we bring people into a room and living beings are looking at other living beings - it’s not a dead object like film is. There’s an experience of community; we all feel something together, and are reminded that we’re a community and not a bunch of stranded individuals. Sometimes theater is transformative by making people laugh. In my early years, in Latvia, I made a children’s opera that ran for ten years, which was a bold event because it was happy and it had a lot of color – it was incredibly colorful in a world where most of the colors you’d see were grey and black. Those are just a few ways I believe theater can make a difference. The impact tends to be small; theatre can only ever be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. And now today, with social media, with Twitter, etc , the form is changing rapidly and a lot of young practitioners are doing way more interactive work where the audience is actually part of the show.

Rhodes Project: If you could have lunch with a famous female figure, alive or dead, who would it be?

Baņuta Rubess: I would have to start with the aforementioned Pina Basuch. Then the other woman I’d love to meet is someone whose work I’ve directed several times – she’s a Latvian feminist, which means she is more or less completely unknown. Her stage name is Aspazija – who I think is, in Greek history, the lover of Pericles. I’ve staged her work many times and written about her. She was glorious because she was incredibly well dressed, very passionate, and she was a revolutionary.  And she was a playwright at the end of the 19th century, which is extremely unusual because you could barely count the number of female playwrights on one hand at that point. So I would say she was one of the first leading female playwrights in the European scene. I’d love to meet her.

Rhodes Project: Directing is a very male dominated field. How do you think that has affected you?

Baņuta Rubess: I think it has affected me enormously. When I started directing, there were no female directors – there were no mentors. There was Ariane Mnouchkine in France, and I remember seeing Joanne Akalatis stand on stage and say “Why did I only start directing at 40?”And I only started directing in my early 30s. It has been continuously difficult to get the opportunity to direct a show at a large theater. That hasn’t changed, and though there are more women directing, the men continue to hold the budget in their hands. Their choices will be male oriented, and if you’re a spiky woman – and I am, a threatening woman – it has a big impact on your life as a director. In addition, female directors get pushed into directing for kids. I have done it quite a few more times than I thought I would, particularly when my children were small. So I made a deal that if they could be in the show in some way that they could be the Egyptian slaves in the back – then okay, I would do the show. As you know, I’m sure, in film and TV the situation regarding female directors is even worse.

Rhodes Project: If you could give one piece of advice to a woman starting out in theater, what would it be?

Baņuta Rubess: I have said before to young artists that the arts in general are a world of heartache. You have to accept that. It’s a fantastic life to be in the arts, whether it’s theater, dance or music. But follow your gut – make the work you really burn to make. Don’t waste your time knocking on doors that you don’t even really want to open.

Rhodes Project: What are you looking forward to right now?

Baņuta Rubess: I’m looking forward to directing a show with the 4th year students at the University of Toronto who are workshopping different texts right now. They are an incredibly engaged bunch. And I look forward to being able to write as many books and stories and plays as I can before I die and to continue directing. And my kids getting their drivers’ licenses.

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