Like many descendants of Polish Jews, Michael Rubenfeld was raised not to think about Poland. His mother, Mary Berchard, rarely brought it up. Her own parents lived through the Holocaust – her mother survived Auschwitz and her father jumped off a moving camp-bound train, after which he fled to the woods and joined the Polish resistance – and as far as they were concerned, Poland was just a land of murder, hatred and resentment best left forgotten. But Rubenfeld felt his family’s collective Holocaust trauma.
At home, after his parents divorced when he was four and Berchard remarried an emotionally abusive man, Rubenfeld felt deeply protective of her, a feeling that remained until he moved to university and they drifted apart. He found theatre a respite from his problems. By 2007, Rubenfeld and his sister had convinced their mother to get a divorce, and that’s when he began to reflect: to what extent did his family’s unresolved Holocaust trauma influence their present-day issues?
“There’s always been a bit of a chasm between us that stems from a number of things,” Rubenfeld told The CJN over the phone from London, U.K. “One being the acknowledgement of there being modicums of Holocaust trauma.”
So Rubenfeld, by then an established theatre artist, pitched his mother an idea. The two would visit Poland together – the first time anyone in their family had been to the country since the war – to discover their family’s roots. Afterwards, they’d adapt their journey for the stage in a play they’d star in together.
“She thought the whole idea was kind of crazy,” Rubenfeld recalled. Eventually, he won her over. They agreed he wouldn’t direct the show – that would fall to the co-artistic director of his company, Selfconscious Theatre. Having the buffer of an objective eye would be critical to making the project work.
“It was much larger than just wanting to make art,” Rubenfeld said. “It was about wanting to find solutions to some of our life problems.”
With funding secured by a government grant, they set off to meet Katka Reszke, a local writer and filmmaker who served as their guide in Poland. Reszke would become the third star of their theatre show.
After three years of workshopping across Poland and Canada, they debuted the play, We Keep Coming Back, in 2013. They’ve since performed it at Canada’s Ashkenaz Festival, across Poland and at the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. It’s now slated to run at the Factory Theatre in downtown Toronto from Nov. 14 to 25.
One of the show’s biggest hurdles – and also its most unique aspect – was Berchard’s lack of theatrical experience. She’s not a trained actor, and her physical health has been deteriorating for some time – something Rubenfeld says was tied to her abusive relationship for over a decade – but it all informs the performance. Up until Berchard was hospitalized with kidney failure in 2007, Rubenfeld realized, he was going through the motions of being a son. He says the theatre project is “very much about going back to those feelings.”
Those feelings are central to the show. “We use those emotions that get brought up as part of the process,” Rubenfeld says. We Keep Coming Back doesn’t have a set script, as the creators didn’t want to burden Reszke or Berchard with lines that might ring hollow. Instead, it’s largely improvised, with scenes played differently – but authentically – every time. Berchard would sometimes forget plot points during rehearsals, which inspired Rubenfeld and his director to invent creative workarounds to keep the plot moving, should she ever forget live onstage.
The result is a living show that changes and evolves over time. It may seem like a difficult way to connect with one’s parent, but for Rubenfeld and Berchard, it’s a palpable action toward a brighter future.
“The reality is: change is work,” he said. “People don’t just fix things. And I don’t know if it will ever be anything that’s ever going to be fixed. We might always remain in conversation about it, and maybe that’s the best we can do.”