Fertile Ground Festival profile: Playwright Rich Rubin

After a career as a physician, the prolific Portland playwright turned to theater, with a positive prognosis.

With his work everywhere at this year’s Fertile Ground Festival, you’d think Rich Rubin was a veteran playwright. The upcoming readings of two short plays (Will’s Dramaturge and Eggs Over Easy) and readings of two more full-length plays, Cottonwood in the Flood and One Weekend in October are only the latest of many he’s had performed at the Portland festival in the past few years.

Although he calls Portland home, Rubin is hardly just a local phenomenon. He just returned from a workshop of still another play, Caesar’s Blood, at Actors Theatre of Charlotte, following readings in Long Beach and Chicago, and preceding one in Utah. In fact, his plays have been read, workshopped and otherwise performed all over the country and beyond. His Marilyn/MISFITS/Miller was one of my favorite 2013 FG offerings, and his plays have been finalists for the Oregon Book Awards in 2013 and this year. Cottonwood was a 2012 JAW Festival finalist at Portland Center Stage, and One Weekend a finalist in two different London theater festivals. A recent track record like that surely suggests the culmination a lifetime of familiarity with the theater.

The terrific cast of Rubin's Cottonwood in the Flood.

The terrific cast of Rubin’s Cottonwood in the Flood.

Nope. “I started going to the theater about ten years ago,” Rubin tells ArtsWatch. “I’ve been writing plays about six or seven years.” In that time he’s written about 12 full length plays and 20 shorter pieces (one-acts or ten-minute plays), with more cooking.

Ok, well, if not enabled by the expertise of long experience, Rubin’s playwriting passion must be fueled by the energy of youth.

Again, au contraire. The reason he plunged only recently into the theater is that Rubin has a whole other life behind him. He retired from a career of practicing and teaching (at the University of New Mexico) medicine in 2008. He and his wife moved to Portland shortly thereafter to be closer to their grown up kids, and Rubin still teaches seminars regularly at OHSU.

Before that, aside from some college literature courses, he never studied theater or took a Shakespeare course. He always liked to write, though and wrote some for his college humor magazine, and later for medical newsletters in New Mexico and New Jersey and even helped edit a medical textbook.

But busy with his practice, his teaching and raising a family with his wife, Rubin didn’t try creative writing until the end of his medical career, when he wrote a couple of one-acts that received productions in Albuquerque and elsewhere, and briefly dabbled in screenplays, “but I knew I’d never sell anything, and if I did, it’d be changed,” he recalls. Still, “there was a lot of material in my head. I don’t golf so I had to do something.”

That something turned out to be taking a playwriting class from well-known Portland playwright and teacher Matthew Zrebski at Portland Center Stage, a few months after moving to town. Although he pronounced his class effort there “embarrassing,” at least “the kids were very happy [when he started writing] so I wouldn’t be over at their houses trying to fix something all the time.”

Portland playwright Rich Rubin.

Portland playwright Rich Rubin.

The plays started pouring out,  almost all written in the past six years or so. He began submitting them to theaters and festivals around the country — and many responded, resulting in dozens of readings and productions. Many of the short works were ten-minute comedies, but his full length plays have leaned toward drama, and lately history.

Of his dozen or so full length plays, “four or five have had a historical foundation — plays based on real people and real story,” he says. ”It’s not so much that I plan to do an historical play. An idea comes to me and it happens to be based on history.”

Putting Vanport on Stage

Cottonwood in the Flood started that way, when his wife was reading about World War II and the Pacific Northwest and asked Rubin if he’d heard about Vanport, the impromptu city, hurriedly and cheaply built in 1942 on the Columbia River near today’s Delta Park to house wartime shipyard workers, and destroyed in the notorious 1948 flood. During the war years, about 15–20 percent of the Vanport population was African-American, and that percentage doubled after the war as many of the whites left Vanport to return to their prior hometowns.

For Rubin, a fan of the great American playwright August Wilson, it was a “story of courage and resilience, of people gathering strength through families” and reminiscent of New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina devastation. Sensing dramatic potential, Rubin researched the story, reading Manly Maben’s book on the subject, watched a documentary, called up current and former Portland State University professors Darrell Millner and Karen Gibson and others, including Ed Washington, who grew up in Vanport.

“Vanport,” he learned, “was a unique social experiment. The fascinating thing to me was how it was in a way the beginning of integration,” with some aspects of life integrated, others still mired in the racial segregation that ruled the country in the pre-civil rights era. Blacks faced discrimination in employment, housing and more. “Here you have the wonderful american ideals in the Declaration of Independence and then we have the reality that we haven’t yet fully lived up to those ideals and we see this in Vanport ,” Rubin explains.

It’s an important part of Oregon and American social history, but in putting it onstage, Rubin faced the common challenge of explaining the stakes while avoiding too much exposition, which often turns historically based theater into a history lesson rather than a drama. “I don’t want it  to be a history lesson,” he insists. “I don’t want a documentary — there are other avenues, like film, for that.”

He decided to tell the story through the lens of a made-up composite family, including one member who returns from fighting totalitarianism overseas only to face racial injustice at home, to show “how these national and global events impacted the families and individuals and even how it caused conflicts between family members.”

One Weekend in October

Race relations and real history also are subjects in Rubin’s other full-length play in this year’s Fertile Ground. The 20th anniversary of the notorious Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings rekindled Rubin’s interest in the 1991 episode, which brought pubic hair and Long Dong Silver into public discourse about the august institution and guardian of American justice. The hearings seemed like quintessential political theater at the time (maybe more suited to the ritual of Kabuki than American realism), and Rubin found them “so inherently dramatic that people who had seen it would be disappointed if I didn’t have some of those moments from the transcript represented” in One Weekend in October. He also chose to stick closely to actual facts and words, like those of the senators interrogating Thomas’s former employee and accuser Anita Hill. “I wanted people to get a sense of how unfair that was,” he says, “and the only way to do that is to present the words.” Both Hill and Thomas wrote books about the episode, which gave Rubin “some sense of how they viewed the hearings and each other and how they thought and spoke.”

But fealty to reality again poses a challenge to drama, as we discovered in last year’s Ghosts of Tonkin, which relied heavily on the actual words of the perpetrators of the Vietnam War, to the show’s dramatic detriment. Rubin countered with two strategies. First, he wrote imagined scenes in which Thomas and Hill move from the action of the hearings to the periphery, where they can deliver monologues about their inner thoughts (drawn in part from their own writings, though not verbatim). Second, he includes imagined background scenes featuring the politicians involved, such as Judiciary Committee members Sens. Joseph Biden and Arlen Specter and President George H.W. Bush and some composite characters.

Like Cottonwood, the immediate action involves larger historical forces and ideas like race, sexual harassment, and political gamesmanship. “I’m not the first one to say that Hill and Thomas were pawns in a bigger political story, both being used by Democrats and Republicans for their own political purposes, and how they were kind of chewed up and their lives forever changed,” Rubin says. “The fact that sex and race and power were involved made it more of a story.”

Rubin also has a pair of ten-minute comedies on menu of Short & Sweet:  An Evening of Short Plays by P-Town PlaywrightsWill’s Dramaturg imagines a meeting between young Will Shakespeare and a local theater guru who has a few friendly suggestions for him, while he describes Eggs Over Easy as “a bittersweet vignette about two old friends getting together for their regularly scheduled breakfast at McDonalds.”

Shakespeare’s presence, like playwright Arthur Miller’s in Marilyn/MISFITS/Miller, reveals the depth of Rubin’s late-career ardor for the theater, which also informs the play he was workshopping in Charlotte last week. Caesar’s Blood, which has been a finalist in festivals from London to Long Beach, involves America’s most (in)famous theater family: the brothers Booth, one of whom became America’s most notorious assassin. Three weeks after John Wilkes’ target, Abraham Lincoln, was re-elected, all three brothers appeared on the same stage for the only time — in, of all plays, Julius Caesar. “The whole family is crazy, and sibling rivalry is such fertile territory for drama and humor,” says Rubin, who seems to have learned that territory quickly and well in his new second career as a playwright.

In fact, theater seems an ideal outlet for Rubin’s writing. He values its inherently collaborative nature, where, unlike in screenwriting, the author stays involved in the often extended process of readings, workshops, and the other components of play development. He uses audience feedback from workshops and readings like Fertile Ground’s to help him judge such issues as how to balance exposition and action. And he’s grateful for the help he’s received from theater veterans in his productions, especially important for a playwright who really only started down this path a few years ago. “I’m enormously lucky to be working with two directors [Damaris Webb and Jamie M. Rea] who are so experienced and talented,” Rubin says. “I’m having the time of my life.”

Cottonwood in the Flood plays Saturday night at Performance Works NW, 4625 SE 67th Ave. One Weekend in October plays Monday-Wednesday at Post5 Theatre, 1666 SE Lambert. Short & Sweet:  An Evening of Short Plays by P-Town Playwrights happens January 31 at Hipbone Studio. Tickets available at the  Fertile Ground Festival website.

 

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