Toronto
6 min

Beating fear

The heart of the work

AT DEATH'S DOOR. Daniel MacIvor seduces audiences into a world where death is the funniest punch line. Credit: Paula Wilson

Funny isn’t it, how every Daniel MacIvor play features a death? So it’s not surprising to find that In On It, his latest work, making its Toronto debut this week, should likewise fall prone.



For the Da Da Kamera production, MacIvor has recruited Darren O’Donnell (the playwright and actor well known for his derring-do in such plays as Box Head and White Mice) to share the stage. They play characters known simply as This One and That One; MacIvor directs. As a play about a writer putting on a play about a dying man, In On It evolves delightfully and emotionally into the unexpected.



What is expected is MacIvor’s signature sensibility, which is both elusive and contradictory. Dark? No, not really. Sunny? Yeah, right. Black comedy, maybe. For sure, the commonplace is celebrated as the extraordinary; much arises out of an apparently empty stage.



By a weird twist of fate, MacIvor and O’Donnell were performing in New York during the Sep 11 attacks. In a glowing New York Times review, In On It provoked Bruce Weber to ask, “What loss did Mr MacIvor suffer that inspired him to evaluate both his grief and his writerly response to that grief?”



“Doing this play in New York at that time, it felt as if he [Weber] had made a commitment of not talking about the [terrorist] event,” says MacIvor. “So he turned it into a personal thing: What happened to me?



“I don’t know. What happened to you? I was born.



“What gets me interested in death? Well, let’s see: Birth. All our fears are of death. They are just manifested in other ways.”



Almost 40 years ago, MacIvor’s worst fear was realized. He was born on Jul 23, 1962 in Cape Breton. The playwright describes his childhood, “I grew up in downtown Sydney. Industrial Sydney. Seventeen long hard years for a crime I did not commit.”



He is the youngest of the five MacIvor children separated from his siblings by 13 years. He calls his mother, Lily, a spark plug and says his father, Buster, was a bad seed. “Dad dead, mom living.



“Happily, we’ve been getting along great since he died, my dad and I,” says MacIvor. “Our relationship has really come around.



“My father was a very goodhearted, very misguided fellow. He was the bad guy in the community. My grandfather was a bootlegger and he used to run rum to the States during prohibition.



“The MacIvors were bad characters and my mom’s family were good characters. Buster was a farmhand on their farm. It was not an approved alliance.



“You couldn’t write stuff like this… it’s so hackneyed.”



Not exactly a schoolyard darling, MacIvor describes himself as “odd. I was weird kid. But I always liked the girls, always liked the girls. No playing hockey, no playing soccer. Didn’t get the team stuff.



“So no, no. That was a struggle. It took me until high school to figure out how to attach myself to the people who were going to bring me the least amount of grief. So I hung out with all these brains. I was the only one who didn’t take calculus.



“I didn’t do any theatre at all. You might as well wear a target.”



It was around this time that Buster MacIvor took a turn for the better. “Buster turned his life around when I was 16. Which is kinda, y’know, a little late. At that point I was so cynical about him as a father that I was hoping he would meet some horrible end. But he turned his life around and got a bit righteous. I guess I preferred him as a drunk.”



As MacIvor continued his studies, the brainiac thing didn’t last. “I went to Dalhousie for two years and got two credits. Took things like Death And The Mind: Philosophy 101. Oh yeah, there’s that death thing again.”



The first play the actor ever experienced was Our Town in which an actor stands prop-less on an empty stage and talks to the audience. MacIvor is known for his direct address style of theatre, but he explains it as naïveté. “That’s what I thought all plays were. Then I started to see other shows. ‘Why isn’t anyone talkin’ to the audience? Why do you have all that stuff on stage?'”



After Dalhousie, MacIvor moved first to Newfoundland, and then to Toronto with the idea of continuing on to study theatre in the UK. However, in a freak occurrence, MacIvor fell off the roof of George Brown College and shattered his heel. Laid up for three months, his plans for England were cancelled. Although there was talk of lawsuits none materialized.



“My life really started when I came to Toronto. I knew I wasn’t going to stay in Halifax but I didn’t know where I was going to go. I never thought I would end up in Toronto.”



He wrote his first play See Bob Run in 1987 for actress Caroline Gillis. Gillis’ friendship is one of MacIvor’s oldest and she is a member of his inner circle. He has known her since the east coast.



“When I think of my chosen family I think of people like Daniel Brooks – I’m godfather to his daughter – that kind of connection is forever. My chosen family is in the business I work in.” Brooks and MacIvor have collaborated many times on works such as The Lorca Play, House, Monster and Here Lies Henry.



The quality MacIvor most admires in others is generosity. This is the quality he himself aspires to, generosity on all levels. On the flipside he says he knows he is “judgmental” and “difficult.”



And men? “I’m unmarried. Some people maybe weren’t really meant to couple. Perhaps I’m one of those people. I’ve had four very important romantic relationships.



“I wish I was the type of person who could remain friends after the break-up.



“This naturopath I see – can you imagine seeing that in print – ‘This naturopath I see.’ Ha! My naturopath says that the best workout for you emotionally is a romantic one. It’s like emotional yoga. Giving and stretching. I just haven’t been very good at it.”



However MacIvor’s lengthy list of credits and awards tell of a marriage to his work. “I just don’t take vacations very well. I’m better working than not working.”



In the past, MacIvor’s writing process involved chain smoking and constant coffee. Riding this wave he has been known to write upwards of 14 drafts for a single play. Recently having replaced these stimulants with naturopathy, he has cut this number in half. His thought process is now far more complete and far less frenetic.



This abstinence also applies to alcohol. “The problem with me is that I am a really good drunk. I don’t get sloppy and I don’t get dumb. Maybe depressive. I am depressive.”



What has prompted this change of life? “Let’s just say I drank enough. I went to that party and stayed. The host was going to bed and I stayed. So much of this industry is about that kind of excessive behaviour.



“It is really interesting to leave the party before 10 to 12. The party turns twice; at 10 to 12, and 20 after 2. Now I like to leave just before it turns. Who knows, in the past I was probably responsible for some of that turning.”



With added focus on his career, he finds his creative faculties on high. Although his theatre press is filled with the glow of a golden boy, MacIvor will confess to some bad reviews. He wrinkles his nose, imagining some awful stench and states succinctly, “Oh yeah, oh yeah.” Critics have taken him on for being “too cerebral,” “obtuse” and “emotionally cold.”



With In On It, he is ready to volley.



“I think this is the most emotional play I’ve ever done. Its foundation is emotion in the way that there have been philosophical foundations to a lot of my other plays.



“I really am trying to explore that, the heart of the work as opposed to the brain of the work.



“But there are a lot of dangers and a lot of pitfalls in the heart of a work. Hollywood has done a lot of damage with how these kind of stories are told.” He pauses briefly before continuing, “Why is everything like therapy? You get these little zings. I go, ‘Oh yeah so I’ve got this emotional intimacy issue.’ Which is probably why I’m not in a relationship.”



Returning to the topic of his romantic life he adds, “I think I failed in my one-on-one romantic relationships because I have failed to be that generous person I aspire to be. I have not been able to let go of any of the things I want or any of my ambitions.”



Unhappy with this conclusion MacIvor asks for one more question. Something upbeat.



Okay, his contradictory sensibility, can he define it in a word?



“I think the word is funny. Funny!”



In On It.

$18-$25. 8pm. Wed-Sun.

PWYC. 8pm. Tue. 2:30pm. Sun.

Tue, Mar 26-Apr 7.

Buddies In Bad Times.

12 Alexander St.

(416) 975-8555.