Daniel MacIvor won’t say what inspired Cake and Dirt. But if I had to guess, I’d posit it was the tumultuous firing of Factory Theatre’s artistic director Ken Gass. When the company’s founder and long-time head was unceremoniously dumped without explanation in June 2012, a social media firestorm erupted, the likes of which Toronto theatre had never seen.
Supporters and opponents traded Facebook and Twitter jabs. Petitions were circulated and signed. A short-lived though largely meaningless artistic boycott was declared. Things simmered down over the course of three months, gradually moving from front-page news to historical footnote. But the proceedings marked a new moment for Hogtown theatre. People were angry in a way they’d never been before.
Cake doesn’t deal with this story or the theatrical industry, but still places the themes of outrage and scandal centre stage. The events unfold around the 50th birthday party of corporate lawyer Jeff Thomas (David Storch), thrown by his ex-wife Bryn (Maggie Huculak) at her downtown condo. The attendees are housekeeper Nina (Maria Vacratsis), their troubled daughter Riley (Bethany Jillard) and Jeff’s new wife Naline (Laara Sadiq). But when Bryn’s scandal-embroiled city councillor neighbour Jason (Patrick Kwok-Choon) drops by, things begin to unravel.
Like 2013’s Arigato, Tokyo, the show represents a shift in how MacIvor deals with questions of structure and pacing.
“The play fucks around with chronology,” he says. “We see the aftermath of the major event of the play, followed by the night before. I wanted to create something that asks people to pay attention in a different way, examining how we make assumptions and the effect of having them proven or disproven. Ultimately, I’m really interested in how we experience a story.”
Along with the (possible) fuel he derived from the Gass fiasco, MacIvor was inspired by the work of celebrated author and urban planner Jane Jacobs, in particular her 2004 book Dark Age Ahead. Printed two years before her death, her final work examines how a doctrine of individualism has gradually eroded key societal pillars, leaving us on the precipice of a new “dark age.”
“I don’t know that Jacobs really uses the term selfishness but that’s what she’s talking about,” MacIvor says. “We need to build communities that serve all members and that are built by all members. But more and more it’s a ‘what’s in it for me mentality.’”
When pressed, MacIvor won’t confirm the Factory Theatre debacle was his creative jumping-off point, perhaps fearing lingering anger in the community. But when he describes his response to the still-unnamed event that ignited his imagination, it’s hard to imagine he’s talking about anything else.
“It was fascinating to me how angry people became,” he says. “I was a bit outraged by the outrage and I started to think about it as the ‘ego screaming.’ I began to wonder about how we value our opinions as facts and how that leads to selfishness. But I don’t have any comment on Toronto theatre and I’m not trying to make one. The social media outrage I was talking about isn’t an issue with Toronto theatre. It’s an issue with humanity.”