Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Daniel MacIvor, master & minx

Wise words from a theatre icon

Credit: Guntar Kravis

“In the beginning, there was only transgression,” says Daniel MacIvor, award-winning playwright, actor and director. “Before there was a past, to progress you had to transgress.”

Well, MacIvor and his fellow readers can put that theory to test on Oct 24 when they come together for Transgress, an evening of queer reading at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. Reflecting on the notion of transgression, MacIvor touches on the central role it can play in the creative process. 

“If there isn’t a path to follow, then you have to create a path and in creating a path, you’re transgressing. So it seems to me that where in fact it sounds like something that’s radical and potentially threatening, I think of it more as pioneering. We have to start by transgressing to find new ways to get places and new places to go.”

MacIvor has long been a pioneer in Canadian and in queer theatre. His company, Da Da Kamera, was lauded for its innovative and intimate minimalist approach. In 2007, he ended their 20-year run as a successful international touring company; it was time for new challenges. Two years ago, when interviewed about the Ottawa run of his play A Beautiful View, MacIvor said about the impending end of the troupe that he was looking forward to travelling less and spending more downtime at home. In reality, it didn’t work out that way. He’s on the road as much as ever.

These days, depending on the month, MacIvor is playwright-in-residence at the National Theatre School in Montreal, the University of Guelph and the Banff Playwrights Colony. That’s in addition to dropping in to help out on various productions of his plays and continuing to produce new works himself. He’s even got a screenplay on the go for a sequel to Bruce MacDonald’s Hard Core Logo and is spending six weeks this fall directing A Beautiful View in another national capital, election-mad Washington, DC.     

For Transgress, MacIvor plans to read from a new play called His Greatness, which premiered last year at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre. It takes an unexpected look at a gay icon.

“It’s a ‘potentially true story’ about two days in the life of Tennessee Williams when he was in Vancouver for the world premiere of his play The Red Devil Battery Sign in 1980,” explains MacIvor. “I had a friend who lived in the darker edges of life in Vancouver at that time and had a run in with Tennessee Williams. My friend told this story, and [playwright and Transgress alumnus] Sky Gilbert and I were both party to hearing it, and Sky wrote a play called My Night with Tennessee based on the same story, and many years later I wrote a play.”

Even beyond theatre, MacIvor recognizes the positive effects acts of transgression have generated for the gay community.

“We’ve become part of the larger community due to the things that felt very transgressive in 1974,” he says. “And the people who live in the future will benefit from the transgression of 2008.”

He points to the trans community as current pioneers in destabilizing mainstream notions of gender.   

While MacIvor clearly acknowledges the very real benefits of integration and acceptance, he has mixed feelings about losing a bit of the edge that being queer used to give him and wonders what the endgame really is. 

“When I signed up to being part of the community, I embraced our being outside the mainstream, and I felt comfortable there,” he says. “I can understand why people want to be accepted, but we only get accepted inside the mainstream and discover that a lot of what are considered the fundamental beliefs of the mainstream are built on sand anyway. Maybe it’s okay. We’ll all understand that we’re just a bunch of schmucks looking for meaning. It brings us all together.”   

Asked how his own work might be defined as transgressive, MacIvor is at first hesitant to offer an answer, preferring to leave that question to posterity. But with a little prodding he moves away from the political discussion of transgression and considers his work from a purely artistic perspective.    

“I think that what might be potentially transgressive is my approach to narrative. I don’t worship at the alter of story. I believe that the play itself is what happens. When you get it on stage it’s about performance and behaviour and people identify with it in a way that’s not cerebral; they identify with it in their guts and not their brains.”
MacIvor’s best work really does come alive on stage. So for those who don’t get their fill at Transgress, Toto Too, Ottawa’s gay and lesbian community theatre group, is producing MacIvor’s The Soldier Dreams as part of a double-header evening of one-act plays at the end of October. MacIvor himself can also be seen and heard at the Writers Festival the afternoon before Transgress in a master class called From Page to Stage.