“You don’t want to get me started talking. I might never shut up.” The opening lines of Here Lies Henry could be a metaphor for Daniel MacIvor’s whole life. As the youngest of five children, with his closest sibling 13 years older, MacIvor spent a lot of time talking as a child, albeit mostly to himself.
The self-described odd kid with few friends would sometimes play Monopoly alone, jumping from one side of the board to the other, becoming different characters who would argue with one another or accuse each other of cheating. “I realized early on in life that communication is not about words,” he says from New York in August, where he’s just wrapped up directing Never Swim Alone at the New York International Fringe Festival. “Words are often just a tool to hide behind.”
Perhaps a peculiar statement from a man whose business for the last 20 years is making words. But as anyone who’s seen him perform can attest, the energy he brings to the stage imbues the text with something magical. It’s hard to define, except to say you just don’t really get a MacIvor play from reading it.
You need to see him do it.
This might be one reason why, as one of Canada’s most successful playwrights, he’s been the (almost) exclusive performer of his own work. “I’ve seen my work done by people who don’t trust its essential minimalism and simplicity, which is odd, because that’s often what draws them to it in the first place,” he says. “A large part of what makes my plays work is the fundamental belief that theatre can come from nothing; that nothing is enough.”
His performance schedule has taken him to all over Canada, the US, Europe, the Middle East and Australia, often spending eight or nine months of the year on the road.
He’s had a longtime association with Toronto’s Buddies In Bad Times Theatre, where his da da kamera productions have run. He’s a close friend of Sky Gilbert, former artistic director of Buddies, and a renowned playwright and novelist in his own right (Gilbert’s reading at Ottawa’s Transgress evening in October was said by some to be the highlight performance of the past decade of the Ottawa International Writers Festival).
Another key player in MacIvor’s professional life has been producer Sherrie Johnson. Like other great artistic partnerships (and perhaps a few great artists) this one was conceived in a bar. It was the opening night of MacIvor’s play Never Swim Alone at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille. Johnson was the theatre’s publicist at the time and had put in a stellar effort promoting the show. While da da kamera had really just been born, MacIvor was already feeling bogged down by the administrative responsibilities of running a company and Johnson overheard him complaining to a friend that he was sick of it all and wanted to shut the company down. She quickly put a stop to that idea, and the two set up a meeting a few days later at MacIvor’s Maitland St apartment to formalize their partnership.
“The thing I discovered about Sherrie was that although she didn’t actually write or act or direct she was an artist,” he says. “We both knew we wanted to create work that was engaging and that we wanted it to travel. Other than that, we had no idea what we were doing.”
Obviously they did something right. Johnson’s shrewd business sense combined with MacIvor’s brilliant writing and performing have made da da kamera one of the most successful partnerships in Canadian theatre. Despite this MacIvor’s maintained a surprisingly humble sense of self. “I believe that I’m only as successful as my next idea is successful,” he says. “On that level success only exists in the future, not in the past.”
While some artists who start their career in theatre soon leave it behind for the big bad world of film, in pursuit of greater fame and bigger pay cheques, MacIvor has stuck around despite all of the challenges associated with the business. There is something unique about his vision that other artists often imitate but rarely succeed at. Perhaps it’s his acknowledgement of his audience as part of the play, his understanding of how they create the space in which the art happens. Perhaps it’s just because he saw some bad theatre growing up, and decided he didn’t want to make that kind of work.
“There is nothing worse than boring theatre. You can close a book, turn off the television or walk out of a film,” he says. “I guess you can walk out of a play too, but as a Canadian I’m far too polite for that.”
In MacIvor’s plays, many of his characters struggle with feeling undeserving of love. “I’d be lying if I said that this wasn’t totally connected to my life,” he says. “Even though I’m in a committed relationship I still struggle with feeling undeserving. I think it’s something we all face.”
The other theme that crops up in almost every MacIvor piece is death. “For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in death,” he says. “I think it partly comes from being raised Catholic. At the same time you meet baby Jesus you meet the big Jesus nailed to the cross.” He pauses for a moment. “Or maybe it’s because I want to write about things we all experience, and who really wants to write about taxes?”
The theatre community felt a death of sorts this year when MacIvor and Johnson announced that they were bringing their partnership to an end by closing da da kamera. Both plan to continue working in theatre, but want to be free of the administrative reins that have held them for the past 20 years. MacIvor wants to focus more on writing, rather than performing, and has also toyed with the idea of teaching, possibly opening his own school.
But with death comes re-birth. MacIvor received the Governor General’s literary award for drama Dec 14 for his anthology of five plays, I Still Love You. “His is a compassionate yet edgy world view, enlivened by idiosyncratic humour and honesty, exploring unusual theatrical structures in order to throw light into both the shallows and the depths of contemporary life,” noted one media release.
MacIvor sees getting the literary award as a “testament to the progressive nature of the country.” He’s been spending a lot of time traversing the US in the past five years and has developed a strong respect for Canada’s leadership in progressive causes like gay marriage.
Between the award, his marriage to longtime partner Paul last summer and recently moving house (he’s left Toronto for Halifax), MacIvor’s on a real high. He prefers exploring personal politics in his work, but takes the opportunity to note that he wishes Canadians “weren’t led by morons” and notes how some politicians like to create gaps between voters to win elections.
Still, he really is on a high and it takes a bit of digging before he admits that it’s still rare for an out and proud homo doing provocative work to win a major award like the G-G’s.
“I wonder about someone like Sky Gilbert who was a mentor of mine,” he says. I wonder if he would ever be recognized in a very public way for fear that he would say something that would not shine positively on a government or the event. I don’t know that we’re quite there.”
Whatever happens next, MacIvor will keep talking. He has a bunch of projects in the works, including a TV series, a new play, a film script and a travelling lecture series. “My only voice, my only truth, is all I can tell you about myself,” he says. “The more personal a truth is the more universal it will be. And as long as I have that, I’ll have something to say.”
With files from Gareth Kirkby.