When was the last time a major Ottawa theatre company featured two lesbian-themed plays in a row? Can’t remember? I doubt anyone can.
After last month’s Swollen Tongues, the Great Canadian Theatre Company continues its decidedly queer season by calling in the heavyweights. For 20 years, da da kamera and its artistic director Daniel MacIvor have been on the cutting edge of contemporary theatre in English Canada, but they’ve only been to Ottawa a few times. GCTC is bringing them back with A Beautiful View, a lesbian love story in minimalist style.
A Beautiful View recounts the tumultuous relationship between Michelle and Liz as they connect, disconnect and reconnect through their 20s, 30s and 40s. However, quick summaries like this fail to capture the essence of a da da kamera production because their plays are driven by intensity of performance and emotional engagement with the audience rather than details of plot. MacIvor, who wrote and directed the play, tries to boil it down to its core.
“It’s a love story,” he explains. “It’s about people who meet and basically are destined to be together. Because they don’t really feel comfortable with labels, they don’t pursue their relationship, but their relationship sort of pursues them. For me it’s kind of a believing in the power of destiny and love.”
A Beautiful View started as a project for a performance class MacIvor taught to graduate students at Ohio State University in 2001. From that project, he took particular interest in the relationship between two female characters. At the same time, he wanted to work with Toronto actors Tracy Wright and Caroline Gillis, so he wrote the play for them. It gave him an opportunity to tackle a lesbian story.
“When you look at theatre in terms of dealing with any kind of gay subject matter at all, the majority of it falls into the male side and not the female side,” says MacIvor. “I wanted to do a female companion piece to a play I wrote called In On It, which is about two men.”
Whether dealing with men, women, both or neither, MacIvor always taps into the underlying psychological and emotional hang-ups of his characters. In this case, it’s an exploration of how labels affect the way we connect with others.
“I think that people are afraid of labels,” says MacIvor, “so as a result they don’t pursue particular relationships because they think it means they have to commit to a particular sort of lifestyle.”
In A Beautiful View, “lesbian” is one of the problematic labels. Both Michelle and Liz self-identify as straight, but fall into a sexual encounter because each believes the other is a lesbian. Fear around the label is part of what keeps them from fully committing to each other.
MacIvor has his own ambivalent feelings about labels. He’s unsure whether to accept the moniker “gay playwright,” although he doesn’t reject it either. He understands the political usefulness of rallying around a gay identity, but believes that if we break ourselves into too many discrete categories, they ultimately become empty labels that fail to reflect the underlying complexity.
“In retrospect I see the political importance of writing up a story that has a central gay storyline,” says MacIvor. “My thing is that it’s never treated as unnatural in any way. It’s just people following their truths and so I think in retrospect that that has political importance. But my initial impulse is not to make any kind of political statement because I’m just trying to speak my truth, you know, and that’s politics, right? — people speaking their truths.”
Ambivalence aside, MacIvor recognizes the ties that bind us to labels like LGBT. He talks of growing up in Sydney, Nova Scotia and having to deal with issues of self-loathing and acceptance like many other queer youth.
“It’s a hard road. It’s something that we do share — that struggle. And so I guess that’s the truest thing that does connect us all and I would hope that the work appeals not only to tell our stories but also helps to reflect to the straight and gay population that it’s not that unusual to be loved by anyone. It’s ignorance that breeds contempt and I think that people think that they don’t get it or they don’t understand and that it’s foreign to them. And in fact it’s just basic human shit… human joy.”
These days, MacIvor is starting to shed some of his own professional labels. A Beautiful View is the last original work from da da kamera. Next year, after a final season revisiting some old solo pieces at Toronto’s Buddies In Bad Times Theatre, the company is closing shop. MacIvor wants to explore some more traditional forms of theatre that wouldn’t fit da da kamera’s minimalist aesthetic. He also wants to slow down a bit after years of touring.
“I’m on the road eight months of the year,” sighs MacIvor, revealing the only hint of weariness beneath his ever-bubbling creative energy. “I’m 43 years old and it’s, you know, I kind of want to spend some time with my man and get a dog and stuff.”
Don’t expect MacIvor to disappear into domesticity, however. He’s already developing a new play with a small New York theatre, and a new solo piece with da da kamera co-creator Daniel Brooks. With any luck, we’ll see him back in Ottawa before too long.