Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Theatre artist Daniel MacIvor

From nothing... Magic sparks in a darkened theatre

Credit: (Guntar Kravis)

“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 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 who’s 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. Next week will see a homecoming of sorts as one of his earliest plays, Here Lies Henry, returns to Buddies In Bad Times Theatre to open the 2006/’07 season; Buddies presented the da da kamera production in its first run more than 10 years ago. After Henry, two of his other one-man shows, Monster and House, will run at Buddies into the spring of 2007.

MacIvor remembers the first moment he set foot in Buddies back in 1986, which was then just an office at Portland and King. Founding artistic director Sky Gilbert had never met him, but had read his first play, See Bob Run, and decided to cut him a cheque for $350 to write a new piece. “It changed my life,” MacIvor says. “It was the first time anyone had ever given me money to write.”

His relationship with Buddies has continued, with many of his plays produced there over the years. “When Buddies moved to their George St space I practically lived there,” he says. “Many a brief romance began and ended on that red velvet sofa in the green room.”

His friendship with Gilbert has also continued, with Gilbert introducing him to many key figures of the blossoming alt-theatre scene in Toronto. The two even went on a holiday to Providence together. “That story I’m saving for my memoirs,” MacIvor says, laughing.

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 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.”

Another key relationship in MacIvor’s life is with his new husband Paul. The two were married this summer in Halifax at a small ceremony near the home they purchased. Since the laws started changing in 2003, many queers have jumped on the marriage bandwagon, for a variety of reasons. For MacIvor and his partner it was about creating a foundation on which to build their lives together, rather than creating something for their relationship to grow into. “As we said at our wedding, ‘Love isn’t something that happens. It’s something you choose,'” he says.

While marriage wasn’t something he’d thought he’d do, things have been going swimmingly so far. “It helps if you fundamentally like one another and want to help each other become better people,” he says. “I never thought I’d get married but I also never thought I’d never get a tattoo. I regret neither.”

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.

Whatever happens, 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.”