Daniel MacIvor didn’t go to Tokyo in 2007 planning to write a play about the city. The celebrated Canadian theatre maker was attending a production of his 2001 work You Are Here staged by local artists. When contacted for the rights, he’d proposed adapting the play to take place in Japan, but the company declined. Keeping the play in a foreign locale, they said, was part of the intrigue for their audience.
For much of his two weeks in the city, MacIvor says, he felt like a tourist, welded to his translator and unable to speak the language. But something about the culture set his imagination alight. With the idea of stories from far-flung places floating in his mind, he concluded his next play would be set in Japan. The result is Arigato, Tokyo, a Noh theatre–inspired waltz of sex, self-destruction and redemption.
Carl (David Storch), a bisexual Canadian author struggling with addiction, finds himself on a promotional tour in the Land of the Rising Sun. Things get complicated when he falls for both his translator, Nushi (Cara Gee), and her brother Yori (Michael Dufays), carrying on simultaneous affairs between nightclubbing and book readings. Acting as narrator is the androgynous Etta (newcomer Tyson James), a drag performer who guides audience and characters alike through the world of the play.
“There’s a definite dark side to the city, where sex is something separate from love or romance,” MacIvor says. “In the West we have a confusion about this, having trouble seeing sex as a purely social activity. But in Japan, sex has an open, though polite, acceptance as part of the worlds of entertainment and commerce.”
Along with his own experience, MacIvor found inspiration in The Tale of Genji, an 11th-century text often referred to as the world’s first novel.
“It’s a book known by every Japanese student, the way Westerners might know Shakespeare,” he says. “I was struck by the open sexuality of the hero. In seeking love, he’s sexually active with many women and a few men, though no judgment is placed on his actions. There was something very modern about it.”
MacIvor’s scripts often feature thinly veiled versions of himself; Carl’s fidgety humour is quintessentially him. His struggles with love and addiction often get channelled into his work, most recently in 2011’s This Is What Happens Next. But while he’s no stranger to the stage, for Arigato he felt compelled to hand the part he’d based on himself over to another actor.
“I identify with Carl in many ways, and much of his journey is mine,” MacIvor says. “But I felt it was important to step back and focus on being solely the writer with this play. Also, Carl needs a certain confidence that I would undermine in my tendency to self-deprecate inside a character.”
When it came to a director, MacIvor had had his eye on Brendan Healy for a while. Still relatively new at the helm of Buddies, Healy had impressed MacIvor with his production of English playwright Sarah Kane’s darkly perverse play Blasted. Though not a fan of the script, MacIvor was taken by Healy’s staging and proposed a partnership. The pairing represents a new, though somewhat unlikely, collaboration. While Healy’s made a name with visually complex, text-heavy works, MacIvor is best known for a sparse approach to both words and design.
“There’s a level of abstraction in the text I generally don’t work with, but I like the challenge of it,” Healy says. “It’s more poetic than his other plays, but I also found it very sexy. It has a bit of that Lost in Translation melancholy of a traveller away from home coupled with a conversation about what love is and what sex is. I found that combination to be quite beautiful.
“Followers of MacIvor will immediately recognize it as his script but also be surprised about where he’s going artistically,” Healy adds. “In the history of MacIvor, I feel like this will be seen as a transitional play where he’s opening up into a whole other space as a writer. I’m very eager to see where he goes next.”