MacIvor & Brooks on What Happens Next

daniel macivor & daniel brooks

The artistic collaboration between Cape Breton playwright Daniel MacIvor and Torontonian director Daniel Brooks is not as well known in Halifax as it is in Toronto, but the five solo plays that they have developed together, House, Here Lies Henry, Cul de Sac and Monster, have become iconic pieces of Canadian Theatre history since 1992. Their newest show is This is What Happens Next, which plays at Neptune’s Studio Theatre in conjunction with Eastern Front Theatre, Opening November 21st, 2012. I sat down with MacIvor, Brooks and MacIvor’s dog Buddy to talk about the development of this show, their long lasting friendship and the idea of falling down, but landing on your feet.     

Amanda Campbell (AC): I thought that we could begin by having [Daniel] Brooks speak a little bit about [Daniel] MacIvor and then switching it up?

Daniel Brooks (DB): About MacIvor? Like about how handsome and special he is?

AC: Yes.

Daniel MacIvor (DM): Give some context.

DB: Well, Daniel MacIvor was born in Sydney, Nova Scotia and he went to school at Dalhousie and he somehow ended up in Toronto with his friend Caroline Gillis and we met after he had done his first full length conventional play, shall we say- a play with characters- that was done at the Tarragon Theatre, which I saw. I had never met him. I was very impressed with the writing, but not with the direction, but in all the bad reviews he took all the heat and I always wanted to call him and encourage him, because I’m a few years older than he is. I was a little established in the community. I believe he had probably heard of me. A friend of mine also produced a one man show of his called Wild Abandon, and that was the first time I met [MacIvor] on Opening Night when he came out of his dressing room and he was very charming. Then, I did a show with Don McKeller and Tracy Wright, which [MacIvor] came to see and there was a piece in it that was a satire of a kind of East Coast drama, which [MacIvor] maintains was his play, but in fact it was a David French play-

DM: I thought it was a Ray Storey play…

DB: Oh, yes-

DM: Oh, YES. You keep changing your story!!!!!

DB: Wait a second. The Ray Storey was a knockoff of David French. Whereas your play wasn’t a knock off of David French at all, although it had some elements that were coincidentally similar. Anyway, we met afterwards and that’s when we began to work together. He proposed doing this show called House, and so we started to work together. That’s us. That’s not him.

DM: That’s enough about me.

DB: We went on to do five of these solo shows, three of which we have done in Halifax, yes?

DM: House-

DB: House. We did Cul de Sac one night and we did [Here Lies] Henry at the Dunn. In the meantime, Daniel has gone on to develop his own writing career outside the solo plays that has blossomed, I guess one could say, and he’s become a Nova Scotian icon.

DM: Halifamous, they call it.

AC: Halifamous, yes. I would say that is true.

DM: So, Daniel Brooks? Well, that’s the story. Daniel, Don and Tracy were doing this strange stuff- this play called Indulgence and a play called Red Tape and Drinking and then later 86

DB: You forgot the one that you were in-

DM: The Book of Rejection. When Caroline and I saw Indulgence we were gobsmacked- not just because we felt like they were taking the piss out of us- but because the play was kind of like the Wooster Group, but with a sense of humour and a sense of narrative, which really appealed to me because I like The Wooster Group but it always left me feeling a little dumb. It’s so internal, internal, internal and I like narrative more than that. These guys were doing a very similar sort of thing but there was narrative! It was a bit hidden and convoluted, but it was there. So, they managed to be super, super cool– but there was nothing poseur about it. It managed to be very planted on the Earth and radical. Caroline and I were hungry to be part of a scene like that. We felt a little intimidated by their coolness. I remember after the show they had heard we were in the audience and there was some potential controversy about our reaction, and we met afterward and hung out. So Caroline and I felt that we were the goofs from Cape Breton and they were the cool kids from Toronto. They are actually all from Toronto. I think they were the first people we had met there who were actually from Toronto because everyone in Toronto is either from Truro or Nanaimo or Thunder Bay. We ended up having a really great time and Tracy and Caroline became roommates for years and I worked with Don in other ways and [Brooks] and I started to work together, but I feel like we became friends first. I think doing House was a way for us to become friends. We liked one another so it wasn’t just about a gig. And [Brooks] is [now] one of the top three directors in English Canada. He is a really important theatre person in this country and doing really rigorous, important work. Yet, it’s still accessible. He can take a play like [Samuel Beckett’s] Betrayal or Endgame, and bring it to people so they connect to it in their heart, which I feel like those plays can be sort of cold things to look at.

DB: The biggest danger is that they become Absurdist. There is this image of Absurdism that gives them an excuse not to make sense of it. “Oh! It’s just Absurd!” “Isn’t that Absurd.”

DM: I think some people might say about our work that there was a Non-Connectivity or Non-Narrative- There is a subversion of narrative but there’s always narrative. There is always a very simple story, it just gets told in different ways.

DB: There is always a level of the story that is “What is happening between Daniel and the audience during the evening?” and that is not familiar to people. So, even though they experience it, they may not intellectually understand that that is what they are experiencing. In the stories where we have really stressed the relationship between Daniel and the audience, like [Here Lies] Henry, more than any other, I think the audience doesn’t necessarily know what is happening to them.

AC: I think it is so wonderful that [MacIvor] has said that the reason that he started writing direct addresses to the audience was because that’s what Thornton Wilder did in Our Town, which was the first play he ever worked on.

DM: I thought that’s what theatre was. I wasn’t trained in theatre.

DB: That’s also what we have in common. We have no interested in Capitol “T” Theatre. The English Language Theatre… theatre in and of itself doesn’t interest us. What interests us is what theatre has to offer, which is space, social relationship with an audience and the forum that it gives us to play in. I think we’re both just as interested in the movies and music and all sorts of other things. I have always taken my inspiration from cinema much more than from theatre.

DM: And Daniel has often referred to the shows, the solos, as “albums” and “tracks,” especially early on. The way we work is that we develop “songs”, they are like songs. With This is What Happens Next we called parts of it “The Lawyers Song” and “Warren’s Song”- we call them songs at first-

DB: We’re both very musical. It’s not just that we like the rhythm of a play but I think we both find meaning in rhythm. Meaning is conveyed in the tone, in the pace, in the speed, and the shift- in repetition, in repetition in the development of themes. We both have a very musical appreciation for what theatre can do. That’s part of my affinity with [Beckett] is he’s the most musical of writers, I think.

AC: So you create these solo shows together, mostly in a rehearsal hall, with MacIvor as the performer/playwright and Brooks as the director/dramaturg. Can you talk a bit about the dramaturgy aspect of your process?

DM: Dramaturgy is a pretty unclear thing.

DB: In the movies I would probably be credited with “Screenplay” or “Story by Daniel MacIvor and Daniel Brooks.” We basically make the story up and I’m basically involved in every sentence, but Daniel does the writing and it’s in his voice. There’s periods where he goes away and puts together something which is the thing we’re working with until he goes away again.

DM: I work with Daniel in a dramaturgical way and I work with Iris Turcott and she IS a dramaturg. The difference between my relationship with Iris and my relationship with Daniel is I say no to Iris a lot more than I say no to him. With him, I’m engaged in a conversation that always feels like we’re looking for something together, with Iris I feel like I’m in a battle with her. I love her and we get along well, but we fight a lot.

DB: For me, when we are working, we are working, so anything he does is potential material. If he is yelling at me than it’s in the context of work and there’s always possibility for material, or it’s a temperament that can take a theatrical form.

DM: The way I always explain it is that he directs the writing, which I would not say Iris does as a dramaturg. She facilitates an energy around the ideas of a play-

DB: We are moving on three fronts at once. Performance is a part of it from the beginning. We’re not trying to nail things down at all, but we’re conscious that our starting point is performance. And space.

DM: With This Is What Happens Next we originally had this very complex and formal opening with all this stuff and one day I came in late. I entered the room with my Starbucks and I was like, “Sorry, I’m late! Sorry, I’m late! But it’s not my fault. There were these two women and they got ahead of me in the line and then there was this guy behind the counter and he was making this big vat of- I don’t know what it is- this special thing…” I did the whole thing and as I was doing it I was getting into my costume and I sat down on the stage and Daniel goes, “That’s the beginning.” That was a true thing. That happened. I wasn’t doing a “thing”, I was trying to apologize for being late and getting into my costume.

DB: And I immediately felt that that was au point. Immediately. It had to do with a will he had to change something in himself that was so important to the piece. To change his relationship with the audience.

AC: I read in an interview that [MacIvor] was quoted as saying that This is What Happens Next is a “typical MacIvor/Brooks Evening,” which goes along with the way that you’ve described your process as being similar for each of the shows, but I was wondering what makes this particular one, Solo Show #5, different from the others?

DM: When we started the show I had decided that I wasn’t going to do any more of these [solo] shows and then I called [Brooks] and I said that I thought there was another one to do and he was interested immediately but his caveat was that they all needed to be true stories. Now, we had briefly worked on this thing where the material had come from this lecture I did at Magnetic North called “Reasons And/Or Excuses For My Former Career,” which was a way for me to talk about not doing the solo performances anymore related directly to the wounds and emotions that I had received as a child. But funny. There was all this material, mostly based on my childhood, or up until the time I went to Dal and developed an interest in theatre. There was all this material that was true and that was a thought that we were going to use some of that material, so we started off with the idea of true stories. Now, that transformed over time, of course, but that was a very different way to start for us. We’ve also talked recently about how in all the other plays there’s a noun in the title that represents the theme, that’s not the case here. Although, I would say, This is What Happens Next, is the most direct expression of theme. “This” and “Next” and “Happen” and it’s all about the idea that there is a “this” and there is a “next” and there is a “happen”—and there is a “what,” but that’s getting a little convoluted. There was also the possibility of an expectation because I had said that I wasn’t going to do this anymore and now I’m doing this again. There is a sense of a “me” in it that isn’t in the others… there is actually a character in the play… but then we name him “Me,” which in turn distances him from… Myself…

DB: But in a way the self is under investigation: what self is and how it manifests itself in the world. Not only for anyone, but for an artist and for this artist standing onstage in front of you.

DM: I think this show is more overtly about storytelling than the others.

DB: We both like to engage an audience, which is close to pleasing them, and in this show I think that impulse to please was under investigation. I think that is something that is new. What kind of story do we give them?

DM: What do they want?

DB: What is that perceived desire that they have and how does that affect us?

DM: Having been working in Subscription theatres, I felt that there was about 50 or 60 percent of the audience who had come home from work and gone into the house and met their spouse and then realized, “We have to go to that goddamn play tonight.” This sense of, “Oh shit.” They bought a Subscription and that Wednesday had come again. I’d been used to working in Festivals and I hadn’t been used to this reticence in the audience, so that was something I had been thinking a lot about. Which led to Bingo, as well, this idea of happy ending. Happy ending is something we have talked a lot about because we haven’t had a lot of those [in our past plays]. I find [the endings] happy. People find them dark. I find the flicker of hope in them happy.

DB: I think This is What Happens Next is extremely, extremely hopeful.

DM: But until it gets hopeful it’s pretty dark.

DB: Yeah. Sure.

DM: [This show] is different because we’re older. I struggle with this desire for acceptance or to feel good or smart or whatever… I do trace this [change] to winning the Siminovitch, it was a vote of confidence or something- things changed for me a bit after that. It was also when I changed a lot of my life. I stopped doing certain things and started doing other certain things, which is part of what this play is about.

DB: At its heart is the idea of recovery. I was really interested in [MacIvor’s] entre into 12 Step. Our first rehearsals had a lot to do with me asking endless questions about it. I was fascinated with his relationship to it and his struggle and what it meant to him and I was interested in the language and the ideas of [the 12 Step Program].

DM: And each 12 Step Program has a book that is connected to it so I had that material and I would read from that book and we would talk about the book. There were feelings and tones associated with it-

DB: It became a play about recovery- even a really dark story being recovered and turned into a very positive story.

DM: I think people who are familiar with a 12 Step Program see the play very differently than people who don’t, but people who don’t get something very different out of it. The character of “Will,” who represents the human will, came directly from conversations we were having about the language in the book and the subversion of “will” followed by a stumbling upon another a book-

DB: We went upstairs in Factory Theatre to their rehearsal hall up there and the first day of rehearsal there was a book there holding up a window and it was [Arthur] Schopenhauer.

DM: It was The History of Philosophy. The very book is the book I use onstage.

DB: So, we stumbled upon Schopenhauer-

DM: It was totally random. It was too cold and the window was open and I took the book out and looked at it and went “What’s this?” And you knew-

DB: I’d read that book, yeah.

DM: So I started thumbing through it and came across all this Schopenhauer stuff and he was the first philosopher to directly address “will” and he brings the concepts of Buddhism into play, although he doesn’t really give credit to Buddhism in his writing, but that’s what he’s talking about. He’s basically trying to explain Buddhism philosophically. Which has been another ongoing interest and pursuit of mine.

AC: I can see the Buddhist influence in This is What Happens Next for sure.

DM: You can see the Buddhist influence in Bingo. I mean, it’s all there.

AC: Absolutely. The idea of being present. Of being here. But that nagging feeling also of “but what’s next?” And then, BAM, you’re out of it. I saw This is What Happens Next in Toronto in April 2010, and I know that you have been quoted as saying that your plays are really never finished, so I was wondering how different the Eastern Front incarnation is going to be from the one I saw two and a half years ago?

DB: We did the show in Ottawa more than a year ago and I think that at that point he really had the text under his belt and was feeling comfortable with it, which meant that we had time to talk about it and I think that I was able to ask some good questions and that we were able to make some adjustments that you wouldn’t notice, but I think it’s made the play stronger.

DM: It’s dropped into itself. It landed. I think we felt like we got the show in Ottawa and now it’s just tinkering with things. We’re doing Halifax and then Toronto and then a couple weeks in Calgary and then we are done with the show, so we’re finished. Then I feel the play is done. We have taken it as far as it can go. Any work beyond that, that energy would be better put into doing a new show. And we have just started working, now, on a new show-

AC: Oh good! Every time I see you say that you’re finished doing the solos or you’re getting “too old” I’m always like, “NOOOO!!!!! YOU CAN NEVER STOP!!!!!!!”

DM: I know! I know! I know! I learned my lesson. Hopefully this one will be a little easier for me. We’re going to use more wigs. We’re starting with this notion of an investigation of Spalding Gray and his life and his death and his work.

AC: Oh, cool. That’s where This is What Happens Next started, isn’t it? With the idea of Spalding Gray?

DM: Yes.

DB: We have been talking about Spalding Gray for years. We started with this idea, which has nothing to do with This is What Happens Next, of a show called Waterworks and we had a glass of water and a Spalding Gray kind of table-

DM: And the guy cried. Or had to cry but couldn’t. Or something.

DB: But we had to stop rehearsals for that show because Daniel almost killed himself drinking too much water.

AC: You got water poisoning!?!?!?!

DM: I drank thirty glasses of water in a half hour and I got sick. I overdosed on water. The idea was that it was supposed to be vodka and I was supposed to be drinking-

AC: Okay, so, I wasn’t sure how to segue into this next question- but you have set it up very nicely for me- you seem to have a penchant for strange accidents, apparently because I read somewhere that you once fell off the roof of George Brown-

DM: Yes. There were no alcohol or drugs involved. The fire escape fell off the side of the building.

DB: While you were standing on it?

DM: Yeah. You didn’t know that?

DB: No.

DM: I fell. I fell about a storey and a half and landed on my feet.

DB: And you didn’t break anything?

DM: Yeah, I did. I shattered my heel and broke a joint in my foot. I have a tiny limp, you must have noticed that, when I get tired.

DB: Yeah…

AC: Yeah, you said that’s the reason you stayed in Toronto because you fell off the roof of George Brown and shattered your heel. You were supposed to go to England?

DM: Yeah. To a school called East 15 in London.

DB: How do I not know this story!?!?

DM: Yeah! Yeah! I got accepted to East 15, a very alternative theatre school and I was supposed to go there after George Brown. And the last week of school I fell off the roof-

AC: But why were you on the roof?

DM: On nice days we would just go hang out up there. You would think to smoke pot or something, but we didn’t do that. We were a bunch of drinkers but, we weren’t drinking at school. (laughs) The fire escape fell off the building, I landed on my feet. It was pretty intense.

AC: I love the idea of you falling and landing on your feet.

DM: Like a cat.

AC: I feel like that’s potentially a theme in your life.

DM: I also broke a bunch of bones and had to learn how to walk again. Leslie French taught me how to walk again! So, that happened.

AC: Falling and landing on your feet and having to re-learn how to walk again. Potentially a theme. So, since you said that the original basis of This is What Happens Next came from the idea of telling true stories onstage, I’m interested to know if there is a tension there? Especially since you’re from a small island, do you worry about people seeing your work and seeing themselves onstage?

DM: (Sly smile) No.

DB: Well, he’s a great exaggerator, so he’s always a step away from the truth anyway.

AC: Right. Well, I read a quote where you said, referring to This is What Happens Next, that there were moments that you speak about that are based in truth and you could visualize them as you would in memory, but that you could also visualize moments that you had invented just as clearly.

DM: Which is truer? Yeah. The stuff in This is What Happens Next that is close to the truth, and there’s a lot of stuff that is close to the truth, but not true…  in the territory of truth- feels less true to me than the stuff that has been made up. There’s something about the end that is really not true, but because maybe I want it to be true… it’s funny… it feels true? … I hate when people are made to look foolish. I don’t know how that relates, but it probably does. I feel like it’s unfair. I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable. I like their fear that I’m going to make them feel uncomfortable… but then I don’t. There was a lot more of that in [Here Lies] Henry. But in This is What Happens Next the house lights are up for the first five minutes…

DB: The audience doesn’t know when it starts. That’s uncomfortable.

DM: “When is it starting?” “Has it started?”

DB: “Is this it?”

DM: “Is this it!?” I love that though. When we did [Here Lies] Henry in foreign countries that had no idea who we were and that there was a body of work, for the first ten minutes some people were horrified. The fact that they may have to sit through another sixty minutes of this. It was so bad and Henry was so bad at it.

DB: There was enormous amount of tension with Henry because people didn’t know us. They didn’t know that his fumbling around with jokes at the beginning- that he was in command of it.

AC: Right. That it was on purpose. That ties in too with the idea of wanting to please the audience… and going back to having the beginning of This is What Happens Next being the actor coming onstage late- that’s playing with the idea of expectation. Not pleasing the audience on purpose. Daniel MacIvor is late for his own show. That’s subverting expectation. That could make the audience feel uncomfortable.

DM: Yes. And then there’s the question of: Do they actually believe that I’m late? … Well. In Edmonton they did.

Halifax audiences will get a chance to see for themselves. Eastern Front Theatre’s production of Daniel MacIvor and Daniel Brooks’ This is What Happens Next Opens November 21st at the Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street) and plays through Sunday, November 25th at 2:00pm. Tickets are $20.00 (Adult) or $15.00 (Student/Senior/Arts Worker). For tickets please call 902.429.7070, visit the Neptune Box Office at 1593 Argyle Street or visit this website.

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