Spoleto 2010 » Theater

Canadian Daniel MacIvor puts it all on the table

Trying to Tell the Truth

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Daniel MacIvor tried living a real life for a while. It didn't work out.

He got married. Bought a house. Settled down. He vowed to stop doing one-man plays. He wanted to be a normal human being, not some showman gathering material for his next extravaganza.

But MacIvor isn't normal.

When he's on stage, the audience is riveted. He's one of the best known stage actors in Canada, with a resumé chock full of film, theater, and writing projects. He's constantly creating or developing new ideas. He's not the kind of guy to put up his feet and relax.

It soon became clear that real life wasn't for him. The marriage fell apart. He had to completely rethink his personal life and how it fit with his workload. The good news was he'd gathered lots of material for a new extravaganza. Never mind MacIvor the average Joe. MacIvor the showman, the entertainer, needed to do another one-man play.

He wanted this one to be different from past hits like House, Here Lies Henry, Monster, and Cul-de-Sac. For once he would try telling the truth to see what that was like. In part it would be an homage to monologist Spalding Gray — simple, autobiographical, with all the facts on the table. Even the ugly ones.

Collaborator Daniel Brooks encouraged him to try working without the safety net of fiction. "He's a great storyteller," says Brooks, "and his life in the past three years has been really interesting." But as MacIvor started to relate these events to his friend, his inner ham came out. He started doing characters, different voices, expanding on stories. But whether he spoke the truth or fiction, he had Brooks hooked. Both men wanted to know what would happen next. "His fiction is also very autobiographical," Brooks says. "A good story is a good story."

MacIvor has told plenty of those in his time. His early solo shows were heralded as incredibly innovative because of his use of direct address in full character. It was hailed as alternative and experimental, although the performer felt like he was going back to the roots of performance, sitting around a fire with the audience, telling a story the old-fashioned way. "What theater gives is some kind of communion," he says. "It gets to the core of making a connection."

The actor has been striving to increase that connection for 25 years. You could call it an obsession. That powerful level of dependence and an inability to let go are themes running through This is What Happens Next, receiving its U.S. premiere at Spoleto. "There's a conversation about the nature of will," MacIvor says. He discusses it with brevity and a sense of humor in the guise of Will, a man who represents MacIvor's resolve as an "almost demonic force of nature."

Will explores the tenets of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. "He said that if you live your life by your will, you'll be miserable," MacIvor says. "But any form of recovery from addiction means you have to give over your will. I look at what will is and what is its purpose."

MacIvor stresses that his show is less about psychology and more about spirit. "Schopenhauer was using Buddhism in his tenets, explaining it in a philosophical language, commenting on it, refuting, or supporting it," he says. MacIvor leaves most of the analysis to the audience while he focuses on externalizing his self-deluding belief systems — craving, craving aversion, and selfishness — without being verbally overt about them.

He does this with Will and other marvelous characters as his conduits. There's a gay man named Warren, single mom Susan, her star-gazing lover Aaron, and Kevin, a boy whose mode of storytelling is closer to a fairy tale than a mature confession. "It was a natural way for the child to express himself," says Brooks. "One of the themes of the piece was 'what's an ending?' Fairy tales have happy endings."

Researching Jungian character analysis, Brooks found that these kinds of stories often have a guide or a challenge for the hero, who has to give over his will instead of trying to use it with even more tenacity. Push too hard and people get hurt. "Often the hero learns something about the bigger world, how small they are in the world and how big they are in themselves," he says.

All this ties in with MacIvor's own experiences, with one big difference: he's in the middle of his story. He doesn't know the ending yet. So he's come up with two for This Is What Happens Next. "There's a tragic ending and a happy one," he reveals. The audience gets both in what MacIvor describes as "a fluid experience, not an intellectual exercise." Ultimately, he is an entertainer, and his different onstage personae allow him to laugh at himself and show his outspoken, irreverent side. "I'm not shy," he says, "but my characters allow me to get away from my inherent Canadian politeness."

They also allow him to examine his life and fantasize about what might have been a truly theatrical experience. To him, the medium is ridiculously artificial — it's a guy standing under bright lights, and we pretend he's telling the truth — yet actors and audiences are always seeking authenticity.

If all this sounds dry and intellectual, MacIvor wants to clarify that his shows are designed to be felt as much as thought about. Maybe that explains why critical responses to his work range from raves to bewilderment. "It's difficult to watch with a notebook on your lap," says the actor. "You have to enter the world of the characters."

The invitation comes with a caveat: You might have to surrender some of your will to enter that world. "If you want to just come in and take the ride, you should buckle your seatbelt," he says. "Then there's a palpable feeling in the room. It's very satisfying to do this show."

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