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A Gay Man's Everyhomo - R.M. Vaughan speaks with Daniel MacIvor
by R. Vaughan

In 1993 Daniel MacIvor wrote, directed, and starred in a short, viciously funny film entitled Wake Up, Jerk Off. Wearing a simple white tee-shirt with the word FAG stencilled across his chest, MacIvor plays a gay man's Everyhomo, mindlessly rushing from work to restaurant to bar in an increasingly harried, cyclical pace-punctuated by the tape-looped chant: "wake up, jerk off, clean up, get dressed, eat eggs, leave home, arrive, goof off, eat cheese, goof off, go home, arrive, go out, drink beer, shoot shit, get drunk, go home, jerk off, pass out."
Like an addled yet brainy Jerry Lewis, MacIvor takes aim at the go-go, bottom-line culture of Toronto guppiedom, as well as at his own reputation as a workaholic, as a writer-director-actor always looking for the next gig. What makes the film work, of course, is its accuracy.
It did not surprise me when I began to write about MacIvor that the project took twice as long as I had hoped. I had been warned. "He's never home," I was told. "He collects phone messages. He loves the idea that people are looking for him," said another helpful sort. Sky Gilbert merely laughed. "Oh, you're playing Catch Daniel," he teased, as his eyes slowly found the ceiling. "Honey, get in line."
Daniel MacIvor lives in jump cuts, in fleeting, information-packed moments that, if filmed, would definitely be shot with hand-held cameras (for that shaky quality). His plays, and recent film work, present a world cluttered by ranting monologues and abstracted movements-words and pictures the viewer is free to load with meaning or eat as candy, or both.
He is only marginally less evasive (or is it charming?) when talking about himself, and downright cryptic when asked about his work. What follows is a handful of MacIvor moments (weighty and sweet), snatched quickly in an appropriately noisy Queen Street West restaurant. "Don't call this an `interview'," MacIvor asked. "I don't trust language that much.

leave home, arrive, goof off

Daniel MacIvor was born in Sydney, Cape Breton, and studied at Dalhousie University before moving to Toronto in the mid-eighties. Like most Atlantic Canadian expatriates (including me), he has a love-hate relationship with his origins.
"Obviously where I'm from affects my writing. There is a love of story-telling in Cape Breton, in all island cultures. It's that Celtic thing where you gather in the kitchen to talk, play music, tell stories. It's a love of language that arrives when there is little else outside of the everyday to amuse yourself with."
But he is quick to point out that he did not experience the idyllic, story-blessed island that all other Cape Breton artists seem constitutionally obliged to depict as their humble place of beginning. "The story-telling, the love of creating," he muses, "I remember a bit from my grandmother. And some of my relatives. But my immediate family was not, uh, artist-friendly."
His anger, and indecision, about his childhood shows up in his conversation when he swerves from jittery, joking confessions of abuse suffered, to closed-mouth, change-the-topic stares. I don't push it.
"It's in my work, maybe not directly, but it's in there. I'm conflicted. I love to go back to Halifax and do shows; the theatre community there is so hungry, so not-Toronto. But the family is another issue."
MacIvor has written one play "directly" about Cape Breton, the 1990 Tarragon Theatre production Somewhere I Have Never Travelled. He now calls the play "a disaster".
"The strongest tool I got from growing up in Cape Breton," MacIvor concludes, "is a suspicion of language, a distance from words that allows me to look at the way we speak-an inverted realism, I guess-not making poetry out of the way people speak, but manipulating the way people speak into poetry. Cutting it up, re-arranging it, not `inflating' it. I'm not a romantic playing with `the poetry of the people': I think that's insulting."

go home, arrive, go out

Theatre is an inherently social art form, for both viewer and artist. Much of the actual work of staging plays is enfolded in the necessary parties, drinks, and gossip that support theatre as a business venture and sustain an otherwise fractious community. When MacIvor started winning a flurry of awards in the early nineties-two Dora Mavor Moores (Never Swim Alone, 1991, and The Lorca Play, 1993), a Chalmers (House, 1992), and last year's Governor General's nomination (for House)-everyone wanted a piece of him.
The charming, self-described "social addict" and the distrustful artist, suspicious of speech itself, were bound to collide. MacIvor reacted by re-inventing his work, by running away from the seemingly inevitable development of MacIvorisms or a MacIvor style.
"My response, and the writing that came out of it, was really personal. Because of this enormous recognition-so fast-it was a lot for me to deal with. House was so text-heavy that I felt I didn't have any more words left, I'd used up all my words-so I needed a break from text, I needed to look more closely at movement-hence came Lorca, very minimal in text, and Jump, with almost no text (actually, one word, `jump')."
Similarly, his latest collaboration with Daniel Brooks (his director for House and Lorca) and the playwright-actor Nadia Ross, Excerpts from the Emo Journals, contains only a handful of words, most of them mumbled by the cast. By paying strict (arguably sole) attention to the power of repeated movement on stage, mimizing "playwriting", and collecting a group of disassociative symbols around an intentionally unanchored story, MacIvor appeared to his critics to be working too hard at dismantling his own MacIvorisms.
Responses ranged from amused but befuddled (the Toronto Star), to outrage: Chris Winsor of eye weekly called for a complete boycott of the play, in order to "punish" MacIvor and his collaborators for "wasting their talents."
MacIvor is well aware of the build-them-up-knock-them-down school of theatre criticism. "When the reviews for Emo came out," he remembers, "I had just finished reading an article about Jeanette Winterson and the horrible response to her last book. She said at the time, `The more they pummel me, the more convinced I am of doing something right.' Words to wake up to."
Critics be damned, MacIvor is now ready to "get back into words..It has taken me a long time to stop feeling like I'd spent all my words. I know that sounds simple, but I did feel like I literally needed a whole new vocabulary. And I found it, or re-found it, in movement. To me it's important to see what having an absence of words does. If you let words disappear, you start to see their individual importance [his emphasis], and what they can do when they are present."
His next two plays, Here Lies Henry and A Soldier's Dream, the first a rambling, cut-and-paste-style monologue billed as a play "for the end of the world", the second a fluid, balletic whisper about quiet obsessions, love, and AIDS, are both direct results of his desire to re-make his own systems of reference, to shake off that elusive tag end of art reductively called a personal style.
"The new plays," he offers, "will incorporate this ripping up of the fabric of theatre-words and pictures-that I've been trying to do for the last couple of years. I want to crack open this monolith we call Text and see what's inside.
"Maybe," he grins, "there's nothing. And that's OK too."
Does he enjoy being enigmatic?
"It's my dream, my dream."

drink beer, shoot shit

Precise and clinical as MacIvor's work can be, there is always an undertone of loss, even melancholy. The intangible is as important to him as the goal, the A to B, of the play itself. The unattainable objects in his plays are not points of frustration or dramatic foils. Rather, they are the drawing cards, the true reflection of the writer's hooded gaze. The genius of his writing is that the audience cannot usually see this phantom love/beloved presence until long after the play is over.
But what he calls "direct indirection" often looks like plain, everyday obsession to the rest of us. It is hard not to make connections between his stated artistic mandates (inasmuch as anything so slippery can be called a mandate), and his habit (hobby?) of speaking in ellipses while redirecting questions with questions.
"Of course my writing is about me, at some level," he admits. "I mean, I do live in this world. And I do obsess. Actually, I think it's healthy.obsessing, that is, not necessarily my writing.
"A Soldier's Dream is about the death of a man who is fixated on one evening, one event, that he keeps replaying: the moment he contracted AIDS from a stranger. The man's reality becomes based on that one moment and he's surrounded by people trying to drag him into other times. Being surrounded by death myself in the last few years, I need to explore the processes of dying, the social aspect of it."
"Here's an ugly word," I volley, "but, is this a therapeutic process?"
"Yikes. No. I've always written about how we reclaim moments-how people redefine their obsessions and take control of them. Or, maybe, how they think they can take control, and really just wrestle them over and over. Is this something language assists or hinders or both?
"The big question," MacIvor decides, "is, how do you translate that in a performative mode? How do you show obsession on stage? My guess is: by obsessing. The thing that continues to amaze me about language on stage is how inflection informs content. The performance of the sentence means many things. In performing the text I find meaning in the text. If I have to obsess then, fine, I'm going to. But at least I can direct my obsessions toward finding out what I'm doing."

get drunk, go home, jerk off

A friend of MacIvor's told me to ask him two questions in rapid succession: What are you doing in an hour? And what are you doing in a year? "He'll be completely lost on the first question and he'll have a detailed answer for the second." The friend's prediction was right.
Daniel MacIvor exhibits Class A overachiever symptoms. For instance, he is always double-booked. At the time of our interview, a group of people waited patiently for him at another table. "I'll just be a few more minutes," he kept promising. "That's so Daniel," somebody commented. MacIvor will tell you he is overworked, but has nothing to do; is bored with his life, and yet completely unable to manage his time. He is forever poised to leave immediately to get some sleep, after he stays a little longer.
"Are you a workaholic?" I ask. Yes, he is. And no, it's not that simple.
"Something is deeply disturbing about the time we live in and I say to myself I'm doing all this work to try to understand something.but there are times when I realize I work so much so as not to understand whatever it is I'm going through. I carry the romantic idea of the tortured artist. I laugh at it, but I think we all have that in us somewhere."
Like one of his talky characters locked in a chronic distrust of words, MacIvor plays against his own instincts as an artist by holding his talent under suspicion, as if fearing the day when the work becomes "too easy".
"I say I want it to be easy," he begins, "but then when it is easy I don't trust it. I go through silly hell. The work starts off seeming difficult and difficult and difficult and then opens up, like all that difficulty made it easy. And then it's difficult again. Ultimately, I'm afraid of getting rid of my devils-the angels might leave too."
While he admits to suffering from a Best Boy complex, an incessant need to please, his recent work has been intentionally non-engaging and difficult; as if the Best Boy has decided to become the Bad Boy. But aren't the two boys the same? Is there much difference between doyenne and enfant terrible?
"About ten years, but maybe I can reverse the sequence. I was enfant terrible for about twelve minutes somewhere around 1990. Thank God that's over. I've been working on my need-to-please problem and now when I catch myself doing it I say, `Stop trying to please people who don't know what they want anyway.' I am guilty of needing a certain amount of approval."
Working in several different fields (actor, writer, director, film-maker) creates, of course, an infinite number of chances to please. But MacIvor sees his genre-hopping as less about pleasing everyone and more about "not getting caught". Again, the good boy/bad boy dilemma.
"The real question [one of MacIvor's favourite phrases] is when does experimentation become just indulgence, masturbation? I don't want to get identified as doing one thing because then I'll lose interest in doing it because I'll be expected to do it." "And the conundrum of the Best Boy problem is that you resent being asked to do the very things that make you that boy?" I ask.
"I would like to have a long life and keep working all my life-and, more importantly, stay interested in my life. I try to keep moving, keep being seduced by different worlds-but only for short times. I stop when it becomes a business. The film world is full of broken people who see what started out as art now being just a job."

wake up, jerk off

.responsibility and desire, cognition and instinct-awake with your eyes closed. The two states are intertwined in Daniel MacIvor's writing like twin steps in a sharp, rhythmic choreography. Theory (text) and action (movement) conflate in his plays at the same point where meaning and inflection collide, undercutting the security of the spoken word. Oddly, however, one leaves a MacIvor play with an unexpected sense of comfort. After all, haven't we too once mistrusted our own tongues?
"I don't want to be a Zen queen about all this," he concludes, "but somebody pointed out to me that in my writing I often say, `It was like this, but it wasn't that.' But life is like that-is and is not, true but not feeling true.
"When we put our lives into language, we hear something that describes us yet." he shrugs, looking for the perfect (and thus impossible) word, "it doesn't.exactly.
"In my plays people live by a code of silence, a world where you console yourself by saying-I don't feel it, but I'm saying it."
The trouble is, in a Daniel MacIvor play, you never get to say it the same way twice.

R. M. Vaughan is one of the five authors in Plush (Coach House).


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