Divided Souls

For director Daniel Brooks, life and work are one

Photograph by Christopher Wahl

He’s a kiwi,” says Daniel MacIvor, “rough on the out-side, delicious on the inside.” “He’s an intellectual Buddhist Jew,” adds Rick Miller. “He’s a pretty relentless perfectionist,” concludes John Mighton, “combined with a very sensual person.

These acclaimed playwrights are all talking about one of the most highly regarded directors in Canadian theatre today, who has had a hand in shaping some of their most successful works. Meet Daniel Brooks, whose latest collaboration with MacIvor, This Is What Happens Next, opened at Usine C in Montreal in January.

Brooks’s productions have won numerous Chalmers and Dora Mavor Moore awards, and in 2001 he earned the first Elinore and Lou Siminovitch Prize in Theatre. On that occasion, the jury praised “his depth of commitment, intellectual discipline and brilliant stagecraft…With idealism and fearlessness, he has been eager to address complex issues in both contemporary and historical works.”

The list of works with which Brooks has been connected reads like a guide to some of the best productions of the past twenty years: Here Lies Henry, House, The Noam Chomsky Lectures, Monster, Cul-de-sac, Possible Worlds, Endgame, Half Life, and Bigger Than Jesus. But the dichotomy between the near-reverence with which he’s viewed inside the theatre community and the total ignorance his name provokes in the outside world is not lost on him. “I’ve come to accept that part of my success is that I’m invisible,” he says with the dry, self-deprecating wit that peppers his conversation. “It gets frustrating when my mother says, ‘So, you’re doing the new MacIvor play?’ But that’s my lot in life, and in some ways it constantly challenges me.”

Brooks the artist is out there for all to see, with his seemingly minimalist but ultimately complex productions, filled with surgically precise lighting, carefully orchestrated sounds, and exquisitely detailed performances. It doesn’t matter whether the end result is the stark bleakness of MacIvor’s Cul de sac, the circuslike jollity of Miller’s Bigger Than Jesus, or the melancholy reveries of Mighton’s Half Life; the hand of the man at the tiller is clear. You could walk into a Daniel Brooks show without looking at a program and know it was his within five minutes.

How did Brooks the artist develop such a distinctive signature? The answer lies inside Brooks the man, where a troubled adolescence and a nomadic young adulthood finally yielded a mature man of vision, once he found the path he was meant to pursue. “I think everything stems from your perception of yourself,” he says, and that statement proves to be the key to the Brooks mystery.

Brooks arrives for coffee at a near-empty Annex restaurant on a chilly autumn morning, riding up on a bicycle that he locks to the rack outside with practised skill. He’s a compact, dark-haired guy, looking slightly younger than his fifty years, with the intense gaze you’ve been warned about.

“I was born in Toronto in 1958,” he begins, mocking the biographical line of interrogation. “My father was in advertising. He always had small companies he would build up around central accounts, then sell the business and try to make a killing in some other kind of business, which inevitably didn’t work, and then he’d go back to advertising.”

Part of this registers as fascinating childhood data, but it also clicks up on the radar screen as the origin of his latest project with Rick Miller. HardSell, opening at the Berkeley Street Theatre in April, is described in its advance publicity as a show that “slyly exposes the lies inherent in advertising.”

“My mother was at home” is all Brooks says initially about her, but later in the conversation he acknowledges that she “was a writer, Naomi Brooks. She wrote a play, If I Catch You Praying, that was quite successful in its own world.”

He quickly sketches in elements of his youth that others might choose to dwell on, including the fact that “my parents divorced when I was fourteen or fifteen. It’s a foggy time,” as well as “I have an older brother who lives in New York. I had a complicated but ultimately very close relationship with him.”

But then he gets down to what he obviously feels is important: “I had a bit of a schizophrenic life, in that I was raised in a Jewish home but sent to an Anglican school, Upper Canada College — eleven years.” He smiles. “That has a lot to do with what I am, that split in my personality.”

Those words suddenly open the door to the whole Brooks oeuvre, from the heroes of his own plays (Insomnia and The Good Life), through every character in the MacIvor canon, and on to the protagonists of Miller’s and Mighton’s works. Split personalities, divided souls, creatures of mixed loyalties: that’s what you’ll find in every Brooks production.

The depth of the influence of this period in his life becomes even more obvious as he starts to explain a traumatic adolescence that is one part normal teenage angst, one part social and religious tensions, and one part physical grief from the delayed onset of puber-ty. “I was a very late bloomer,” he says simply. “I was in swimming class, which we were still doing naked in grade seven. Those were the most awful classes imaginable, because I was three, four years behind some of the kids.” His embarrassment is palpable as he recalls that time. “Your sexuality begins to slowly…blossom is not the word I would use in my case. And that creates a different terrain. You look at yourself in the mirror differ-ently. You start to measure yourself in terms of your sexuality. The girls at bss [Bishop Strachan School, sister school to ucc] terrified me — those statuesque blondes who seemed to be in control of themselves in a way that was absolutely foreign to me. I didn’t feel included, because I was different.”

A large part of that difference was being Jewish. “It was always around. There’s a latent anti-Semitism that is just culturally embedded in people in ways they don’t understand. Things slip out of people’s mouths, things kids have heard at home. And when people are angry, sometimes they say things.” But he soon learned to search deeper for the source of his sense of disenfranchisement. “It was more my own sense that I was different,” he says. “I have a different sense of humour, I speak differently, and I think that deep in my soul there’s a different ambition, a different sense of what’s important, day to day, moment to moment.

“In the early days of computers, you used to have these questionnaires you’d fill out in career counselling, and mine came back with no matches. There were too many contradictions. Isn’t it interesting that I ended up in theatre?” But that was still a few years in the future. He dutifully went on to the University of Toronto but found his social problems increased, even in a mixed setting. “I needed to learn how to be with people. I was profoundly self-conscious, didn’t know where I fit in, how to dress. My hair felt wrong, everything felt wrong. I felt wrong in my skin.” He thought change was the only option open to him, and so he went travelling for a year, starting in Europe and winding up in Israel, working on a dairy farm on a kibbutz. He borrowed guitars and busked his way back to Canada. Then, on his return to the U of T campus, he met the man in charge of the theatre department, Steven Martineau, who would change the course of his life.

“He was a very special guy,” Brooks recalls fondly, “Oxford educated. A hippie. But a kind of rigorous hippie who was way ahead in his thought.” It was 1978, and he enrolled in the U of T theatre program. Martineau’s theory class was what Brooks describes as “a revelation. When I listened to Brecht’s theoretical writing, I felt all of a sudden I was hearing something I had thought about without knowing I had thought about it. It’s pulling something out of you that feels familiar. It appealed to my sense of order and justice, to the anti-sentimentalist in me, the person who didn’t like cheap emotions and cheap tricks.”

In 1981, Brooks dazzled the campus with a multimedia show, called Evening and loosely based on All About Eve, that starred actor Maggie Huculak. Once the door was open, the career began. There were early plays he wrote, like The Return of Pokey Jones, and then his partnership with the actor Guillermo Verdecchia, which would yield shows like The Noam Chomsky Lectures and, later, Insomnia. But it was the idiosyncratic work he started with the Augusta Company (Brooks, Don McKellar, and Tracy Wright) that eventually led to his first great partnership, with Daniel MacIvor.

MacIvor had already embarked on his successful career as a solo artist, working with director Ken McDougall, but he felt the need for a change and began to collaborate with Brooks. “It seemed right from the beginning,” MacIvor recalls. “It was symbiotic. I think we complement one another. My weaknesses are his strengths.”

“We’re opposites in a lot of ways,” observes Brooks of MacIvor. “He lives six lives for every one I live, although within that one life I lead degrees of kinds of lives that he doesn’t. Not that one is better than the other. They’re just different.”

During their first solo outing together, House, the dynamic became clear. A MacIvor/Brooks show doesn’t begin with a finished script that goes into a conventional rehearsal process, but often starts with a character, an idea, a series of fragmented moments, and then the two men begin to work together. “I make the shows with him,” explains Brooks, “but I never try to write for him. I suggest things, and then he takes them and makes them his own. On all the shows, I’ve worked through every line with him and was intimately involved with the structure, just as he was intimately involved with the direction.”

But one incident from a rehearsal in the creation of House stands out from all the rest, touching the essence of the way Brooks works with all his authors. “I was sitting in the audience one day,” he recalls, “and I knew [Daniel] had a very complicated relationship with Ken McDougall, someone he had left for his creative relationship with me. So I said, ‘Okay, there’s Ken, there’s a bunch of people in the audience; what do you have to say to them?’ And the character of angry Victor emerged immediately, with the kind of aggression that is full of pre-emptive strikes: ‘Before you hate me, I’m going to hate you.’ ”

MacIvor was also grateful for another breakthrough Brooks helped him achieve. “Daniel asked me why I wanted to do this show,” remembers MacIvor, “and I went on about how it was important to give voice to a character you might just pass on the street, etc. Then he interrupted me and said, ‘If it’s just because you want to be a star, that’s okay, too.’ I said, ‘Yes, I want to be a star.’ There was something in me that wanted to feel accepted, that I was good, that I was worthy. When Daniel gave me permission to want that, it immediately stopped being so important.”

From the flamboyant, mercurial MacIvor to mathematician John Mighton would be an impossible leap for most directors, but not Brooks. Mighton recalls that they began as friends: “Our daughters were born within a few months of each other in 1992, and we started hanging out with each other in the park. Then our daughters became best friends. I finally remember begging him in the park one day to remount Possible Worlds, and he did.”

Mighton loves working with Brooks because “he doesn’t impose a lot until the play is developed. He tries everything he can to make it work. Generally, when he asks for a change it’s pretty serious.” Says Brooks of their 2005 hit, “Half Life grew scene by scene over a period of years. That’s the way it works with John.” He recalls how at one point in the process a new scene was needed and Mighton required an extra push to get it done, so Brooks simply picked a day, hired a bunch of actors, and told his friend they’d be working on the new material that day. “John has such a sense of responsibility,” says Brooks, smiling, “that I knew he wouldn’t want to disappoint anyone.” The day came, the scene was there, and Half Life continued its successful evolution.

Totally different yet again is the collaboration between Brooks and Rick Miller, with whom he created Bigger Than Jesus and the upcoming HardSell. The two met on the set of the movie Robert Lepage was making of Mighton’s Possible Worlds. “I was playing a character,” Brooks adds wryly, “that I had cut from the stage script.” Miller remembers that “we actually met at the craft services table. I had seen his work with MacIvor and wanted to work with someone like him on Bigger Than Jesus. So I pitched him.”

Brooks recalls how Miller “told me about his troubled relationship with Catholicism, but said, ‘I know the Catholic liturgy by heart.’ And I thought, ‘I can make a play out of that: a guy who knows the Catholic liturgy by heart and it doesn’t mean a thing to him any more.’ ”

“He brings an outside perspective to your work,” explains Miller of the process they went through with Bigger Than Jesus. “He’s both a wonderful audience and a man who knows how to ask the right questions at the right time. I always wanted more theatre to it, but Daniel felt it worked simply just speaking the words. He always resented my attempt to provide theatre tricks to hide empty content.” As they continue toward the opening of HardSell, Miller feels he’s found “a mentor and a wise older brother,” and Brooks’ only caveat is that “he’s such a gentleman all the time, and sometimes I don’t want him to be.”

At fifty, with a substantial career behind him and an equally promising one before of him, the artistic director of the Necessary Angel Theatre Company admits that “sometimes I look back and consider myself fortunate that [MacIvor, Mighton, and Miller] have had an interest in working with me. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because I’m a really good listener.” But as he enters his second half century, he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to get anywhere. It can often take three or four years for a Brooks project to reach the stage, but it seems the time is worth it.

Critics and audiences would agree that many of his shows in the past decade (Cul-de-sac, Endgame, Bigger Than Jesus, Half Life) have been among the very best of his career. His focus grows sharper, his touch more secure, and when asked why he works in the theatre, his answer has both simplicity and depth: “I love being engaged by the intelligence of a playwright and the thoroughness of a vision.”

For a teenager for whom no computer could find a suitable career, Daniel Brooks has certainly landed on his feet. “It just takes time,” he says. “Everything worth doing takes time.”

Richard Ouzounian