in his latest play Daniel MacIvor juggles hearts and minds in a cross-cultural love triangle set in Japan
Being a playwright in Canada is a tricky business. Our citizenry isn’t well known for supporting live theatre, our critics can dance the line between acerbic and downright vicious, and securing enough funding to cover food and rent while crafting your next masterpiece is frequently akin to rummaging beneath the sofa cushions for coins. So when one artist manages to clear all three of these hurdles, you know you’re dealing with someone truly special.
Daniel MacIvor has been wowing critics, pulling crowds and keeping himself in hatpins and ink for nigh on three decades after founding the da da kamera theatre company in 1986. Since then he’s hit a slew of homeruns with lauded plays like Cul de Sac, In on It, A Beautiful View, Here Lies Henry and his seminal one-man tour de force, House. Many of these were produced in conjunction with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, the historic home of Canadian queer theatre and one of Toronto’s most enduring artistic institutions. MacIvor returns to Buddies with his new piece called Arigato, Tokyo, premiering later this month. The work draws inspiration from Noh theatre, a traditional art form that incorporates music, movement, masks and gender play into its stylized, dramatic stories. The playwright became interested in Noh while participating in a Japanese production of his play You Are Here.
“THERE’S A LINE THERE THAT DOESN’T REALLY GET CROSSED…. IT’S JUST UNDERSTOOD THAT YOU AS A WESTERNER COULDN’T TRULY UNDERSTAND [JAPANESE] CULTURE.”
“I spent a few weeks there,” MacIvor says. “The play they were doing was set in Toronto. I told them I would be more than happy to rewrite it to be set in Tokyo, but they wanted it to be Japanese actors playing people in Toronto. I have to admit I found that a little odd, and it didn’t end up working for me in the play, but I really liked them.”
Entranced with the cultural reflection of a Japanese company on his Toronto-centric play, MacIvor offered to write a brand new piece for the company that would be set in Japan. They refused.
“They’re not interested in Tokyo,” says the playwright. “They’re not interested in Japan. They want to be showing plays that are about people in other places, in another world.
“But I was very intrigued by Tokyo and Japan generally. I went back to do some research, and made some other kinds of discoveries about the culture which affected the play I was planning to write, about how impenetrable the culture can be in Japan.
“Everyone’s really nice. You’re hosted to within an inch of your life, but there’s a line there that doesn’t really get crossed. It took me two visits to figure that out. It’s not like there’s something hidden, it’s just understood that you as a westerner couldn’t truly understand their culture.”
Arigato, Tokyo explores this theme with the lead character Carl, a native Vancouverite holidaying in Tokyo. Carl (played by David Storch) has pretty much given up on love, but finds himself pulled into the lives of his Japanese interpreter Nyoshi (Cara Gee), her actor brother Yori (Michael Dufays) and a drag queen named Etta. Etta is the star, a narrator who embodies the play’s clash of genders and desires. The role is played by Tyson James, a stunning drag performer in his own right and a former member of Buddies’ youth program.
“Carl’s a kind of Douglas Coupland character,” says MacIvor. “He’s a journalist who made good, got involved in fiction and non-fiction books and became a celebrated writer. He’s travelling through Tokyo, viewing Japan through a very western lens.
“At the end of the day it’s a tragic love story.”
The play is directed by Buddies in Bad Times’ artistic director Brendan Healy who is excited to be premiering a new work from one of his theatre’s most pre-eminent alumni. It’s their first-ever collaboration.
I’m so honoured that Daniel would think of us, of Buddies and of me, to premiere new work,” says Healy. “It was a little scary at first, because he’s such an established writer and I have such immense admiration for his work. I was like, ‘How am I going to engage in those conversaions about production and rewrites that you need to have while directing?’ I mean, what do I know? He’s Daniel MacIvor!
But he’s very practical about his writing, and he’s in no way neurotic about it. It’s such a pleasure.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I’m thrilled about working with Brendan Healy,” says MacIvor. “His work is so beautiful and rigorous and deep. I’m thrilled he’s directing it.”
In a play about cross-cultural understanding, or lack thereof, focusing on theatre craft is key.
“Something Daniel said once that has stayed with me for years is that the theatre teaches us empathy,” says Healy. “He has characters who are so relatable, but he doesn’t ask for our pity or our sympathy. He simply asks for our empathy.”
PWYC-$37. 8pm. Tue-Sat. 2:30pm. Sun. Thu, Mar 21-Apr 14. Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. 12 Alexander St. (416) 975- 8555. buddiesinbadtimes.com.