Let Go of My Ego, Daniel MacIvor – Sasha

Daniel MacIvor is one of Canada’s greatest living theatre artists. Empathic yet razor-sharp, his devotion to theatre as a transformative act can be summed up in an entry to his blog (http://danielmacivor.com/wordpress/) praising a recent performance of Joan MacLeod’s “Another Home Invasion: “It’s relaxing to be in the presence of commitment and rigor.” As a practicing Shambhala Buddhist and someone passionately involved in nearly all aspects of the creation of his work, MacIvor lives and breathes these two qualities. NMP spoke to the prolific playwright and performer as he was submitting rewrites of a new work called Communion and going into rehearsals for the Toronto remount of his play: A Beautiful View.

Sasha: When told that the theme of the current No More Potlucks was Ego, you quickly responded, “I have a lot to say about that bastard.” Please tell me what you meant by that. In other words, when you hear the word ego, what or whom does it conjure up in your mind?

Daniel MacIvorAh, Ego. Makes a great fuel but a shitty engine. It took me a long time to come to terms with how I could use ego without ego using me. Ego is that “more, now, again” thing that wants to suck the life out of today in an effort to get to tomorrow for more “more, now, again.” On one level Ego is like an entity we carry on our backs with its teeth sunk into our jugular. It is happy to kill us so it can keep living – it is so caught up with itself it doesn’t realize that once we’re dead it’s dead too. On the other hand Ego is the thing that makes us stand up and speak up; the thing that convinces us that what we have to say is worth finding a stage for. Without Ego we would be happy to commune with nature and evolve; Ego places the human above nature – so the struggle is to let Ego feed us and to manipulate the energy it gives us and use it to commune with one another and still maintain evolving as the point. Which is difficult because to really evolve, is to lose Ego.

S: You are entrenched in two practices that are preoccupied with the ego: Shambhala Buddhism and theatre. Tell me how the concept of ego in Buddhism informs your work as an actor and how the concept of ego in theatre informs your practice in as a Buddhist. Or do these things intersect at all?

DM: Yes, I think they interact greatly. The Buddhist practice asks that we release Ego – to live in a “letting” way not a “wanting” way. Ego is all about want. And in the theatre the first question that any director or playwright or actor or dramaturge asks about a character is “what do they want?” Ego is the oxygen in the world of theatre. Even as an audience we participate in theatre in order to see ourselves represented somehow – this is in part our Ego looking for reflections of itself. There is a battle in these two ways of thinking. But if one recognizes the power of theatre to expose Ego – to make us face it and its desire to control us – we can use that recognition, that insight, as a way to control Ego.

S: Your characters often present as self-centered and acerbic but there is nearly always a great epiphany, a great gentleness, towards humanity at the end of your shows. Aside from the fact that it’s always nice to have an audience leave content, what’s that all about?

DM: Someone once said that the purpose of theatre is to prepare us for death and I believe that to be true. I think most of us, for the most part, live our lives in a self-centered (and depending on our sense of humour) acerbic way. That way of living is, as you noted, is represented in my characters. In my plays the moment of epiphany is represented by death – either in the immediate world of the character or by the death of the character itself. And it is my belief that moving to the end – to death as it were – is where a human finds the most profound contentment and we become truly gentle – about who we have been and what we have done. In my plays I try and make a mirror of the human experience – the experience of life as I imagine it to be – and that includes death as a vital part of the living experience.

S: Anger is a vital emotion in your work, whether you’re throwing chairs, high kicking around, leaping up and yelling or sitting at group therapy bitterly dishing. Why is this emotion so dear to you as a creator?

DM: Anger is easy. Anger is fear. Fear is everywhere.

S: Where are you most truly yourself? Or, are there a few places where you feel perfectly at ease? Of course, this implies that being yourself makes you comfortable or that you even enjoy being comfortable. Perhaps this is wrong, and if it is, please elaborate.

DM: It has concerned me for some time that I feel most truly myself on stage in front of a group of people in the midst of a performance – where I am supposedly being “someone else.” I disagree that the object of acting is to become a character who is not “me.” I think the best acting happens when we expose our true selves. The concern is this nagging sense that perhaps I should be able to find this “at ease” feeling in a forest or at a dinner with friends. I’m working on it.

S: When did the performance bug hit you?

DM: Alone in my room, age 10. Me and a mirror.

S: Female actors have said that you write female characters beautifully. The same has been said of Daniel Clowes, who wrote Ghost World. The implication ostensibly being that this requires a special sensitivity. This seems an oversimplification and suggests that men are less vulnerable than women. Do you require a radical attitude shift when you write from and for a female perspective?

DM: No. The voices come as they come. I am currently working on a trilogy in which each of the plays has three characters and all of the characters are women. This was not premeditated. In fact it wasn’t until after the idea had formed that I realized that all the characters were female. On one level I think this has to do with the fact that I was raised in a world of women: my mother, my “auntie,” my grandmother, my sister – these were the people I bonded with from the start – it was female behaviour I was observing intimately from the beginning. As a dramatist I don’t think this is a question of vulnerability or sensitivity but generally I think that women are more complex psychologically and at the same time aware of their complexity. A female character is a rich canvass.

S: As an openly gay male performer, you are rather unique in that your work rarely ever reflects your sexuality nor are you pigeonholed in other roles. This seems like a feat: to be an openly gay man yet to play a pantheon of diverse male characters. How’d you manage that one?

DM: Again I think that’s simply a reflection of who I am as a person. I’m much more comfortable with the label “queer” over “gay.” There is an inclusiveness in “queerness” that is lacking in the “gay” idea. My struggle and my journey seems to be about inclusiveness. “Gay” feels male while “Queer” feels human. My queerness allows me access to all humanity. First I’m a human. Well first I’m a Cape Bretoner but next I’m a human.

S: Interesting, that you identify first and foremost as a Cape Bretoner. Why?

DM: I guess my mentioning it is, in part, humour and in part a need to hang on to some identity. Just as in a room full of gay men I feel not so much “gay,” in a room full of Cape Bretoners I might feel not so much “Cape Bretoner.” It’s something easy to “be,” but of course identity is attachment and you know what they say about attachment. On another level in terms of “be-ing,” I do feel like it defines me better than most titles; in fact in encompasses many: storyteller, dark sense of humour, flirt, has-liked-a-party, service oriented narcissist with low self esteem, etc.

S: What is the worst thing that has ever happened to you and have you learned anything positive from it?

DM: I guess the worst thing that ever happened to me was a few years ago when I decided that I had to step away from my career and have a “real life.” I thought that I should become a person who didn’t build his life around pretending and making stuff up. In becoming that new person I made a lot of decisions that affected other people’s lives and created a bit of a shit storm (see my new solo show “This Is What Happens Next”). What did I learn? Well, in “real life” everybody’s pretending and making stuff up all the time they’re just not aware of it – or won’t admit it.

S: What do you enjoy most about being a performer and theatre creator?

DM: I have the extreme privilege of working with people I love.

S: Are there artists you like as much as many people like Daniel MacIvor and how does their work impact yours?

DM: Early on it was Warhol and his scene. There was something about the way he created a world and a life that was absolutely the same thing as his art. Later it was companies like “The Wooster Group” where one felt they were connected to one another and the work in a familial way – but they weren’t exploiting their lives in the way I came to feel Warhol was. Once I came to Toronto it was “The Augusta Company” (Daniel Brooks, Don McKellar and Tracy Wright) who were doing a version of what the Woosters were doing but with that deliciously acerbic yet heartfelt tone of theirs. I also think about people like Robert Wilson and Robert Lepage where there’s a “my life is my art” feeling but with rigorous minimalism. These days its pretty much anyone who manages to make good art and not be an asshole.

S: Can you describe what it feels like to have such a positive reception to your work and how does this reception impact it, if at all?

DM: It’s nice to have people say nice things, so I guess it’s nice. It makes it easier to keep working when you feel that kind of support. But I don’t feel ownership over the work. My job is to observe and file and mine my own experience in order to deliver some kind of message of being and hope – or something. By not owning the work my Ego isn’t overfed.

S: It’s hard to ask a theatre creator what an average day looks like because every aspect of creation is different any given point. Writing is different from workshopping is different from rehearsing is different from mounting the production. What is your favourite part of this process or are there several at every stage?

DM: There are many wonderful parts. At times I love the relationship with the keyboard—just me and it—a pure communion. And like I said, being on stage in front of an audience in the midst of something – both fully in and out of control – is transforming and affirming. And in the rehearsal room as the writer/director with a group of actors and at one point all of us so lost and then later all so on the same page – there’s no feeling like it. And all of those things speak to a kind of communion. So I guess the best part is the communion with something other than myself.

S: What personality traits do you find most challenging in yourself?

DM: I am judgmental, self-centered, impatient and demanding. And, hard on myself.

S: In 2006 you folded da da kamera, no doubt a difficult decision considering the success and familiarity of this company. Do you believe that challenging wellbeing is a vital function generally?

DM: Yes. Folding the company was a good thing to do for reasons I didn’t realize at the time. (See above: “the worst thing that ever happened to me”) I am happier now that I’m not a “company.” I like the freelance life although I’m busier than I thought possible. One should always leave the party while it’s still fun.

S: I have a cheesy plaque from the Value Village on my wall that says, “With God, Nothing is Impossible.” I have this to remind myself that this is precisely the problem with so much religion: that nothing is impossible, when actually, some things really are, and that’s fine. It reminds me of the lovely wordplay in your quote, “Nothing is enough” from A Beautiful View. Nothing and ego: discuss.

DM: Ooooh that’s good, and it takes a full twenty seconds to really land. Yes, yes. Nothing is the object. The monotheistic God idea can’t allow that. Precisely. Ego hates Nothing because Ego needs us to believe in the possibility of everything which is the core of “want.” In the boxing match between Ego and Nothing, Ego exhausts itself swinging and swinging and never landing a punch. Ding.

S: Freud springs to mind when we discuss the ego and his structural model of the psyche (thanks Wikipedia!) went something like this: the Id acts as a pleasure principle: if not compelled by reality it seeks immediate enjoyment. It is focused on selfishness and instant self-gratification. The Ego acts according to the reality principle. It seeks to please the Id’s drive in realistic ways that will benefit in the long term rather than bringing grief. The Super-ego aims for perfection. It comprises that organized part of the personality structure, mainly but not entirely unconscious, that includes the individual’s ego ideals, spiritual goals, and the psychic agency (commonly called ‘conscience’) that criticizes and prohibits his or her drives, fantasies, feelings, and actions.

Although all of these traits generally work in conjunction with one another, which one do you feel best describes your fundamental persona? Are you the child wrestling with the adult or the adult wrestling with the child or the even-tempered one in between?

DM: The child is looking at the adult who is looking off elsewhere and the child is saying to the adult “What the hell are you looking at, give me a hand over here I’m a fucking CHILD!” In Freudian terms I’m more connected to the Super-ego – I’m neither the child nor the adult. I’m the distance between them. I’m the child’s appeal to the adult and the adult’s obliviousness to the child. But as I said before, I’m working on it.

S: Let us know what you are currently working on so we can plug the shit out of it.

DM: The remount of “A Beautiful View” runs at Tarragon through May starring Caroline Gillis and Tracy Wright. Cinemateque is having a retrospective of my film work at the AGO May 23-28. In the 2009/10 theatre season I have two plays in Toronto: “Communion” at Tarragon and the new solo with Daniel Brooks, “This Is What Happens Next” at Canadian Stage.

Sasha is a sex columnist whose work has appeared in Canadian weeklies for over 14 years. She is also the co-artistic director of the Scandelles, a multi-disciplinary performance group from Toronto. www.eyeweekly.com/fun/lovebites

Daniel MacIvor is originally from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and currently lives in Toronto. From 1987 to 2007 he was artistic director of da da kamera, a respected international touring company that brought his work to Australia, Israel, Europe, the UK, and extensively throughout Canada and the United States. Daniel has been the recipient of numerous awards including a GLAAD Award and a Village Voice Obie Award in 2002 for his play In On It at New York’s PS 122, the 2006 Governor General’s Literary Award for his collection of plays I Still Love You, and the 2008 Elinore and Lou Siminovitch Prize for Theatre. He is currently writer-in-residence at Tarragon Theatre and is one of the founders of Halifax’s The Distinct Theatre Society. Check out his weblog at www.danielmacivor.com

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 05/03/2009 – 14:17.

smart + smart = a real pleasure to read. thanks.