The Sunday Magazine

Daniel MacIvor on being a 'weirdo' and Cape Breton's dark humor

The playwright and actor shares how he began writing and the influences on his work.
With Let’s Run Away, playwright and actor Daniel MacIvor has scored another critical success. (Jim Ryce)

When Daniel MacIvor was 16 years old, he got a typewriter for his birthday. He wanted to study journalism, but when he got to Dalhousie University, he says he took a wrong turn and found himself in plays.

Luckily for us, he has written and produced some of this country's most memorable theatre since then — including Here Lies Henry, Monster, Cul-de-sac and Who Killed Spalding Gray.

Now, with Let's Run Away, he has scored another critical success.

The play is a one-man show that chronicles the life of an eccentric man, Peter, who finds the unpublished memoir of someone close to him. Peter is obviously in the grip of some mental disturbance. He talks to the audience. He screams at the lighting director. He clings to his version of reality with an unfinished manifesto to change the world. But he also speaks eloquently about love, loneliness, abandonment and redemption. It is an extraordinary and exhausting performance. It's also the seventh collaboration between MacIvor and the director Daniel Brooks.

MacIvor has won many theatrical awards, including the prestigious Siminovitch Prize, Dora Mavor Moore and Chalmers awards, and the Governor General's Award for Drama. Here are some highlights of his conversation with The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright. MacIvor's comments have been edited for clarity and condensed.


What sparked his interest in writing

I had a teacher in Grade 8 at Sheriff Junior High in Sydney, Nova Scotia — Charles Lawson. He was one of those wonderful English teachers; most of us have been lucky enough to have one of those. He wrote something on a little paper that I wrote. He said: "You have talent." And I had never heard that before. I had only ever heard that I was a show-off and that I needed to shut up and sit down and be quiet. That was more what I was used to, and pride was something that was discouraged at home.

That phrase, you have talent, was something that I hadn't really heard. It woke something up in me: writing. So I started writing.

How Cape Breton influenced his dark humor

The idea of ending is always in everything that I do. There's something about being from Cape Breton. I think we share it with Newfoundlanders too. I think it's a little different because we don't have to travel quite so far to see the end anywhere we are. 

When I was growing up there was this jokey Cape Breton Liberation Army idea. These Cape Breton personalities — Buddy and the Boys, Rita MacNeil, Bryden MacDonald, Heather, Cookie and Raylene Rankins, Cookie Raylynn, etc. — came together and made this review called The Rising Follies. It was a very funny, very political and had teeth. The humour was darker than one might find inland or mainland. You know, you can laugh or you can cry. Let's laugh. So it's about humanity turning toward one another, but also with a sense of irony and a bit of mordant humor.

Daniel MacIvor in Let's Run Away. (Guntar Kravis)

Why he gravitates towards outliers and people in the margins

I think it's partly I guess I'm a bit of a weirdo. I've always been a bit of a weirdo. For a lot of years I tried to hide that. I was lucky that whatever my eccentricities were, they were somehow useful in the theatre. 

I have always felt a bit of an outsider and I think that has a lot to do with being gay and growing up in Cape Breton at a time where being gay was just not a thing. So that was strange. But it wasn't just that.

I came out into what was called Queer Nation back in the 80s in Toronto, and that was a response to the AIDS crisis. I've always identified as queer as a result of that, because I felt that queer to me had a lot more to do with not just who you loved but where you shopped and what you ate and what you watched. It was about how you saw the world. It wasn't just about your romantic interest or your sexual interest.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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