Divided Souls

For director Daniel Brooks, life and work are one
photograph by Christopher WahlHe’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.”

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