BETRAYAL, by Harold Pinter, directed by Daniel Brooks, with Susan Coyne, Diego Matamoros and Albert Schultz. Presented by Soulpepper at the Premiere Dance Theatre (207 Queen's Quay West). Previews from Saturday (September 2), opens September 7 and runs in rep with The School For Wives to September 30, various evenings 8 pm, matinees 2 pm. $25-$46. 973-4000.
1999 Rating: NNNNN
Why is Daniel Brooks so sad? Look at him. He's like a St. Bernard as he shuffles over -- quiet, controlled, carrying his cheese sandwich -- to talk about his life and career. Melancholy eyes. A voice that's somewhere between a sigh and a groan.
Even when he grins -- you couldn't call it a smile -- and shows his perfect teeth, you know he's hiding some inner pain. Why pain? He's one of the city's most admired writers and directors, no question, ask anyone. And yet here he is, looking like his biblical namesake about to enter some lion's den.
Maybe he's sad because he's at another turning point in a life that's already had some sharp turns.
Solid career He's built a solid career working on indie projects that, when you mention them, make theatre lovers' eyes light up. The Noam Chomsky Lectures. Possible Worlds. The Lorca Play. House. The Soldier Dreams. Insomnia. (See sidebar.) Most have been original works that he's directed, co-written and often produced.
But in the past couple of years, theatre companies have approached him to direct. Last year came an exceptional production of Beckett's Endgame, for Soulpepper. This year the company asked him to take on Harold Pinter's Betrayal, the classic three-hander about a love triangle told in reverse chronological order. It begins previews this Saturday (September 2).
"It's a bad day to ask me about the play," he sighs, a few days into rehearsals. "I've got a lot to figure out yet." No problem.
Brooks has also, like it or not, become a role model and mentor for a new generation of artists like Chris Abraham and Ed Gass-Donnelly.
"Time passes, it sneaks up on you all of a sudden," he says when I point this out. "It makes me feel generationally challenged. OK, older."
But his isn't the story of the anti-establishment artist growing up, selling out and cashing in. Far from it.
"The biggest decision I made, or that made me, is that a career wasn't a focus for me," he says in his characteristic thoughtful and slow manner, like he's reciting a Zen koan.
"I've never made choices like, 'I should do this because I'll get more exposure,' or 'I should do this because it's time I proved something to blah blah blah.' I've only done projects because they've excited me."
Rediscovering world What excites him can be anyone's guess. He points to the theme of power in human relations that came out in his work with the Augusta Company, which he formed with Don McKellar and Tracy Wright in the late 80s. He mentions rediscovering a sense of the world and his political beliefs by working on Noam Chomsky with Guillermo Verdecchia. He talks about meeting Daniel MacIvor.
"We met after one of the Augusta shows, he tried to pick me up, I gracefully declined, he proposed doing a show, a one-man show, and I said I was happy to do it."
That show, House, proved a breakthrough for both artists, one gay, one not.
"We had no idea what kind of play it was going to be," says Brooks. "One big step came when I put him onstage. I sat in the audience and said, 'Why do you want to do this? Why do you want to be on a stage alone? If you want to be a star, that's all right.' And that suddenly gave him permission. In the best sense of the term, an egotism evolved, what I like to call 'an explosion of self.'"
The two collaborated on several other solo shows, works that helped define Toronto theatre in the 90s. Originally, MacIvor got sole writer credit, but soon the lines between director, dramaturge and creator started becoming increasingly blurry, something MacIvor himself acknowledges. With the most recent plays, like Here Lies Henry and Monster, the two share authorship.
"When you're younger, you can be cavalier and idealistic about all that," says Brooks. "But then it starts to become an issue."
Brooks likes to work with the same people, from actors (Randy Hughson, Clare Coulter and Chris Earle, to name a few) to his frequent design team of Julie Fox, Andrea Lundy, Richard Feren and Jan Komarek.
"There's always a risk when you enter into an endeavour with someone you haven't worked with before," he explains. "Some people want quick answers. They have assumptions about what a moment is, what a character is. To undo that or re-address that isn't always possible with people you don't know."
In fact, if one thing characterizes his approach to directing, it's his self-professed ignorance.
"Chris Earle once said that the thing he learned about directing from me could be summed up in three words: 'I don't know.' You can't take anything for granted. You don't know the intention of a line. All you know is that a person says something. A lot of directors are bad directors because they don't acknowledge, or they're afraid of, a deep spiritual ignorance."
Split life But back to the sadness issue. MacIvor has a theory about it. Whenever he sees Brooks looking blue or alienated, he calls him the Jew boy from Upper Canada College.
"That's the big thing in my personal life," admits Brooks. "I went to UCC and was raised in a Jewish home. I had a split life. When I started there, in grade two, there were Bible classes, prayers and readings from the Gospels. But I didn't have a miserable time until adolescence."
He got the nickname "charc," for charcoal, after a fellow student told him he "ate apples like a nigger." He was self-conscious about his food. He didn't join in any reindeer games. At graduation he received an unofficial prize called the 3:15 award, for leaving school as soon as the bell rang.
"Let's just say I received proof of how awful human beings can be," he says.
But even if he didn't know it, he was already honing his director skills. Once, in grade seven, he told the class clown to hide behind the window curtains. The class giggled all period, and the teacher had no idea why.
"I loved provoking the class clown. Psychologically, it was a much more comfortable and satisfying position. I felt creatively freer. I wasn't as afraid, worried about me, me, me."
Years later, after switching from pre-med to theatre at U of T and meeting people like Leah Cherniak, Ken Gass and Steven Martineau, Brooks began studying clown himself. He insists there's an element of comedy in much of his work, from the dark jokes in the MacIvor pieces to the clownplay in Noam Chomsky. There's even some stage shtick in John Mighton's Possible Worlds, which he directed in 1997 and recently played a small role in for Robert Lepage's upcoming film version, screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Loves comedy Truth is, he'd love to work on a comedy. He was knocked out by his friend McKellar's work on the comic musical parody, The Drowsy Chaperone. He's also a huge Marx Brothers fan.
"I don't want to have this reputation as the director who does difficult intellectual modern classics," he says. "It's not true. I don't want to be stuck doing those for the rest of my life. I'm interested in ideas, yes. But comedy can be about ideas, too. The ideas are just about how to make something funny."
For a second, he smiles, but it's a prepared, nervous smile. For Daniel Brooks, laughter, like life, is serious business.
FAUST * An elegant contemporary reimagining of Goethe's classic, staged to play sharp intellectual concerns against gnawing sensual drives.
ENDGAME * An object lesson in how to present Samuel Beckett's dry comedy and deep despair, wedded here in equal and hypnotic measure.
1998 INSOMNIA * Co-created with Guillermo Verdecchia, this look at a marriage on the rocks lasered in on the husband, a tormented soul whose peace of mind has been obliterated by urban and moral pressures.
1997 MONSTER * A collaboration with performer Daniel MacIvor, this one-actor, multi-character exploration of internal darkness left audiences squirming.
1996 POSSIBLE WORLDS * Brooks's first collaboration with designers Andrea Lundy, Julie Fox and Richard Feren, this award-winning production shifted the central character's various realities as easily as you'd flip a light switch.
1992 THE LORCA PLAY * Seven women and MacIvor onstage together, deconstructing and piecing together a unique, fiery take on Lorca's masterpiece The House Of Bernarda Alba. Dora Awards for directing and acting ensemble.
THE NOAM CHOMSKY LECTURES * A lesson in giving equal weight to politics and drama in political theatre. The constantly evolving production, created and performed by Brooks and Verdecchia, drew on Chomsky's scarily true theories, recent media stories and the form and function of local theatre critics. Chalmers Award winner.
HOUSE * The first collaboration with MacIvor, a trip inside the mind of a man who has lost everything and had little to begin with. One of the most alarming evenings in the theatre I've ever experienced. Dora Award, directing.