Daniel Brooks, one of Canada’s foremost stage directors, was prepared for the possibility that he might not see his new production of The Seagull make it to the stage this spring at Soulpepper.
But, unlike most other artists who have had shows postponed or cancelled in the last month due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he had long been prepared.
This is because the 61-year-old has been living with stage-four lung cancer since 2018. That he might become too sick or even not live to make it to opening night was always part of his discussions with Soulpepper’s artistic director Weyni Mengesha.
So when I spoke to Brooks a week after what turned out to be the first and only full run-through his Seagull, he had a calmness in his voice.
“I’m fine,” Brooks said. “You know, I’m very practiced at the art of acceptance of paradigm shifts.”
Since his diagnosis, I’ve had a number of surprisingly soothing interviews with Brooks about art and cancer.
I was unprepared, however, how deeply these might resonate when it came time to write them up.
Conversations about what Samuel Beckett and Anton Chekhov can teach us about mortality. And why art and creativity matters – not still, but especially – when death is at the door.
“The uncertainty he’s been living with, now we all have it,” is how playwright and performer Daniel MacIvor, Brooks long-time collaborator and godfather to his two daughters, puts it.
Or as Brooks said the last time I could see him in person: “We all have this mortal disease called life. Mine’s a little more pressing.”
Brooks set the bar for what we currently consider the highest of excellence in theatre in Canada: In 2001, he was the very first winner of the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize for Theatre, an influential award that has only been given to seven others directors since. He was honoured for the combination of rigorous intelligence and all-encompassing conjuring of unsettling atmosphere found in, for instance, productions of his own plays such as 1997’s Insomnia (co-written with Guillermo Verdecchia) and the dark solo shows he’s regularly created with MacIvor since 1992’s House.
The approach and aesthetic Brooks developed through the Augusta Company (which he co-founded in 1989 with Don McKellar and the late Tracy Wright), da da kamera and Necessary Angel (which he ran from 2003 to 2012) has had tremendous influence on younger directors, and he’s mentored many artists who are now leading important theatres such as Chris Abraham (Crow’s Theatre) and Brendan Healy (Canadian Stage).
“I saw Insomnia when I was in first year in the acting program at York [University],” recalls Mengesha, who considers Brooks and playwright/director Djanet Sears as her two inspirations to switch to directing. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is what a director can do.’”
In shows such as Insomnia, which concerns a man kept awake due to his worries about the world to the point that life and dreams merge, Brooks has never been afraid to tackle the harder aspects of being alive and on the brink.
He has a particular affinity with that bleakest of stage poets, Beckett, whose work he’s regularly directed at Soulpepper.
Of course, Brooks would argue with a description of Beckett – and in fact he did in the first interview we had, in November, 2018, in a café overlooking the Don Valley Parkway.
“There’s a tremendous honesty to what he’s attempting to describe as a state of being,” the director said of the Nobel Prize-winning writer he considers his “teacher.” “Suffering is a part of life and the ability to analyze, celebrate, laugh about, aestheticize suffering is part of what art does.”
Brooks has been trying to bring a similar honesty to living with cancer. He doesn’t want to talk around it or pretend it isn’t there – and wants to set this example of openness particularly for his daughters, Emma, who is 27, and Kate, who is 22.
It didn’t take long for him to adopt this approach, either. He was nearing the end of a workshop with MacIvor in Guysborough, N.S., in July, 2018, when, feeling unusually exhausted, he finally went to see a doctor about a cough that had persisted for months.
On the two-hour drive to the Halifax airport, Brooks told MacIvor what the tests turned up. “As is often in these cases, he ending up comforting me, which is ridiculous,” MacIvor recalls.
When the two resumed work that fall in Toronto, the director started off the first session by delivering the following speech to their other collaborators:
“I have cancer. I have cancer. I have cancer.
"It’s reality. I’m not afraid of it.
“I may be making some dark jokes. We’ll see whether or not you want to make some dark jokes.”
In relating this to me the following month, I felt like Brooks was giving me the talk as well – directness that felt more generous than despairing.
Is it possible that spending so much of his life working on Beckett – Godot: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more” – had prepared him for cancer?
He paused and thought. “I think I was well prepared.”
Watching his earlier work, I had him pegged as a pessimist who viewed life through a lens darkly – and there was a prickliness to him in person.
I asked Frank Cox-O’Connell, a mentee of Brooks who was hired to work alongside him on The Seagull and take over as director in case his health failed, if cancer had changed the director.
“I think you’re correct in saying that there’s a darkness to his work and, at first blush, I think there is a darkness to his personality,” Cox-O’Connell told me. “But there’s always been – and it took me a while to really get to know him – such a kindness and such love and such an excitement for life, and desire for the people around him to have an excitement for life.
“I don’t feel that there’s something about him that has changed at his core; I think he’s more eager to let people in."
In early March of this year, I went to visit Brooks in his Toronto co-op building near the Wychwood Barns to talk about his then-forthcoming, now-in-limbo production of The Seagull.
It was already a time of not shaking hands – especially since Brooks is immunocompromised – and we greeted each other with a kind of semi-bow. By end of week, Soulpepper would be shut down – and now is until August at least.
Since we had last met, Brooks had premiered a new play and two productions – his panic-inducing direction of Christopher Morris’s The Runner winning him another Dora Award for his collection. He had also had two targeted cancer therapies work, then fail, and, after a period he thought might be his final decline, started chemotherapy.
The chemo had pulled him back and, along with a deepened regime of daily meditation, had allowed him to conduct rehearsal The Seagull without relying on Cox-O’Connell. He proudly pulled out a print-out that showed his lungs: before, filled with inflammation and fluid; after, “like a delicious piece of meat.”
That day’s conversation was about Brooks’s other “teacher,” Chekhov – the Russian playwright who, aside from also walking the line between tragedy and comedy, you might consider the polar opposite of Beckett. The former is almost synonymous with realism and naturalism in the theatre, while the latter rejected all that for abstract or symbolic stage worlds.
Brooks, of course, disagrees – and did so in his usual engaging but not easily synthesizable way.
Beckett’s characters are very real, he said, while Chekhov was conscious of the artifice of what he was writing. “They’re also both very conscious, in a different way, of the mystical presence of the actor and the audience,” he added, “the irreducible fact of presence.” (There’s a phrase I think of every day of social distancing.)
The Seagull, the first of Chekhov’s final four great plays, centres on artists from two generations: The famed actress Irina Arkadina and her lover, the womanizing writer Boris Trigorin; Irina’s son, the brooding young playwright-director Konstantin, and the woman he is in love with, Nina, a young would-be actress from a nearby estate who falls for Trigorin instead.
After first approaching The Seagull as a play about theatre and performance of self, Brooks began to see it and work on it as being primarily about Nina and Konstantin and “the struggle between life force/creativity and death/destruction” in them.
Is that really at the heart of Chekhov’s play – or is it in how Brooks looks at it from the perspective of a man dealing with that struggle himself?
In discussing and dissecting The Seagull with his collaborators at Soulpepper, Brooks found essential queries: "What kind of work am I doing? Should I be doing something else?
“What’s an extra year? What does that look like? What does that feel like? What’s the measurement of enough time?”
With the time he has left, and he hopes the chemo will give him more years, Brooks would like to travel again perhaps take a solo road trip through the American South.
But he will continue to work as best he can – he wouldn’t mind directing King Lear; and he’s writing something in isolation, possibly to perform himself, called The Perfect Human.
“Working on Chekhov makes me want to work,” Brooks said. “And it’s how I contribute to the world.”
Theatre artists are asking a lot of existential questions in this pandemic that makes it impossible to play with “the irreducible fact of presence.” Why theatre? Why art? Why anything?
But, in a way, it is simple, or at least it felt so in the moment, talking with Brooks, listening as his mind circled and clarified, circled and deepened.
“It sometimes can be difficult to think that there’s any creativity left, that there’s any more creation in life. But that’s what life is. Without a creative force, there’s nothing to live for.”
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