Playwright Daniel MacIvor likes to tell a story about his long-time friend and collaborator, actress Caroline Gillis: Back at the beginning of their careers, in the 1980s, he promised her that if she moved from Halifax to Toronto, he would write a play for her. She said, okay, but it had to be a one-woman show.
Gillis likes to correct the story: She never insisted that it be a one-woman show. On the contrary, she was horrified when MacIvor burst into the Toronto restaurant where she had spent a year dishwashing and waiting tables, and told her that the new play was a monologue.
"She's probably right, but I like my story," MacIvor says.
His impish fabrication, her down-to-earth correction, these seem typical of their personalities – he's gay and spritely; she's straight and earthy – and their unusual artistic relationship.
"He's 90 miles an hour and I go by the speed limit," Gillis says. "He pushes me and challenges me in ways I might be reticent to do myself, but he knows I can deliver."
Solid, fleshy, gap-toothed and now middle-aged, Gillis may appear an unlikely muse, and yet MacIvor has written role after role for her, more than six in total. That first one was a deceptively tough young runaway named Bob in See Bob Run, the poignant child-abuse memoir that launched MacIvor's career in 1987; the most recent is an embittered middle-aged woman in Was Spring, a three-woman show also starring veteran Clare Coulter and newcomer Jessica Moss and opening at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre on April 4.
"[Caroline]is so human and that is the way I feel about my plays," MacIvor says, contrasting his scripts to the archetypal well-made play. "There is something imperfect about my plays; they are flawed. There is always something off, and that is our way in and that is her: There is a human being."
The pair grew up a block or two away from each other in Sydney, N.S., where their families attended the same church, but they never spoke until they had both left Cape Breton and met in the theatre program at Dalhousie University. They quickly became firm friends, with Gillis stage managing the first play MacIvor wrote at Dalhousie. After she reluctantly left her musician boyfriend behind in Halifax to make the move to Toronto, she and MacIvor became constant collaborators, sometime roommates and partners in crime: As starving artists, they would sometimes skip the show and just attend the opening-night party for the free food and drink.
"It was those days that don't seem to exist any more. We all lived together and worked together and weren't so focused on our careers," MacIvor says, adding that "Caroline and I are very different, but there is something about being from an island, the same socio-economic background, raised Catholic. She understands me. ... It goes beyond sibling or partner."
Bob in See Bob Run also had a musician boyfriend and Gillis, who still works as a cook and painter to make ends meet, sees something of herself in the lovable failure she played in A Beautiful View, but she speculates that MacIvor is increasingly not inspired by anything in her biography or personality.
"Earlier, he drew somewhat from my personality ... but in the last few shows it feels like I am playing out his journey. He writes female characters amazingly; I think it's a way of working through things in his own life, but stepping away from it. I feel really grateful that I can embody that for him."
What is it she embodies?
"The kind of character Caroline plays is a person with a large heart, but sometimes the size of that heart makes it heavy," MacIvor answers. "There is this sense of joy and love, but there is a weight and an edge. She carries something. ... She can access darkness without being dark."
She will certainly be doing that in Was Spring , a mysterious play that brings together three women of three different generations – perhaps they are a grandmother, mother and granddaughter – to discuss their traumatic past. Gillis's challenge as the middle one, Kath, is to make her bitter character bitchy without annoying the audience. In preview performances, she increasingly has tried to find the reason behind the bitterness, but MacIvor is not looking for the perfect performance. Rather, he is looking for Gillis to join him once again on the quest.
"It really isn't about answers, it's about questions," he says. "I always feel she is working towards it; she never says, 'I got it!' There is always something more."