Daniel Brooks is trying something new.
While he’s worked in many capacities in his storied four-decade career in theatre — as director, writer, actor, artistic director and teacher — he’s never before performed an autobiographical one-man show.
Yet it’s a form he knows well. Brooks directed his friend Daniel MacIvor in a number of acclaimed solo shows including “House” and “Here Lies Henry.”
But this is the first time he faces an audience front, centre and alone.
The subject matter of the show is also singular: it’s about Brooks’ experience of being diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer in 2018 and about a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat he took eight months later.
“It’s a lot of ideas, a lot of words, it’s very personal,” said Brooks. “It’s not like coming back to something. That aspect of it feels good.”
The show’s title, “Other People,” hints at some of its self-revelation and humour. The point of the meditation is to go deeply inside oneself: you sit, you breathe, you work to free yourself of negative emotions and ego. But, at least initially, the focus of the show is the others on the retreat; he forms opinions of them and gives them funny names: Jason the Handsome, Fast Walker, Red Crocs, Death Waits.
You’re also not supposed to write on the retreat, but Brooks snuck in a pen.
“We’re such strange, funny, self-contradictory, ridiculous creatures with certain impassioned beliefs that immediately collapse at any sign of trouble and then re-emerge,” Brooks said when asked about the humour in the piece. “We’re all really quite insane.”
MacIvor is serving as Brooks’ dramaturge on this show and his presence has loomed large throughout. “How could he not be at the beginning of a process of me doing a one-man show? He’s embedded in my whole sense of what a one-man show is,” said Brooks.
MacIvor has also been there from the beginning of Brooks’ experience of cancer: It was while working on MacIvor’s last solo show, “Let’s Run Away” at Canadian Stage, that Brooks received his diagnosis.
“Other People” is happening at Canadian Stage, too: Brooks sent the script around to a number of artistic directors about a year ago and Canadian Stage’s Brendan Healy “was immediately interested in doing it,” said Brooks. That Healy responded quickly and signed on to direct the show was important: “There’s time pressure,” said Brooks. “I didn’t want to wait till next year because I don’t know if I’ll be here.”
Brooks’ health is currently stable. He doesn’t like to talk in terms of life expectancy. “I think about it very much as living as opposed to dying and so, how long it is, I don’t want to get caught up in that kind of thinking.”
In between the meditation retreat and this show about it, COVID-19 happened. While acknowledging the devastation the pandemic has caused, Brooks also said that it was for him “a pleasant disruption. I enjoyed the world slowing down … I also felt very prepared because I had experienced a terminal diagnosis and I had been practised already at processing change of that nature and of that magnitude.”
Working on this show was a big part of his pandemic experience and part of his experience of living with cancer: “The way that I process things and express myself is through this art form.”
At the end of my questions, I asked Brooks if there was anything he wanted to add and he hesitated at first. “I’m a little wary of how the words will come out,” he said.
“There’s a reason I wanted to do the piece. That was because I felt that I had the good fortune to spend a life in the arts, and I’ve been exposed to such beautiful art through literature and theatre and film and music. My work gives me the privilege of spending lots of time with works that have taught me a lot. And I have time to think and I have time to grow in some ways … it has also been a tremendous gift to discover meditation.”
His stepmother died of cancer at 49, and he didn’t feel able to sit with her and hold her hand at the end. “I wasn’t ready for how simple it is and how little you have to do. You just have to be present to it,” he said. “I just wanted to offer something of what I’d learned. It’s not in any overt way in the script. It’s in the totality of it that I hope to offer people a way with more openness and courage to face these moments of life.”
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