An Intimate Pursuit: Daniel Brooks on a Life in Theatre

Kirk Sibbald
Magazine Section: 

He’s widely considered one of the most innovative, respected and fearless figures in Canadian theatrical circles, but make no mistake about it—Daniel Brooks doesn’t care what you think.

Pensive and measured, Brooks chooses his words in much the same way he has chosen what to work on over the past three-plus decades in Toronto’s theatre scene. He claims to have never taken on a project simply for the exposure or paycheque it may garner, and the only critic he’s worried about appeasing is himself.

“As an artist you can’t get caught up in those things,” he says. “I have been very selective, and for the most part have directed plays that weren’t really plays to me. They spoke to me in a way that got under my skin somehow.”

Brooks and I spoke over the phone a few weeks before he settled into his residency as University College’s (UC) Barker Fairley Distinguished Visitor in Canadian Studies. Considering he will spend much of his time at UC meeting with students—critiquing work and mapping creative passions—I ask what advice he would give to students looking to establish a career in theatre.

It quickly becomes clear, however, that Brooks doesn’t subscribe to having career-oriented motivations when entering the arts.  

“The question I would ask young people is ‘Why are you thinking about a career right now?’ Careers will come, but if you’re focussed on that you’re not focussed on building your capacity as an artist,” he says. “Not to say they’re mutually exclusive, and the career will definitely come in time. … (But) it’s dangerous to get too distracted by the practicalities of career.”

When looking back on Brooks’ professional credits, perhaps this answer should come as little surprise. Many of the productions for which he is most well-known—including the Noam Chomsky Lectures, Here Lies Henry and Insomnia—were original works that he co-created and often self or co-produced. He has often rejected the advances of big theatre companies to focus instead on collaborating with luminaries such as Daniel MacIvor and Guillermo Verdecchia on independent ventures.

He is, essentially, picky, and points out there are many others who have directed “infinitely more” plays than he has. Brooks speaks of theatre in an almost existential way, and admits the few plays by others he has agreed to direct have been his least fulfilling endeavours.

“There is something about creating something, as opposed to directing the work of another writer, that is the most rewarding,” he says. “Somehow manifesting something coherent and impactful out of your own sweat and blood, that is the most satisfying.”

It would be easy to picture Brooks as a precocious youngster who grew up on Shakespeare and starred in high school drama productions. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

“Theatre was not something that was part of my childhood, at least not fitfully,” he said. “I was an athlete, a hockey player, and I was very interested in biology and math.”

In fact, Brooks originally enrolled in sciences at the U of T with an eye on medical school. But after finishing one year of studies he took some time off to travel, write, and essentially “figure out how to live and what I wanted to do as a human being in the world.”

After returning home, one of Brooks’ friends introduced him to Professor Stephen Martineau, who was head of UC’s drama program. He enrolled shortly thereafter.

“I don’t want to call him a hippie, because he was a serious guy. But he wore drawstring pants, had a long beard, long hair, and meetings with him most often involved sitting on the floor,” recalled Brooks. “He taught me tai chi and introduced me to works by people like (Jerzy) Grotowski and Peter Brook.”

Although theatre was never something Brooks had previously considered pursuing, he experienced a unique sense of belonging shortly after meeting Martineau and enrolling in the UC program. Looking back he sees the program filled a void for him not only academically, but personally as well.

“I think that’s the case with a lot of people who fall into the theatre; it’s kind of a surrogate family,” said Brooks. “It’s an extremely intimate pursuit, and I think there is a certain need that life in theatre fills for some people. That was certainly an unconscious attraction for me when I was a young man.”

After graduating from UC, Brooks enrolled at the Circle in the Square Theatre School in New York, then travelled overseas to study clown in Paris and, later, puppetry in Brazil. Throughout these years he would come up with “little shows and inventions” to support himself financially.

Although he acted in various productions—both in Toronto and abroad—he was finding the life of an actor increasingly unappealing and instead found himself drawn to producing and directing. In the late 1980s he started The Augusta Company with University College drama program alumnus Don McKellar and Tracy Wright, and the trio created a series of shows over the following decade. 

By 2001, Brooks’ many works were so well respected that he was chosen as the inaugural recipient of the highly prestigious Siminovitch Prize in Theatre. While he’s never been one to chase paycheques or awards, Brooks concedes that winning this $100,000 prize was gratifying in more ways than one.

“It almost felt like back pay, and it lifted a bit of weight off my shoulders. I stopped worrying about money for a few years,” he said.

Because the Siminovitch Prize recognizes a body of work, he said receiving it was particularly rewarding when compared to some others he has received—such as the Chalmers, Edinburgh Fringe First Award, and Dora Mavor Moore Award—that are bestowed based on one’s work in a single production.

When asked what he’s most looking forward to during his UC residency, says he’s excited to once again immerse himself in an environment of academic rigour and ponder some more existential questions related to the art of theatre. While he contemplated many of these same questions early in his theatrical life, Brooks says the scope of such queries have expanded significantly today.

“There are so many young people doing so many different things,” he says. As examples he points to Rebecca Northan, whose improv shows feature an actress picking someone, at random, from the audience for an unscripted blind date. Or Real Wheels in Vancouver, whose performances often centre around persons with disabilities.  

“When I was a student, Canadian theatre culture was not very sophisticated. We weren’t working with the aesthetics of theatre and there wasn’t a lot of experimentation. Today there are an increasing number of directors who have, at the very least, a kind of technical skill that didn’t really exist in the theatre world 20 years ago.”

And while he won’t be teaching anyone tai chi or requiring students who visit him to sit on the floor for meetings, Brooks does hope he can impart some of the same inspiration that he received from Professor Martineau at UC nearly four decades ago.

“For me, the ability to establish a respectful and engaged relationship between a young, aspiring human who’s beginning to open themselves to the world, and an experienced artist, is really the core of everything.”