In this issue of CS Grid, Topdog/Underdog Dramaturge Jordan Laffrenier touches on the relationship between brothers Booth and Lincoln and how their stories echo the realities of many. Jordan also offers insight on acclaimed playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and what she has said about plays’ ability to rewrite history while navigating between theatre and real life.
…if you outlive me, after I die, please don’t say he valiantly fought cancer. I didn’t fight cancer, it was not a battle, it was a love affair. I danced with cancer.– Other People, Daniel Brooks
Canada has lost one of its greatest directors. Daniel Brooks passed away after a lengthy, art-filled, love-filled dance with a terminal disease. Throughout his extraordinary career, Daniel revolutionized Canadian theatre through his artistry and vision. He created numerous seminal productions, many of which happened at Canadian Stage.
Most recently, he wrote and performed Other People as part of our 21/22 season. Our Artistic Director, Brendan Healy, directed the production alongside dramaturge Daniel MacIvor, Daniel’s long-time collaborator and friend.
When Other People was published, Daniel asked Brendan to write the foreword. We have included it here a tribute to the intimate gifts of mentorship, inspiration, and love that Brooks generously gave to Brendan and countless other Canadian theatre-makers.
Foreword to Other People
By Brendan Healy
I’m 26 years old. I’m in the basement of a church on Dufferin Street in Toronto, rehearsing a play that I’ve written. I’m also directing and performing in it. The project is part of my studies at the National Theatre School. My mentor on the project is Daniel Brooks. I had never met him before this rehearsal. The folks at NTS had asked me who my dream mentor would be, and I said Daniel Brooks – never thinking that it would happen. And now here he is.
I feel nothing other than total embarrassment. Daniel watches me as I fumble my way through an unnecessarily personal piece, laden with the kind of angst that is perhaps to be expected from a 26-year-old theatre student. At a certain moment in the piece, I am supposed to break out into a dance to Public Enemy’s Fight The Power that is inspired Rosie Perez’ iconic dance at the top of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Looking back, this dance was perhaps a problematic choice on my part. But, in my defense, the moment was intended to make me look pathetic. I am not a dancer. I am nowhere close to being a dancer. And I am evidently a long way from Public Enemy’s ethos, despite my love for them.
The cue begins and the song’s harsh beat booms. Chuck D urges: “Music hitting your heart 'cause I know you got soul.” It’s time to dance. I ask myself: can I actually do this in front of Daniel fucking Brooks?
I dance. I try to channel Perez’ power, and anger. At best, my dance is muscular. It is athletic. It is also awkward. It is silly. But it’s cathartic. For me, at least. I feel fierce. I feel fully myself.
From the corner of my eye, I see Daniel. He, too, is dancing. And he is picking up some of my moves as he sweeps across the floor. I think: I like this guy.
Flash forward 20 years, I am sitting in rehearsal with Daniel again and, this time, it is he who is dancing in front of me. The music is from Stereolab and the context is Other People. I am too shy to dance with him.
The play’s journey to me and to Canadian Stage began in the first summer of the pandemic. I receive an email from Daniel. Not Daniel Brooks. It’s from his long-time collaborator and friend, Daniel MacIvor.
“I'm writing to put you two together because Brooks has a good idea and I want to make sure he acts on it. He has some wonderful notions around a thing called The Perfect Human which sounds like a conversation with oneself about meditation and creativity and existence and cancer and mortality and suffering and joy. It feels like it could be a weekly thing, a podcast-y thing. I know you're open to new content Brendan and I was thinking you two might be able to work up something.
Love to you both,
I respond. Brooks and I have a chat. There’s talk of sharing some writing.
And then a year goes by with nothing.
It’s the second summer of the pandemic when I receive a draft of what is now a play. I dive in.
The draft is dizzying; like being caught in a spiral.
As I make my way through it, I ask myself several times: didn’t I just read this section? Gertrude Stein pops into my mind. Yes, Stein’s desire to capture process: the mental process, the experience of consciousness, the infamous “continuous present.” I wonder if is this the meditator’s state of being.
I go back to reading the play.
It’s not easy.
I reread the same paragraph three times while I think of Alen Ginsberg for some reason. Wasn’t he a meditator? Or a Buddhist? Or both? I put the play down and pick up his Collected Works. I love this piece of writing: Well while I’m here I’ll do the work – and what’s the Work? To ease the pain of living. Everything else, drunken dumbshow.
Get back to the play, Brendan.
I’m 33 years old. I’m sitting in a doctor’s office at the cancer hospital (aka Princess Margaret) in Toronto. I recently had my left testicle removed because I found a bump and it has been confirmed that the growth was cancerous. Thankfully, though, it was caught early. The doctor has just told me that my scans are clear and that I won’t be needing further treatment. The doctor leaves. I breathe a sigh of relief.
Before I can leave to the tiny room, a volunteer must administer a survey to find out how satisfied I’ve been with my experience at the hospital. At that moment, cancer-free me is very fucking satisfied with his experience at the hospital. Suddenly, a nurse bursts into the room and orders the volunteer to exit. She informs me that the doctor had been looking at the wrong chart. She tells me that, in fact, my cancer has spread and that I’ll be needing further treatment. She then tells me to wait for the doctor to return to get more details.
“Is it serious?” I ask.
“I think so,” she replies.
She closes the door behind her.
For forty-five excruciating minutes.
I’m no longer a cancer-free me.
When the doctor returns, the first thing he says is: “Well, isn’t this a kick in the pants.”
We never talk about cancer. As a society, I mean. We are so uncomfortable with public displays of dis-ease.
But then there is Daniel Brooks. Across the spectrum of works that Daniel has created, there is a rigorous commitment to revealing the fullness of the human experience. His observation and appreciation of the inner and outer details that give shape to our lives is, in part, what gives his theatre its vitality, complexity, and power. So, it is no surprise that Daniel is living his cancer with that same curiosity and dedication. It is the mark of a true artist.
As I make my way through the draft, I am often jolted by its naked humanity. It’s humanity at its most comedic and tragic. My experience with cancer was completely dehumanizing. I was reduced to being a patient, a cancer victim. I became only my body – my sick body that needed to be cut, poked, touched, infused, tested, monitored, evaluated, invaded.
I continue to read the draft and I find myself crying – not out of pity for Daniel – but because the play returns to me something that cancer took away. Is this what dignity feels like? It’s a difficult concept to understand until it is taken away. And when you feel it return, the concept becomes even clearer. Yes. That’s what I love about Daniel’s work. His art delivers dignity.
I reach the end of the draft and I am in love with it.
It’s a few months after that doctor’s visit. I am making my way through treatment. It’s tough. I feel weak and depressed and alone. To make things more emotionally challenging, I’m also mourning the loss of my father who recently died from a brain tumor. Father/son cancer combo. At times, it’s too much to handle and I am overcome with grief too heavy to carry.
I get a package in the mail. There is no return address. Inside is a book. No card. No note inscribed. Just a book. It’s Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
My first reaction to this gift is to get pissed off, which is often the case when I’m confused. Why would someone send me a book from someone who survived Auschwitz!? And, then, not even tell me who they are? Is this some kind of joke?
I leave it on my desk. Months go by. I make it through my treatment. I am finally clear of cancer. It’s cancer-free me again. But I’m not the same me that I was prior to cancer. That me is gone.
One day, I am cleaning off my desk and I pick up the book. I initially intend to leaf through it but I end up reading the whole thing right there. I am so moved by its message of hope, resilience, personal responsibility, inner freedom. Frankl’s profound appreciation of beauty and art and nature speaks to me deeply. To my bones.
I regret not reading it when it landed in my mailbox. It was just what I needed.
Maybe I wasn’t ready to receive it then.
I return to the question of who sent it to me. Immediately, I decide that it must have been Daniel Brooks. I just decide that it is him.
I think Other People has three stories. Or tracks. Or are they characters?
There is Daniel’s body: a body dealing with age, dealing with cancer, dealing with the experience of 10 days of endless meditation.
There is Daniel’s mind. A great mind. A learned mind. A curious mind. A mind that is currently preoccupied with his mortality. A mind he is trying to overcome.
And there is Daniel’s – oh gosh can I say this? – spirit. I wish I had another word. The word ‘spirit’ not as in ‘soul’. But ‘spirit’ as in that ineffable lifeforce, that vitality, that thing that animates us. I see Daniel’s spirit expressed in the other people in this play: his fellow meditators, his daughters, the mysterious “her” that eludes him, Robert Lepage, his best friend, his parents, and us – the audience – who are bearing witness to this event. They/we drive him, torture him, inspire him, push him, restrain him. And, as the practice of mett?-bh?van? (the meditation of loving-kindness) in vipassana suggests, it is these other people (even you, dear reader) who ultimately provide him with a pathway to liberation.
We witness them; they witness us. We define them; they define us. We create and destroy them. They create and destroy us.
I’m now 47 and I have yet to ask Daniel if he was the one who sent me Frankl’s book. Maybe it’s because I don’t really want to know if it was him. Ever since I read the book, I’ve treated Daniel like he is the one who gave me that extraordinary gift. I like treating him that way. It makes him very special to me. And I, special, to him.
Brendan Healy, Toronto, June 2022.