Canadian theater duo returns to Spoleto and makes a confession

Daniel MacIvor in 'This Is What Happens Next,' in its U.S. premiere at Spoleto Festival USA.

Confessional theater is a growth industry.

In an age saturated with reality TV stars eagerly divulging the most intimate details of their lives, performers from Carrie Fisher to Elaine Stritch have taken to stages to turn their personal problems and histories into entertainment.

Daniel MacIvor, an acclaimed Canadian playwright, performer and screenwriter, has plumbed this kind of territory for years in a variety of one-man shows, one of which, "Cul de Sac," played Spoleto in 2003. But MacIvor plays the confessional card in special ways. He's in Charleston to unveil "This Is What Happens Next," a searing and seriocomic show that debuted in Canada in April but is making its U.S. premiere at Spoleto Festival USA. In it, MacIvor uses fictionalized figures to illuminate factual truths of his own experiences.

"It's 'Me', " said MacIvor of the person we first see in the show. "But there's a slight distancing effect by calling it 'Me.' "

And that hall-of-mirrors refraction begins to expand as MacIvor becomes a gallery of characters, many of whom are de facto surrogates. One is Warren, a man who -- like MacIvor -- happens to have recently gotten divorced from an unfaithful partner of some years, and has been devastated by the split. Another is a lawyer, Susan, who doesn't much care for her two daughters and loves to swill gin. Alcohol is familiar ground in MacIvor's onstage world, which seems to stem from his well-documented experiences in childhood with heavy-drinking family members.

In Canada, where MacIvor is a well-known celebrity, his shows create guessing games about what's strictly autobiographical and what's not. So does an American audience need a MacIvor-fact-sheet scorecard to follow what happens in "What Happens Next?"

Absolutely not, says director Daniel Brooks, a longtime collaborator. "The show definitely changes when you don't know (MacIvor). But we believe there are fundamental universalities to the text."

Addiction, loneliness, the difficulty of connection -- all these ideas and more have been illuminated in the six one-man shows MacIvor and Brooks have crafted together to date. And in a sense, they were creative combatants even before their first joint venture: In 1989, before he'd ever met Brooks, MacIvor got it in his head that a show Brooks mounted in Canada was an attack on another, earlier show MacIvor had staged.

"To this day," Brooks said with a sly inflection, "there remains some contention over whether we were satirizing (MacIvor's) play or not. I maintain we were not. And I am telling the truth."

Fat chance, retorts MacIvor with a laugh -- but this is old ground. The point was that after the two initially met to talk out their issue, MacIvor wound up asking Brooks to be his director -- and a lasting partnership was born.

The two men have had tremendous success as creative partners. Said MacIvor of Brooks, "He lets me be prickly, 'cause I guess I need to be. And our shorthand has become even shorter over the years."

The duo has garnered awards and critical accolades in Canada, the U.S. and abroad, both separately and together. "What Happens Next" is their first joint effort since 2003 -- at which point MacIvor had actually declared he was through with the one-man form, because he felt he was cannibalizing his own life too much for the sake of his art. Now that has changed again.

"It's not some kind of therapy for me," said MacIvor of his unique brand of self-examination. "It's more a sense of spiritual nourishment. I tell these stories based on some very personal truths, and they strike audiences as familiar."

Nigel Smith is a Goldring Arts Journalism writer. Reach him at Nmsmit02@syr.edu.

Previous versions of this story contained an incorrect e-mail address for Nigel Smith.