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Playwright Daniel MacIvor found inspiration in canine companion

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About five years ago, one of Canada's pre-eminent playwrights, Daniel MacIvor, adopted a dog as part of his ongoing personal development.

His thinking was that man's best friend might foster some selflessness, a consciousness that there was more to care for in the world than himself. That's how Buddy, an Italian greyhound, came into MacIvor's life in his mid-40s.

"Early on, I thought I had made the worst mistake of my life," MacIvor recalls over the telephone from Toronto, where he was performing in The Best Brothers, the sibling-rivalry comedy that opens Oct. 17 at Prairie Theatre Exchange with the local cast of Carson Nattrass and Paul Essiembre.

"You start to believe there is a malevolent force in the universe and the dog is the tool of that malevolence."

During that period, the author of such plays as Marion Bridge, Never Swim Alone and Bingo was working with his dramaturge, Iris Turcotte, and every day brought her new horror stories about Buddy's maddening behaviour. The dog ate his sofa. When Buddy was taken for a long midnight walk, he wouldn't pee until he got back inside MacIvor's 25th floor apartment -- and then went on the floor. Then there was time he arrived at the doggie daycare to discover a big sign on the bulletin board that screamed, "Buddy is a poo-eater," much to MacIvor's mortification.

The Nova Scotia-born dramatist later took a meeting with Stratford Festival officials; when he was asked if he had any plays for them, he replied that he didn't. When MacIvor mentioned the confab with Turcotte, she said that he did in fact have a promising idea: the dog play. He was perplexed until Turcotte produced a file folder of all his Buddy stories, which she had recorded.

Those bad dog tales became the inspiration for The Best Brothers, a story about sibling opposites who must deal with the bizarre sudden death of their mother. She bequeaths her mutt to one brother, but it's the other one who wants it.

The 2006 Governor General's Award winner for drama wrote the play with the idea of performing it with fellow Nova Scotia actor John Beale at Stratford in 2012 like some latter-day Wayne and Shuster comedy team.

In his mind, MacIvor would play Kyle Best, the whimsical real estate agent, and not the straight-laced architect Hamilton Best.

It wasn't long into the first workshop that a switch was necessary, as it became clear the playwright was viewed by everyone else as better suited to portray the tightly wound structuralist.

"Some actors have to work harder to access their anger," says MacIvor, the winner of the 2008 Siminovitch Prize in theatre "Some have it nearby. I unfortunately access my anger easily."

The Best Brothers also grew out of his family history. MacIvor has two brothers who both worked for the same corporation. One was in management and the other high up in the union, so they often found themselves at odds.

"At our dinner table they were brothers, but out in the world they were mortal enemies," says MacIvor, currently Tarragon's playwright-in-residence "It was something that was always in my head -- the brother tension. I guess I'm kind of both."

In recent years, he has developed a close relationship with PTE, which has staged four of his plays since 2006. The theatre has commissioned another called Small Things, which looks at the urban/rural divide through the odd relationship between a well-off city woman who moves to the country and the home-care worker she hires.

MacIvor currently lives in the woods of Nova Scotia with Buddy, whom he now credits with having done great things to benefit his life. He discovered having a dog is a great way to meet people, especially for a shy person like himself.

"When you have a dog and go out in the world, the dog is the buffer," he says. "People come to talk to Buddy and then to me. I've become more comfortable out in the regular world."

It is a common experience he inserted into The Best Brothers -- that often you can get a quick, revealing glimpse of people by how their dog behaves. He says, you might not know their name or their profession but that doesn't mean you won't develop a fondness for them based on how their dog interacts with yours.

Sadly, for dog-loving PTE patrons there is no four-legged friend appearing onstage in The Best Brothers. There is some truth, MacIvor discovered, to the old theatre adage that one should never work with animals or children.

"It's a cliché, but it is true," says MacIvor. "We tried it at Stratford because I had my dog with me. Once the dog came onstage and then left, there was no way to continue acting afterwards.

"The dog brings this guileless, genuine presence and that makes your acting look so ridiculous. The dog made us look bad, so we cut the dog."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 17, 2013 C1


Updated on Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 6:52 AM CDT: Replaces photo, changes headline

6:55 AM: adds video

8:44 AM: Corrects spelling of MacIvor

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