By Adam Corrigan Holowitz, Jan. 22, 2020
Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe’s “Every Brilliant Thing” is a play that seems to be being performed in virtually every corner of the country at the moment. I am hard-pressed to think of another play at this time receiving so many different productions. London Ontario is currently being treated to Liza Balkan’s new production of the play, featuring Canadian improvising great Rebecca Northan, at the Grand Theatre until February 8th.
There is good reason for the play’s current popularity. It is a life-affirming comedy in the face of modern anxieties. Many stories make the case for the beauty of life, from Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” to Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but there is a value of hearing this message re-examined in a contemporary voice and context.
In “Everything Brilliant Thing” an individual tells the story of a list they created of everything that makes life brilliant (i.e. worth living). They first created the list as a child, to try and convince their mother not to commit suicide. Later on they continued the list as a source of support throughout their own life, as they face their own struggles. “Every Brilliant Thing” reminds me of another presently popular play, Will Eno’s “Middletown.” which is also an open hearted, if more sarcastic, meditation on life, death and suicide.
Both these plays deal with our current awareness of mental health in very honest ways, combined with a sense of optimism. It is a novel and necessary way of addressing mental health in theatre.
The other main reason “Every Brilliant Thing” is resonating so much at the moment is the participation from the audience. The performer asks the audience for help in telling the story from reading entries in the list of brilliant things to standing in as characters in the story. This aspect of the play feeds a desire for inter-personal connection that so many people crave in an isolated world. What I think is remarkable about this play is that the audience feels invested and safe to play in this experience.
I will back up this claim with a personal experience. I saw the Canadian premiere of “Every Brilliant Thing” in 2018 at Canadian Stage. That production was directed by Brendan Healy and performed by Kristen Thomson. At the performance I attended I was asked to participate in a fairly significant way in the show.
Now there is something about my personality, or it may be the fact that I also work in theatre, but I always try to avoid audience participation. But with this experience, I felt totally comfortable. I liken the experience to that of working in a rehearsal hall; the whole audience is participating in a theatre exercise. The audience is not expected to perform.
Now this is a totally different production at the Grand, but it is also headed up by an ace team of theatre makers, so I am sure the experience will be just as wonderful for the participatory audience. Beyond that, I think it speaks to the structural strength of the play, that participation is not a gimmick, but rather an integral part of the dramaturgy of the piece. This is not a solo play, it is a communal play, led by a solo performer, and in the Grand’s production the audience has a remarkable leader to be sure, with Rebecca Northan.
Every Brilliant Thing
Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe
The Grand Theatre
Jan. 21 – Feb. 8,
Details and Tickets Online
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