If you live a full life and you get to the end of it without ever once feeling crushingly depressed, than you probably haven’t been paying attention.
–Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan
I first came across Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing about a year ago. I had ordered a bundle of Macmillan’s plays in order to receive the script for his new show People, Places and Things, which I had seen while studying abroad in London. When the package arrived, I really didn’t care all that much for reading the other plays that came with it; I was fixated on People, Places and Things and I’d been foaming at the mouth to finally have my own copy of it.
I didn’t pick up Every Brilliant Thing until many months later. I was tearing through my bookshelf trying to find material for my thesis when I came across it again. I had no clue what it was about, I hadn’t even opened the front cover to see if there was a part I could feasibly play, but nevertheless, I put it in my backpack and brought it with me to the library in the hopes that there would be something for me to use.
When I tell you that you could come up to me in fifty years and ask me where I was when I first read this play, I could happily guide you to a table in the outdoor section of Mugar in between the windows of CityCo and adjacent to the stairs leading to the Esplanade. Never before had I closed the last page of a script and felt the way I did when I put down Every Brilliant Thing. I just remember saying over and over again to myself, “I must have wrote this….I must have wrote this….Did I write this play and forget….? Am I actually Duncan Macmillan….?” Okay so obviously I would never confuse myself with the brilliance that is Macmillan’s writing, but the vulnerability I felt after reading his play is what left me feeling so exposed. It felt like I was reading a love letter to myself; one that I hadn’t realized I’d needed (yes I know how cheesy that sounds).
Macmillan’s funny, honest, and clever play is truly an invitation for the audience to feel comfortable engaging in a difficult conversation about suicide and depression. It’s a combination of a one-man-show, a stand-up routine, and an improv experiment. The “narrator,” originally conceived and played by co-writer Johnny Donahue, sets up a story in which a little boy finds out his mom has tried to take her own life and thus makes it his life mission to write a list of everything that is brilliant about the world (spoiler: he gets to 1 million by the end of the play).
The way in which the story is told is what brings the list to life. The narrator goes back and forth between relaying his story as the little boy to the audience, and actually pulling people up on stage with him to stand-in for other characters. For example, there is one moment in which the narrator speaks of the time his father picked him up early from school to drive him to the hospital where his mom had been taken after an attempted suicide. At this point the narrator brings someone from the audience on stage with him to fill in for the little boy, while the narrator assumes the role as the father. The only prompt the audience member is given is to respond to everything the father tries to explain to him with the word “Why?”
And not only do audience members become real characters in the story, but they also become numbers of the “list” as well. In the stage directions, it states that whoever is playing the narrator should be walking and talking among the audience members in the lobby before the show starts. As the house opens, he or she can still be engaging with the audience, and at this point should begin to hand random people slips of paper that are actually pieces of the list. Everyone holds these pieces of paper during the show until the narrator calls out that persons number, at which point the person in the audience will respond with the item on the list. One of my personal favorites is:
4,998 Falling asleep as soon as you get on a plane, waking up when you land feeling like a time-traveller.
I’m writing this post this week and going into so much detail about this play because every once in a while I remember how passionate I am about it. When I start talking about it I just can’t stop. There’s a recorded performance of it on HBO from when it ran in New York and I’ve watched it six times. It’s hard for me to remember anything else I’ve encountered in my life, theatre related or not, that I have ever felt so connected to and moved by on a consistent basis. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s good to remind myself what things are important to me and why. I didn’t even really explain why this play means what it does to me, but I’m okay with that. If you feel inclined to ask me, respond to this post and lets hang out at Pavement one day. (Pavement’s Allston Sunrise Sandwich is number 39 on my personal list of Brilliant Things in case you were wondering)