Every Brilliant Thing: A brighter outlook on mental illness
Thursday night, the Arthur Miller Theatre filled with students and Ann Arbor locals for the third show of “Every Brilliant Thing.”
The one-man show, starring Jonny Donahoe, was produced by Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company from London and presented by the University Musical Society from September 12th through 17th.
Based on both true and fictional events, the play was written by Duncan Macmillan and directed by George Perrin. Since its premier at Britain’s Ludlow Fringe Festival in 2014, the comedy was broadcast on HBO in December 2016 and has numerous international performances while on tour.
The hour-long show did something magical in the black box theatre. Following his mother’s suicide, the protagonist inventories all of the pleasurable things in life. Keeping track of “Every Brilliant Thing” reminds us of all the things worth living for.
“My intention was to make the funniest thing possible about the hardest things to talk about,” Donahoe said in an interview with the Daily. “We respond to humor in a way that opens us up — if you can get someone to laugh about something, it creates vulnerability which allows us to talk more freely and openly.”
The interactive show was immediately engaging. As the audience settled into their seats, the lead actor handed out slips of paper. He was dressed casually, and this ordinariness was perhaps what makes him relatable.
When he began, Donahoe directed the audience members to read off their slips, each person contributing to what becomes a part of the extensive list of things that are worthwhile for the protagonist — ice cream, people falling over, roller coasters and so on.
“I’ve never seen a show that incorporated the audience so much,” said SMTD freshman Nico Dangla. “This, for me, was a new form of theatre that I really haven’t been exposed to.”
Donahoe even had audience members play characters at times. He had people playing his professor, high school girlfriend and school counselor, who was even directed to remove her shoe and make a sock puppet. The protagonist invited the audience into his life in this way, disintegrating the fourth wall of the traditional performative experience.
“Theatre in the round is sitting in a circle and seeing everyone else’s face. The set of this play is not a big beautiful backdrop of New York City or Moscow or something, the set is watching other people,” Donahoe said. “As you watch me across the room, you can’t help but see 20 people laughing or crying or responding or emoting and that’s what the show is about — shared experience and shared emotion.”
Donahoe created a space that feels safe. He shifted from these comedic moments to the protagonist’s experience with his mother’s suicide and later, his own depression. The play didn’t sugar-coat the experience, but brought to light an honest story of sorrow.
“It’s inclusive, you see everyone, it’s alive, it’s happening in front of you, it exists in and of that moment —those things are inherently theatrical and are incredibly important when it comes to talking and sharing about mental health,” Donahoe said. “You can’t share a story any other way than alive and in the moment and with a genuine relationship and discussion.”
Despite the heavy and often stigmatized nature of the topic, the narrative remained hopeful. For the protagonist, the list of positive moments continued to grow as the play goes on, engaging the audience time and time.
“I thought that he brought this great energy out of the room, it was kind of electric… the way that he got us all involved, he was able to bring us to highs and lows in his life,” said SMTD freshman Skylar Siben. “He found a way to find comedy in it and engage his audience in such an active way, but still care about the topic at hand.”
Donahoe said the play itself was like group therapy in a way. There is a unique feeling of coming together that emerges from the interactive nature of the show. Following each performance, professionals from the University’s Depression Center opened a panel for questions. On Thursday, Victor Hong, M.D., director of Psychiatric Emergency Services, and Brendon Watson, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Psychiatry, discussed mental illness.
“One of the issues with prevention of suicide is the fact that suicide has traditionally been in the shadows — it’s not something we talk about a lot,” Hong said. “I hope that all of you will come out of this and have conversations with people and loved ones about the show and suicide in general, so we can bring it more to the forefront of the conversation. I know that I plan to do that.”
Hong spoke about the rising suicide rates, particularly among younger people. He said two proven ways of suicide prevention are creating communities and bonds with people, as well as physically making lists of reasons to live.
Watson echoed Hong’s sentiments on looking to the positives in situations.
“I think our brains are really tuned to notice the bad things. Fear is easier to notice than happiness — happines might float right past you,” Watson said. “It’s an amazing child and person that can boost themselves and keep coming up with things… I thought that was remarkable and very resilient.”
The performance shed light on an urgent issue that faces our society today. With a sincere comedic touch, the performance was a reminder to keep living for all of the things worthwhile — no matter how small.
“I feel like theatre has a magical ability because there are limitless possibilities with it,” Siben said. “You can take a topic like this and find a new ways to approach it.”
“Every Brilliant Thing” itself is something worthwhile to put on the list.