This is about a play that deals with suicide. It’s okay if you don’t want to read it.
I went to Staunton yesterday afternoon to see Ginna Hoben perform Every Brilliant Thing. For those who aren’t familiar with it, this is a one-person show by Duncan McMillan and Jonny Donahoe, about a person whose mother is suicidal. Following the mother’s first attempt, when the character is seven, they start creating a list of “every brilliant thing”—all the reasons one might want to stay on earth. The list ultimately grows to a million things. The central character abandons it at various points, only to rediscover it and continue later on. The play tells the story of the character’s life from seven to 40-ish, including the mothers second and final (fatal) suicide attempts, and the character’s marriage, divorce, and own struggle with depression. It sounds like it could be a real downer, but it’s very funny and sweet, as well as sad.
It has a ton of audience interactivity. Before the show, the performer hands out slips of paper with numbers and “brilliant things” on them, and during the show, they sometimes say, “1!” and wait for an audience member to respond, “Ice cream!” There are also some moments where various audience members have to play roles and improvise along with the performer—her dad, her therapist, her partner, etc.
If you’re curious to see this performed but you can’t get to Staunton, look around. It’s probably playing somewhere nearby (one-person shows are having a moment because they are extremely COVID-safe). And if you’ve seen it already? Cool, see it again. So much depends on the performer and the specific space and audience. Many theaters are running it with three actors performing on different days, and offering a discount to people who buy tickets to see all three, because part of the point is that it’s such a flexible script.
Ginna Hoben’s performance at the American Shakespeare Center was, itself, a “brilliant thing.” Her rendering of the character felt so real and present that, around the middle of the play, I had this thought wander through my mind: “I should totally recommend that she read Daisy Jones and the Six.” Daisy Jones has nothing to do with the themes of the play. I just thought she—the character, not Ginna—would enjoy that book. This is a category of thought I’ve only ever had about people who are not fictional. She felt that fully realized. Incredible.
It’s particularly incredible because the play is so meta theatrical. It never lets you forget that you’re watching a play. There’s a point where Ginna borrowed somebody’s jacket to make it into a dog, recruited an audience member to be the vet who euthanized her dog when she was seven, asked someone for a pen, and instructed the “vet” in how to inject the dog—and then reassured the person who had lent his jacket: “We’re going to use the non-inky side so we don’t mark up your jacket.” The script traverses the line between remembering that we’re in a theater, watching a play, and creating a believable character, grounded in reality. The ASC (one of my “brilliant things,” for sure) is a perfect place for this kind of work because Shakespeare does this exact thing, too, playing with the fact that we know we’re watching a play while also asking us to accept the reality of the characters.
Another Shakespeare trick that McMillan and Donahoe borrow is making you laugh to make you cry. In my experience, the least interesting and moving productions of Shakespeare’s tragedies are the ones that cut a lot of the humor. Shakespeare knew that if he can make us laugh, he can make us cry, and those vulnerable, connected, human states go hand in hand. This script does some smart pairings, where the best jokes immediately precede the most intensely sad moments.
Ginna has performed Shakespeare in the Blackfriars. She understands how it works. Many audience members were repeat customers; because Shakespeare has taught them the conventions of that space, they were ready for this performance. I’m very curious about how it plays in other theaters where the audience usually sits in the dark. I suspect it’s a bigger lift.
Audience interaction is super tricky. It’s one of the danger points of this script; the performer has to turn over control to an audience member and say, “Yes and” to whatever this stranger throws at them. Ginna handled this aspect masterfully. I never wondered, when she said a number, whether she was going to supply the brilliant thing herself or wait for an audience member to shout it out. When the guy playing herself as a small child went off-script (he was just supposed to say “why” but…elaborated), she kindly and gently brought him back to where she needed him to be. I often enjoy plays with audience interaction, but I nearly always hate being the interacted-with audience member (make eye contact with me, yes please, but don’t ask me to come join you on stage!). Ginna cast me as the lecturer from her college class on Goethe, and… I had fun playing with her. She made it feel easy and enjoyable.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Sam Saint Ours, who provided live musical accompaniment for the performance as well as generally supporting Ginna onstage (handing her props, helping her into a sweater, just being somebody safe for her to check in with). He added so much to the show. His music was gorgeous and effortless, but more than that, I hadn’t realized how much safer I felt for Ginna, knowing she wasn’t alone up there. One-person shows can be super tough on a performer. Their interaction let me worry about the character, but not the actor.
I strongly recommend checking this one out. It’s only running for a few more weeks at ASC, but there will be other productions this year, elsewhere, I’m sure. And if you think you’ve seen it before, you haven’t! As we say in the business, it’s different every night.