Features NYC Features Published 19 December 2014

Brilliant Things

Nicole Serratore speaks to Duncan Macmillan about the brilliant Every Brilliant Thing, one of the stand-out shows of this year's Edinburgh Fringe, now playing in New York.
Nicole Serratore

In Every Brilliant Thing, the Paines Plough production of Duncan Macmillan’s play, now at the Barrow Street Theatre, a young boy makes a list of all the things he thinks are worth living for in response to his mother’s suicide attempt.  His list is made up of things of simple joy—ice cream, ham and mayo sandwiches, Christopher Walken’s voice.  As the boy becomes a man, the list continues to play a role in his life.  And like the list, the play has grown from something modest to something bigger than itself.

Macmillan, a prolific playwright with upcoming projects for film and plays for the National Theatre, Royal Court, and Headlong, was at university when British artists like Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill were doing a lot of “in yer face” work.  His work is consistently form-bending. Macmillan wrote the stripped-down, no-props, no-set, two-hander play Lungs, about a couple considering whether to start a family, which had its world premiere at the Studio Theatre in Washington D.C. in 2010 (where Macmillan later directed Mike Bartlett’s Contractions in 2013).  He and Robert Icke co-adapted and co-directed an epic, mind-bending, and experimental interpretation of George Orwell’s 1984 which transferred from the Almeida Theatre in London to the West End in 2014.  Every Brilliant Thing has been touring the UK in 2014 before making its way to New York this month.

The play began as a short story offered to an actress friend as a favor for being in a Macmillan play where she had no lines.  It was then a 15-20 minute monologue about a young girl making the list. For about eight or nine years, Macmillan and director-collaborator George Perrin of Paines Plough talked about what to do with the story.  It later evolved into an installation at the UK arts and music festival Latitude.  Macmillan describes the staging, “We had our own tent and we installed the list and papered this room with it. We had a microphone and a little platform and every half an hour, every hour someone who didn’t know the story would get up and read it.”  Hearing it in this context allowed them to see the show without a lot of pretense. “We really loved the quality of someone reading it and not performing it too much,” adds Macmillan.  When they decided to turn it into a full-length piece, they brought stand-up comedian/singer-songwriter Jonny Donahoe on board and he added his own contributions to it.

Macmillan was interested in a dialogue on depression and suicide that wasn’t otherwise happening in British culture.  The show offers the opportunity to, as Macmillan puts it, “Just to sort of say ‘You are not alone. You are not weird. This is something we can all talk about as grown-ups.’”  Macmillan was focused on addressing depression from two perspectives in this play—both from the point of view of a character who personally experiences depression and also someone with a loved one who has depression.  “We’re all going to be touched by [depression] at some point, on some level, to some degree,” Macmillan says.  But despite the serious subject matter, they were keen to make it not too sentimental or mawkish.

Donahoe’s involvement and the format of the play were critical to finding that balance.  “The gesture of it is so much to do with generosity, I suppose. An attempt to engage with people in a very non-theatrical way, in a very open, genuine, sincere way where there is no real artifice.  Everything is exposed.  Everything is open and involving,” explains Macmillan.

Lights are up on the audience the entire time.  Donahoe wanders the room before the show starts in earnest, passing out “brilliant things” for audience members to read.  A large portion of the audience will read something out at some point during the show, he directly engages audience members, he improvises based on their reactions or something in the moment, and gets some audience members to act as characters in the story. When I saw it a Scottish man was made to repeat his “brilliant thing” so we could all enjoy—or possibly understand—his accent as he read out, “peeing in the sea but nobody knows,” to which Donahoe quipped, “A fine Scottish tradition.”

Macmillan says of Donahoe, “He has a real gift for making people feel like they are completely safe to get things wrong…and to be nervous and awkward and yet that’s all completely okay and yet they enjoy themselves.  No one ever feels on the spot.”  Donahoe, in some ways, is an unusual choice, as Macmillan notes, “He’s never been in a play before.  He’s never acted in anything before.”  But as a stand-up comedian his comfort with crowd work and improvisational storytelling is critical to making the show feel genuine and not too sentimental.  Donahoe steers this course from touching to funny moments with ease.  “Word for word it’s very different every night because [Jonny] changes things in context and moves things around and he writes these moments with people.  And hopefully it feels like a special unique evening,” Macmillan says.

Indeed it is.  It made me want to start my own list of brilliant things:

1.  The clickety-clack of cat-nails on wood floors.

2.  When a friend emails you a photo of a cute Scottish actor late at night so you wake up to the photo first thing in the morning.

3. Unusual British theater brought to New York that makes you laugh and cry.

Every Brilliant Thing is at New York’s Barrow Street Theatre until 19th March 2015

Nicole Serratore

Nicole Serratore writes about theater for Variety, The Stage, American Theatre magazine, and TDF Stages. She previously wrote for the Village Voice and Flavorpill. She was a co-host and co-producer of the Maxamoo theater podcast. She is a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.