By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
He’s a mainstage leading man with character actor instincts. We’ve seen him clamour fearlessly through the audience, as the tarnished extrovert MC in Cabaret. Or talk to us directly as the stage manager in Burning Bluebeard. We’ve seen him literally mocking the fourth wall, as a gargoyle on the wall of downtown building, at the Street Performers Festival.
But John Ullyatt says he’s never engaged an audience so closely, with such an intimate connection, as he does in the unusual solo show that opens Thursday on the Citadel’s Rice stage. Every Brilliant Thing, he says cheerfully, “is an uplifting play about depression. It’s joyful; it’s hopeful: the character I’m playing is a survivor.” And hearing people in the audience react in the couple of previews he’s done so far tells him that others are on that wave length, too. “I’ve watched them go through things….”
Don’t call it ‘audience participation’, Ullyatt laughs. “Really, it’s people helping me to tell this story. Willing participants. Easy, the easiest ‘audience participation’ ever.”
The play, which began its ever-burgeoning global life at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe, is by the English writer Duncan Macmillan (with stand-up Brit comedian Jonny Donahoe). Macmillan, whose two-hander play Lungs was produced by Shadow Theatre last season, has told the Guardian that “theatre at its best is incredibly direct and incredibly interventionist.” And Every Brilliant Thing would seem to qualify on both counts.
The title refers to a list. The narrator who talks to us is a little kid who makes a list for his mom, who attempts suicide when he’s seven, of the little special things that make life worth living — “to try to make her happy,” as Ullyatt says.
It’s a list he works on supplementing for a lifetime as he grows up, goes to university, falls in love. “And then it comes back to help his dad, and later him.” Ullyatt says of the script (sent to him “out of the blue” by playwright/director Jane Heather) that “I immediately connected with it…. It felt so positive.” He enlisted director Dave Horak, who was similarly struck.
And, Ullyatt says, working on it has opened vistas of understanding for him about depression “and the sense of loss we’ve all felt in our families….”
Rehearsing an interactive monologue that actually needs its audience is “well, interesting, and difficult,” Ullyatt laughs. Assistant director Bethany Hughes, he says, has been brilliant at fleshing out that dynamic for him until the show started previews. And the first-hand anecdotes, recorded in footnotes to the text by Donohoe and Macmillan are helpful, “a wonderful thing.… A common denominator is (a record of) the mood of the room.”
Now that the rights are available and productions of Every Brilliant Thing have proliferated across the country (the great improviser Rebecca Northan is currently doing one at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont.), there’s even a Facebook group for performers to share their onstage experiences. Northan records one performance where a woman came the show with someone whose friend had committed suicide only five days before. “And the woman was glad she’d come; she said that it was a helpful thing for her.”
“The more we talk about it, the more you realize that everybody has been affected in their lives,” says Ullyatt. “You know how when you buy a new car you see that car everywhere?” He notes the work of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. Here’s a staggering statistic: “every day 11 people try to take their own lives in Edmonton.”
In Horak’s production, staged in the round in the Citadel’s smallest house, “nobody’s more than 10 feet away from me,” says Ullyatt. “That’s really challenging to stage. And there’s no slathering on of a character…. It feels very personal. And I feel very vulnerable doing it.”
“It feels very very raw to me…. It’s taken a great deal of courage: I have to give myself credit!” The fact the audience is enlisted to call out items from the list, and encouraged to stick post-it notes on the floor, is a signal of sharing that “takes the pressure off, and gives everybody a sense of ownership….There’s a lot of sadness, tragedy. But it’s a healing show.”
And as for the audience, don’t be alarmed by the dark subject matter, Ullyatt advises. “The show is very positive; there’s a resiliency about this person, who survives and shares his experience….” He cites the sage who said that “we tell stories because we need stories to survive.”
Every Brilliant Thing is an encouragement “to help each other, tell stories, look after each other.”
Every Brilliant Thing
Citadel Highwire Series
Written by: Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donohoe
Directed by: Dave Horak
Starring: John Ullyatt
Where: Rice Theatre
Running: through Feb 23
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com