Every Brilliant Thing
Riverside Theatre — opens Saturday, Nov. 26 at 7:30 p.m.
When you hear that a theatre is producing a “holiday show,” certain titles pop to mind: A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Story. White Christmas. Although conditioned to use the general term “holiday,” a distinct pattern tends to emerge.
This year, Riverside Theatre wanted to handle things a little bit differently.
“I … wanted to do something in our holiday slot that felt inclusive,” Sean Lewis, Riverside’s interim artistic director, and director of this show, said in an email. “I love the messages of fidelity and community in pieces like Christmas Carol but I wanted to make sure the content made everyone in the community feel invited while still echoing those sentiments.”
Enter Every Brilliant Thing. This 2015 play by British playwright Duncan Macmillan, with Jonny Donahoe, is different. “You’re six years old,” begins the synopsis. “Mum’s in hospital. Dad says she’s ‘done something stupid.’ She finds it hard to be happy. So you start to make a list of everything that’s brilliant about the world. Everything that’s worth living for.”
This one-man show takes a look at depression from an unlikely angle — that of a son desperate to bring his mother back from the brink, whose efforts to help her end up being what sustain him on into adulthood. Riverside veteran Tim Budd plays the role.
The community aspects of Every Brilliant Thing have been brought to bear even in the show’s marketing. The theatre put out a call on social media, asking patrons and friends to talk about the little things that bring them joy — the small details of life that are often overlooked. The response was so overwhelming that they made the decision to compile some of the examples into a promo video, read in part by Budd and in part by some of the respondents (full disclosure: this author is in the video).
Lewis said of the show that, “Every Brilliant Thing to me was something incredibly pure and simple that became a great magic trick. It’s a bare stage that by the end feels like a real community has been made.” It’s already having that effect.
Community participation is key in the performance as well, but there’s no need to fear the sort of dreaded audience participation that can sometimes drive theatregoers away.
“A lot of ‘audience participation’ shows just use audience members as a prop,” said Lewis. “They make them feel odd for a cheap joke or an awkward laugh. They ask them to improvise which is unfair and not what people bought a ticket for. And what happens is the audience laughs out of relief: ‘Thank god, they didn’t pick me.’ I do not like this kind of theater. I find it unkind.”
“What I loved about Every Brilliant Thing,” he continued, “was that the entire audience is a partner and not a prop. Tim, the actor, needs you more than you need him. And nothing is asked of the audience member. Tim feeds everything to the audience member so there is no pressure or invention expected from them and it really does an amazing thing: It creates a trust and understanding in the whole room. We say ‘we are here together and we will help this story be told.’ That’s kind of beautiful to me. A play that needs its audience.”
Indeed, the questions he centers his direction on are: “are we being kind to the audience?” “Do they feel like they trust us?” “Have we created a community?”
Lewis is no stranger to the one-man show format. He’s directed one other, and has acted in many, including two in rep currently in Chicago. “Solo work is really naked,” he said. “If it fails it is on you. You have no teammates out there. However, when it works it’s amazing because you realize you have a relationship with an audience that no other play allows you. You talk to them and they in effect — through laughing, or shifting in their seat, or coughing, or smiling — talk back.”
That audience relationship is truly at the core of Every Brilliant Thing — and of Riverside’s entire season. “[W]ithout question,” said Lewis, “I think a lot in my programming about what brings us together, what can we try to solve issues and who feels left out, who feels alone — these are the big questions for me. Loneliness is as destructive an emotion I think we have as a society.”
With this play, he aims to rid audiences of some of that loneliness. “After all,” he said, “it’s the start of the holidays — it’s nice to present a play that feels like a gift.”
Every Brilliant Thing opens Saturday, Nov. 26 at Riverside Theatre. Tickets are $12–30. It runs through Dec. 11.