In ‘Every Brilliant Thing,’ the audience gets into the act
Upstairs in a rehearsal studio overlooking Tremont Street, actor Adrianne Krstansky is running around in circles.
She’s working on a scene from “Every Brilliant Thing,” playwright Duncan Macmillan’s one-character play about coping with the suicide of a parent. The Speakeasy Stage Company production that begins performances Friday is staged in the round, and in this scene, Krstansky jogs around the room high-fiving audience members.
Her director, Marianna Bassham, asks: “You’re going to get everybody, right?”
“That’s the plan,” Krstansky replies.
After that bit of exertion, Krstansky is meant to sit down and express that she’s experiencing a mood shift. On this go-round, she worries that her dip in affect is too dramatic.
“I don’t think they can ever worry about me,” the actor says to her director. “Because then they won’t feel safe. And I can’t lose that trust.”
Most theater-makers already have the goal of creating an environment where the audience feels safe, emotionally and psychologically speaking. But Macmillan actually detailed that requirement at the beginning of his script. That’s because the audience is part of the cast for this show — not in a nebulous sense, but quite specifically.
Throughout the performance, assorted audience members will be asked to read out a line or two from a scrap of paper they’ve been given before the show. And at several points during the action, Krstansky will choose folks to help act out a scene from the story, which is told as a series of remembrances by the adult child of a woman who died by suicide after a series of attempts that began when the storyteller was a child.
These interactions between audience and actor are straightforward and not meant to make the patron uncomfortable. Yet Krstansky and Bassham are mindful of the hazard of putting someone on the spot in an unpleasant way, particularly given the emotional subject matter. Before the start of each performance, Krstansky will mill around the audience as patrons arrive, sizing up their interest in being a more visible part of the show and mentally “casting” the audience-participation parts in advance.
“There’s all these different things that have to happen in the preshow. One of which is to make everyone feel completely welcome and relaxed and comfortable and not afraid of me,” Krstansky says, in a pre-rehearsal interview.
To prepare for this dynamic, SpeakEasy invited people from the community to sit in for portions of rehearsal. On this day, actor and director work together in privacy for an hour. Then their stage manager greets the nine volunteers who signed up to sit in that afternoon, and ushers them into the rehearsal room. This bunch seems relaxed and comfortable in the space. At least one in the group is a repeat visitor.
“I can sense really fast,” Krstansky says earlier, “Oh, this person is really gonna enjoy this. Or this is someone who might enjoy [participating] but I’m going to need to hold them really carefully. And there’s people who I totally get the sense that they don’t want to get up on stage, and that’s totally fine.”
SpeakEasy reached out to representatives of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a Boston-based organization, to consult on the show. The idea is to be sure that a story about suicide is told responsibly.
The Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” which was released last year, received some criticism from mental health professionals about the way it deals with the topic. During the early rehearsals for this play, a study was published that found the number of suicides in the United States spiked by almost 10 percent in the five months following the suicide of Robin Williams, with the extensive media coverage of the event identified as a possible contributing factor.
Bassham and Krstansky met with Dr. Nancy Rappaport, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who has written a book about her experiences coping with the suicide of her mother when she was a young child. Rappaport says that certain details in the play, like the cloud of silence that hovered over the protagonist’s family throughout her mother’s experience of mental illness, rings true.
“There’s definitely more of an openness [nowadays] but there’s still enormous shame around suicide. And when you have shame you often have silence,” Rappaport says. She hopes a message that will come across to theatergoers is the importance of talking about depression. The play’s surprising amount of humor, she adds, should help people receive this notion.
“If somebody came to the play and is feeling vulnerable, hopefully it’ll be a healing experience to watch that and see that you can navigate these really tough, dark areas. We all know humor is something that’s incredibly healing,” she says.
On the four Thursdays during the production’s run, performances will be followed by a talkback series coordinated by NAMI. Each will pair a doctor from McLean Hospital in Belmont with someone who has been touched personally by suicide.
“Every Brilliant Thing” was originally devised by Macmillan with the British comedian and performer Jonny Donahoe. Though much about the central character stays fixed across productions, the playwright specifies that the role can be played by an actor of any gender, and certain specific references in the script should be updated to reflect the age and nationality of the actor.
The title refers to a list the protagonist begins as a child. She originally brainstorms the “brilliant things” that make life worth living to give to her mother, but the list ends up re-occurring at different points in the daughter’s life, as she adds to it.
Inevitably, theatergoers will mull over the things they might personally add to such a list.
“Loss and grief is such a universal thing,” Bassham says. “Once I hooked into the possibility that the experience of being in this room for an hour could maybe lighten the load just a little bit for someone, that feels pretty nice.”
Every Brilliant Thing
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, March 2-31. Tickets from $25, 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com