by Advisory Company member Mike Fischer
A purring cat on my lap
Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing begins with a list, written by a seven-year-old boy who wants to save his mother’s life. She’s just tried to kill herself for the first time. He’s convinced that if he can make a list of 1,000 brilliant things – each one a reason for living – he might keep her alive. The first item on his list is ice cream.
Speaking to us as an adult, the narrator will describe his younger self and that list as “naive” – even as his adult self keeps adding to it, with regular reminders of reasons to choose life in a world filled with death. The very persistence of his list reflects another trait the narrator ascribes to his young self: he’s hopeful. Lists and hope are intimately related, and not just because we can’t live without either one.
People love lists; most of us make them, even if it’s just to ensure we buy the right ingredients to cook a good meal – itself an investment in the future and therefore an expression of hope. The oldest surviving examples of writing that we have are lists – of goods to buy, words to remember, gods to honor.
The list is humanity’s first form of narrative, through which we make sense of the world and our place within it. As I write these words in late December, many of us are making lists reflecting our hopes and dreams for the year to come – and for the better person we want to be. The word “list” derives from the Old English word for “border”; to be without lists is to live without a home or a sense of place. One definition of listless? Depressed.
The smell of old books breathing in libraries
Sunrise over Santa Fe
The dashes in Emily Dickinson’s poems
Singing old musicals in the shower
Rereading my favorite novel
The list isn’t just our first form of narrative. It’s also our simplest. In Every Brilliant Thing as in so many of his plays, Macmillan honors simplicity because it cuts through the cant: the ways we pose and pretend, hiding behind ironic cool and cleverly postmodern winks, each designed to bury what we truly feel – while denying the panic and emptiness of a world that can seem meaningless. Macmillan repeatedly suggests that dropping one’s self-protectively ironic stance is crucial to survival; highlighting the moral hazard of cynicism and over-intellectualization, he casts simplicity as a moral imperative. When we keep it simple, Macmillan insists, we open ourselves to the possibility of better seeing ourselves. Each other. And what matters most in the world.
In Macmillan’s Lungs (2011), the two protagonists find their way forward – and decide to make another life, despite demagogic world leaders and environmental devastation – by learning to think less and love more. In a world filled with toxins, they nevertheless take a leap of faith and choose to breathe.
In Macmillan’s People, Places & Things (2015), Emma is a rising actor who crashes on booze and drugs – her only means, she contends, of surviving in a broken world. She finds her way back through rehab, in which simplicity (and lists, such as the Twelve-Step program) offer a roadmap to recovery. Acting, for Emma, had become another drug through which she could hide from herself. To move forward, she needs a new understanding of how she might act on the world’s stage – and what theater might be.
Movies that make me cry
Long drives during which one’s mind wanders
The sound of crickets on a hot August night
Soft-graphite Blackwing pencils
My Forward Theater family
Every Brilliant Thing imagines such a theatrical experience, returning us to theater’s roots, as a quasi-religious expression and realization of the community that makes theater possible.
It takes place in the round – a first-ever in The Playhouse that Forward calls home. It takes place with the house lights up – allowing the amazing David Daniel to better see us as he embodies the narrator while ensuring that we fully see each other.
Most important, it takes place with our active participation. All of the play’s props, Macmillan indicates, must be “sourced from the audience.” We in the audience will also help the narrator build his list.
A few of us will even be called upon to briefly become important characters in the narrator’s life, from a veterinarian and beloved teacher to the narrator’s father and girlfriend. Macmillan insists that audience members playing those characters be “allowed to say whatever they wish and the narrator has to work with what he’s given.” “The spontaneity of these interactions,” he continues, “is a central element of the show.”
None of this is nearly as gimmicky as my description may suggest. Even if you ordinarily hate audience participation – I sure do – it’s not just necessary but moving as presented here, in driving home that each of us is brilliant and none of us is alone. Speaking the narrator’s list even as he tells us about his life, we come to embody that list; each of our voices adds to the many reasons for living.
There’s nothing sentimental about this; one of the great mistakes we make in modern life is to confuse the simple with the sentimental. Neither here nor in any of his other plays does Macmillan pretend that life is a picnic; the narrator’s voice rings true when he tells us that if you reach old age without having ever felt “crushingly depressed,” you probably aren’t paying attention.
But just because “the business of getting out of bed is hard” – as Emma puts it in People, Places & Things – doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In Every Brilliant Thing, reasons for doing so literally surround the narrator – underscoring why, in a world of so much light, we should choose to rise and shine.
Santa Fe, December 26, 2019