If you were to list Every Brilliant Thing about life, what would you include? This is the idea behind Duncan Macmillan’s critically acclaimed play, broaching the subject of mental health through the story of a six-year-old boy and his heartfelt attempt at making his mum happy after she tries to commit suicide. Sophia Charalambous met director George Perrin to discuss the unusual evolution of Paines Plough’s interactive production at Summerhall.
The play, which began as a four-page short story written by Macmillan in 2006, became a standalone show that ran for ten years, three in its current format. But the idea of selecting audience members to act our characters “evolved over time”.
“We got actors to read it and non-actors to read it, and there was always something quite moving about hearing people who weren’t performers telling the story. So when we started to turn it into a standalone show we thought about the idea of involving to tell a story in a way where there’s a performer at the heart of it but then non-performers are involved, leaving space for them to improvise their own contributions. That felt like it was in keeping with what the gesture of the actual play was about.”
Perrin, who’s worked closely with actor Jonny Donahoe in developing the show, said that around 60% is scripted while 40% is the actor improvising with members of the audience. The result is an organic mergence between the real and the unreal, with the audience playing their parts with pride.
But Perrin and the team were adamant that they wanted to keep the piece as a monologue. “There was always a single voice and this is from a single person’s perspective so it was inherent in the play that it was always going to be one person’s story.”
“I’ve never asked Duncan in any great detail about where the play came from as one doesn’t really when one directs a play. You just try and stay true to the heart of what the characters are doing and the story they’re telling.”
The play starts and ends with a list the protagonist compiles of everything that’s brilliant about the world, and this has inspired a Facebook group called Every Brilliant Thing in honour of the show. “I think it’s still going,” said Perrin. “People would add entries to the list and actually the entries in the box in the show are real, written by people over years of it being in exhibition.”
“I don’t always personally find it emotionally moving necessarily, but I think what I do find moving is watching other people’s responses to it, particularly when we do it at Roundabout, where you can see how everyone else is experiencing it. But as any director must do, you have to maintain an element of detachment, perspective and analysis.”
For someone in Perrin’s position, letting go of a certain amount of control over the direction could be quite liberating, but he believes the live nature of theatre is unavoidable.
“Anyone who works in theatre as a director knows there’s always an element of unpredictability. Otherwise you’d make a film, or art that you could hang on a wall. Theatre is inherently unpredictable because the audience is an integral part of the experience. I think it is a sliding scale and this play happens to be at one of the furthest ends of the spectrum.
“Ultimately you’re trying to give an audience a consistent experience, and obviously with this show, compared to others, there’s less predictability because of the audience involvement, but broadly speaking it should evoke the same emotions every time.”
Although elements of any theatre show are the same, Perrin identifies key differences between this show and others he’s directed within his ten-year career as a professional director.
“I suppose more than any other it has been a process of development and evolution whereas normally I’d get a play and cast it to be staged in the more traditional sense. There’s a larger element of freedom for the performer in the sense that Jonny is encouraged to be quite free and draw on his own his own skills and experiences as an improvisational comedian. And obviously Every Brilliant Thing involves the audience so you’re trying to create conditions where they feel comfortable by themselves.
“Then the fundamentals become the same, you try and tell the story, populate it, and do it justice.”
In the same vein, as a director, this is the reason why he doesn’t have a favourite moment.
“As a director it’s not up to me to have a favourite bit, I just have to make sure I do the play justice.”
Every Brilliant Thing plays at Summerhall this Fringe. Full Edinburgh listing: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/every-brilliant-thing/701825 Fine the company online @painesplough.
Photo: Paines Plough co-artistic directors James Grieve (left) and George Perrin (right)