In March 2020, theatre creators Stephanie Hope Lawlor and Luke Brown were on the cusp of premiering an award-winning show for Hamilton audiences. Written by playwright Duncan Macmillan, in collaboration with comedian Jonny Donahoe, Every Brilliant Thing is an intimate one-person show tackling the attempts by an individual to make sense of their own past alongside that of their parents. Utilizing the audience in a very up-close and interactive way, the play weaves elements of theatre with improvisation and story circles to tell a story of individual transformation. With a play that has won multiple awards and accolades, Lawlor and Brown were eager to showcase their take on the script. They had extensively rehearsed the piece, sold tickets for their opening night, and had even spoken to Beyond James about the show.
Then the world shut down.
Fast forward three years later, and Lawlor and Brown are finally reuniting for a return of Every Brilliant Thing after one of the longest periods of holding the house in the history of theatre. As the world began to shutter, Lawlor recalls, “We were starting to have emails from ticket holders, people asking for refunds or canceling saying, you know, best of luck, but I’m not going to come. It was unbelievable, and just so hard to fathom. This thing that we had, it was extremely meaningful to both of us, and we had poured a lot of heart and soul into… that it needed to stop was very strange.” For Brown, the future of the show was bleak. “Because of the interactive nature [of the production],” he says, “where items are being handed to audience members and then taken back, I didn’t know if we’d ever be able to see it again.”
When the both of them made the decision to go back to the play three years later, the surreality of all that had come before weighed heavily on their process. Says Lawlor, “It’s been interesting to revisit it now. I think we did our first read through and it felt like a foreign language.” For Brown, “I hadn’t read the script since. I hadn’t looked at a single word. So, it felt like everything came flooding back. Actually, the first time [Stephanie] read it again, I was kind of depressed.”
Brown admits the weight of the pandemic made it difficult not to focus on the darker aspects upon revisiting the script. As the work progressed, however, he was reminded of just how funny and uplifting the play could be. “What really touched me is you have this unique take on how to do a show, and you have this subject matter that is handled beautifully.” Brown is also very clear that the play’s interactive nature doesn’t leave audiences holding the bag. “Anything that you have to do, Stephanie tells you this is what you have to do. And if she doesn’t tell you, then there’s no wrong answer.”
The play, first written in 2013, has been produced many times with the lead character being cast as both a young man or woman depending on the artists involved. The throughline for the play is the main character’s efforts to compile a list of everything that makes life worth living. As the character grows up, alongside a mother who is battling chronic depression and a father who is distant and insensitive, the list grows while the character looks to the audience to help their recollection of their memories.
Lawlor acknowledges that the power of the show has taken on additional urgency post-pandemic. “I found once we got through that first read through it, everything was still living in me somewhere. The words started to come back. It all felt familiar. And at the same time, it felt very new with the knowledge of the last three years. The life experience of the last three years, and all of that kind of stuff informing and changing the story, is growing my understanding of the piece. Things that I thought I understood before, I now understand on a deeper level or I’m able to connect with in a really different way.”
Brown admits that the weight of the pandemic informed a lot of the duo’s early reworking of the piece. “There’s a lot of levity in the piece, but coming back to the script, it was hard to not just see the darker elements in some of the heavier subject matter that is dealt with in the script.”
Every Brilliant Thing is an unorthodox script involving a single performer who interacts with the audience to assist in compiling the list of ‘every brilliant thing’, and this aspect raised more questions. “To start working on a piece like this,” says Lawlor, “that is not just standing on a stage, but is sitting right next to an audience member and having a close conversation or greeting them at the door and walking them in. There is a whole other element that goes beyond just the performance of it. This is all storytelling and sharing and that intimacy, that closeness, is what makes the play what it is. So much of it has to do with who is sitting in the chair, and how they’re feeling that night, and how much they’re willing to jump in and play. So, how can I serve this story but also how can we work together to serve this story?”
“It’s a whole other hurdle to consider,” echoes Brown. “After three years of as much distance as you can create between people to then say, let’s get extra close.” The interactive aspect has also informed the integrity of the playing area for the piece. Lawlor is the first to admit that she often eschews work involving audience participation. So, her work on Every Brilliant Thing is a risk not just for her but for similarly tempered audiences. “It’s been a huge focus of ours, “ says Lawlor. “To make sure the space feels welcoming and safe. I mean, it’s a risk for me, it’s a risk for Luke, it’s a risk for anyone walking in the door because we are inevitably going to ask [the audience] to help tell the story. And that’s scary.”
For Lawlor, that element of safety touches on the importance of the show as a response to the anxiety of the pandemic. “We’re not going to humiliate you,” she says, “and we’re not here to embarrass you. We just want your voice to be part of this conversation. It’s just me talking at you, it’s a collaborative, community-based experience.” For Brown, the intimacy of the experience also speaks to its importance to audiences. “A lot of people aren’t going out the same way that they used to. So, if someone is taking that time and booking that night, it’s always been special… but it’s a little more special at the moment.” Lawlor agrees with this sentiment. “Whoever’s playing it is inevitably going to connect with it in their own individual way, and anyone who’s sitting and listening is also going to connect to it in their own individual way.”
Lawlor goes on to say the pandemic pause heightened her understanding of the material in ways that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. It has raised so much awareness on the fragility of people’s mental health, and how we process trauma both individually and collectively, that such an understanding isn’t a surprise. “We’ve talked about how the more you know, the less you know,” says Lawlor. “Three years ago, I think I was like, ‘yeah sure, let’s do this play!’ And there was something really freeing in that naive approach. And then the [pandemic] happened and the approach feels really different. I know more and I don’t have such a blind confidence in it this time. I’m really looking forward to sharing this space with people. That is where the magic lies. It’s not in me controlling the whole thing, but in me being able to give myself over to the room.”
Every Brilliant Thing, produced by Rook’s Theatre, opens at HCA Dance Theatre, 126 James St. South, and runs Friday, May 5 and Saturday, May 6 at 7 PM and Sunday, May 7 at 2 PM. Tickets available online.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity