The holiday season can be difficult for those with mental health issues.
For the Allen Community College Theatre Department, Thanksgiving is just the right time to talk about it. “Every Brilliant Thing,” is a poignant performance offered at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at the Allen Theatre.
The play is about looking for grateful moments. It’s also an interactive and immersive experience that asks the audience to be part of the show.
ACC student Marissa Friend does the heavy lifting as the narrator, who shares painful stories of growing up with a suicidal mother. As a child dealing with her mother’s first suicide attempt, she decides to write a list of 100 brilliant things that make life worth living in order to raise her mother’s spirits.
As for the rest of the cast, well, that’s where the audience comes in.
Friend picks out members of the audience for a bit of easy improvisational acting. She leads them to the stage and guides them through the scene in a way that feels natural and doesn’t ask too much of amateurs.
Each audience member has a role. Upon entering the theater, you’ll receive a paper with a number and a corresponding word or phrase. Those are entries for the list of “brilliant things;” when Friend calls out a number, the audience member will read their paper.
ACC Theatre Director Tricia Stogsdill said she wanted a play that would connect with the audience in numerous ways.
“Interactive theater is really interesting to me,” she said, noting she’ll be teaching an improv class next semester. “This is just the right amount to get the audience involved.”
She also chose the play to encourage a dialogue about mental health issues, including depression and suicide.
“It’s so important for people who are of college age to hear a story involving mental health, but also about joy,” she said.
FRIEND hits just the right notes as she guides the audience through a story about lifelong struggles with mental health, both as a child of a suicidal parent and, later, as an adult facing her own bouts of depression.
“If you get to the end of a long life without feeling crushingly depressed at least once, you haven’t been paying attention,” she tells the audience.
And though the topic is quite serious, Friend shares the narrator’s experience in a way that’s easy to relate to and often quite hilarious. You feel her confusion and frustration as a child. You understand her need for distance as she gets a little older and more independent. You feel the flutter of butterflies when she falls in love for the first time, and the ache of sadness when it goes wrong.
Throughout the performance, songs aid Friend in telling the story. Each song hits just the right note, evoking emotions that tie generations together. Anyone who hears the slow, mournful notes of Patsy Cline’s “Blue” shares in feelings of loneliness and desperation.
Friend’s acting chops shine, but her improvisational abilities elevate the performance. She’s an encouraging mentor when each reluctant participant steps onto the stage. She even convinces someone to take off a shoe — and it doesn’t stop there. What follows is something you’ll just have to see.
AGAIN and again, Friend comes back to the list, calling out numbers and waiting for the audience to respond:
No. 1 is ice cream.
Many items on the list are simple and generic: Clean sheets, freshly cut grass, the smell of bacon. Others are more specific: Track No. 7 on every great record, really good oranges, people who can’t sing but either don’t know or don’t care.
In the weeks leading up to the play, ACC students made their own list.
They wrote their own “brilliant things” on pieces of paper and plastered them on the walls of the theater.
When the play ends, take some time to go on stage to read them.
Then, go home and start your own list.
“EVERY Brilliant Thing” is based on a true story and written by Duncan MacMillan with Jonny Donahoe. It’s designed to be adapted in whatever way best suits the audience.
Tickets are $7 for adults, $5 for students. Allen students and employees get in free.