For Exeunt: Ageing at the Fringe

Cockamamy

A telecare system is a white plastic phone with a big red button. Often perched at the end of a bed or the arm of a chair, the phone can immediately connect someone in an emergency with a member of staff from a care team. The phones are designed to provide independence to older adults but for many, conversations on these telecare systems are their only point of contact with the outside world. “My gran used to ring them all the time,” says Louise Coulthard, “even though you’re only supposed to use it if you fall over or burn yourself. She just pressed it and rang for a chat.”

Edinburgh in August is frantic. Everyone is hungry, exhausted, and the streets almost sway with the weight of hungover students cloaked in rain and sweat, the shower in their too-full apartment having broken that morning. This hive of activity, so busy you almost get sick of pushing through bodies on the Mile, feels far removed from the image of someone sitting in solitude at home, pressing the emergency button of their phone just so that they can hear a friendly voice.

It often seems that the Fringe tends to have a focus on the young, with uproarious ideas celebrated and desperation oozing from keen, clever young things. So how do the two worlds merge? How does a piece that is so delicate, quiet and gentle, focusing on the fragility of older adults, navigate its way through the chaotic tangle of the Edinburgh Fringe?

This year, Theatre Ad Infinitum are bringing back their 2011 hit, Translunar Paradise,  a heartbreaking performance exploring an older man’s struggle to recover from his wife’s death. And numerous other shows are tackling the subject of old age at this year’s Festival, including three new plays: The GardenerDark Matter and Cockamamy. Each of these three explores a unique area of the ageing process, using different techniques to draw out the nuances of a less independent life.

As age decays body and mind, it becomes a race against time. In Dark Matter, director and co-writer Mayra Stergiou says, time is “a dictator and a companion”, doggedly pushing us through Alfie’s life to find what’s left of him. Time is not such a burden on The Gardener’s Frank. He is able to use his past, his skills and the things he loves. Although on medication, he is in much better health than the protagonists of our two other plays, both physically and mentally. Being in a better mental state allows him to use his past to his favour. A former teacher, he persuades the care staff to allow him to give a series of lectures on horticulture, the first of which we are invited to. “It’s nice to see him use the skills he used in his professional life in this environment,” Cownie says.In Dark Matter, Vertebra Theatre Company harness puppetry, visual imagery and microcinema to reconstruct meaning for retired astrophysicist Alfie. In Cockamamy, Coulthard uses her experience of caring for her grandma to create a bittersweet tale of love and loss. Cumbernauld Theatre’s The Gardener focuses on amateur gardener Fred, who has recently moved into a home after being unable to cope on his own following the death of his wife. Each play orbits around the feeling of isolation. Whether suffering from dementia or simply the baggage of old age, when it comes to the later stage of life The Gardener’s director Tony Cownie says, even if you are “surrounded by people who are good to you and kind to you, what you’ve lost is in the past. It is still a lonely experience.”

For Coulthard, time plays a different role. “Because gran kind of couldn’t really remember much of her past and wasn’t concerned for the future, it was always so present. Everything was just quite alive.” Coulthard’s play is heavily influenced by her own experience of caring for her grandmother. Just from talking to her on the phone, you can tell how much this piece means to her. Though her grandma was never that into theatre, living in the countryside where there weren’t a lot of touring shows, she was intrigued by Coulthard’s life as an actress. It will no doubt be an emotional and exhausting Fringe, but Coulthard is adamant that it is important to remember the funny moments too. “We did laugh a lot. Those moments of light get you through as a carer.” As suggested by the title, Cockamamy highlights the bemusing and hilarious situations dementia can lead to, drawing together the oppositions of pain and laughter.

Humour is also an important part of The Gardener, with a sense of fun a solid tool in Frank’s belt. “It’s just as much a part of life as tragedy or hurt is,” Cownie says.

I remember my grandma telling me that as she has gotten older, she is touched less and less. That realisation made me make a conscious effort to hold her hand and hug her more often. I tell Coulthard this and she recognises the feeling. She used it in her writing. Theatre is a form defined by its use of language, so the rejection of words is equally as suggestive as an acutely carved turn of phrase. “A lot of the time me and Mary [Rutherford, the actress playing Coulthard’s character’s grandma Alice],” she says, “we won’t be speaking a lot to each other, but we’ll be holding each other.”

Similarly, Dark Matter’s use of Bunraktu puppetry lends itself to a focus on movement rather than words. “It might be a cliche but with puppetry, we go against gravity,” Stergiou says. It makes every shrug or subtle look, every struggle, deliberate. Music serves as another form of communication in Dark Matter, with original music composed for the piece by Gregory Emfietzis. “Scientific research suggests that music is a great way to break through barriers of communication in dementia,” Stergiou says. “There are people that forgot their loved ones’ names but can’t forget a lyric from their favourite songs.”

It can be easy to forget the lives the elderly once lived. “There’s something about being hidden away in these homes,” Cownie says. By doing shows like these, he suggests, it’s uplifting to show all sides of a person, “to see that they still have spark, still have something to say, still have something to offer.” He pauses. “There’s a lot we can learn from them.”  Each of these shows is a song played, trying to reach back in time and grasp a bit more of the old life.

Old age and dementia will affect everyone at some point, whether first hand or through a relative. Cownie notes, “it is surprising that it is not a theme that more often takes centre stage.” According to the Alzheimer’s Society, one in six of us in this ageing population will develop dementia over the age of 80, and the disease is not discriminatory. It affects people of all race, class and gender.

“In the end,” Coulthard says, “my grandma kept wanting her mum.” Apparently common among dementia sufferers, the disease taps into a child’s first memory and maternal instinct. When performing the show, she often has audience members share this experience. Loneliness can have serious effects both on the carer and the sufferer and a demonstration of loneliness can help us feel less lonely. “It’s a shared experience,” Coulthard says. “A lot of people I’ve talked to say it’s really nice to know that you’re not alone.”

Original: Exeunt

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For Exeunt: Ageing at the Fringe

Expectations

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Tate and Max make a bet. Whoever has sex with Billie first gets a tenner.

I know someone like Max. He’s a smarmy charmer whose pout makes you want to hit him, but when he addresses you, everyone else slinks to the periphery and you feel like the only person in the world. He has a sideways smile and can get pretty much any girl he likes. He’s exactly the type you’d expect to see sex as a game.

Max’s housemate and landlord Tate is the opposite. He’s full of awkwardness and worries, the kind of guy who would never fit in to a group of lads on a night out. He’s thoughtful. I expected better of him.

They live above the Bedford Pub (nice room, chairs could be comfier). While their flatmate Evie is finding herself if Malaysia, they pick up Billie, the middle aged woman in limbo who dances by herself next to the jukebox.

Expectations shows the inherent sense of entitlement that men are taught they can have over female bodies. Trying to get with Billie veers between a game for Max and for Tate an attempt at proving his self-worth. The enjoyment the pair get from salivating over the thought of fucking the woman they see as a MILF is uncomfortable, perhaps more so because they take advantage of her maternal qualities too. It’s the tenner that shows how vile the game really is, because it’s not about the money or the prize. It’s about the pride, the glory, the knowledge that you oozed that much more charm. Or maybe it’s that you were there at the right time, when she was feeling vulnerable or sad or like she wanted company or comfort or sex. And you happened to be the one she stumbled into.

Some boys do this thing where they pay you a lot of attention, then as soon as they’ve got you they stop making the effort, and only regain it once they think they’re going to lose you. Tate demonstrates this beautifully, and it’s clear that he doesn’t understand how his big speeches of apology and philosophy don’t make up for his lack of attentiveness on an everyday scale. Max’s attitude is less apologetic and more coasting. Everything feels a little futile with these boys, like nothing will really change them significantly. While this causes a bristling frustration, Expectations doesn’t push any boundaries. Nothing is taken as far as it could be, with threads dropped in and lost, and character arcs rather shallow. The two most exciting ideas in the script- the bet and a lone mention to Max’s first sexual encounter- are left to trail off without further exploration.

The bet is a representation of everything vile about lad culture and depicts how much sex is about conquering new ground. Another girl in the mix is just a new player to get a level up. This could be a fascinating exploration of our attitudes towards sex if pushed further. It could also have a real element of shock and disgust if the bet was hidden from us and only revealed much later. Instead we see the formulation of the bet and there is little mystery, suspense or tension. The opportunity for this change in tone comes with the reveal about Max’s first relationship: He was underage, she was not. ‘There’s another word for it’, Tate says. The word rape hangs in the air for a moment but is quickly swept away and never mentioned again. This felt like a moment that could have flipped our understanding upside down. If this is the reason for Max’s playful, throwaway attitude to sex, it makes his character so much deeper. It felt like a missed opportunity to tighten the bolts on the core of the play.

The pace of the direction feels stilted and makes it hard to fall into the story. Curtis clearly has a natural understanding of dialogue and the script is promising, but the crux is thinned out by too much dancing, small talk and not enough conflict. Expectations attempts to present the messy sexual relations we are dealt in this age of uncertainty, and has the beginnings of interesting conversations on the sexual politics of our day.

I just wish they’d cut out the drunk dancing scenes, those are always hard to pull off.

Theatre N16, 18/07/16

Expectations

Minefield

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This poster makes Minefield look like an awkward school trip when actually it’s a fucking great explosion that could be the start of a new era of documentary theatre.

*

The bit with the yelling and the smoke and the drums.

The bit with the joke at the end of the therapy.

The bit where you listed what you’ve seen and everything else seems unimportant.

*

Documentary theatre is everywhere right now with a particular rise in verbatim theatre recently, as it’s such a fast way to react to a current issue. This was demonstrated last month with Another World at the NT, showing the impact of young Europeans going to Syria to join IS, and currently with Chilcot at BAC, discussing the enquiry. Rather than using verbatim theatre to respond to a current war, Minefield reflects on a past one. It tells true stories from the mouths of the people who lived them.

Writer and Director Lola Arias- though I always think with verbatim theatre ‘curator’ would be a better title than ‘writer’ as it’s not really your words but anyway- takes six veterans of the Falklands war, three from each side, and puts them on the Royal Court stage.

It is a bit clumsy, but that’s part of the play’s charm. There are elements that feel imperfect; the subtitles could do with some edits, the costume changes are unnecessary and the structure is fairly obvious for a verbatim play. But none of that matters because the total and utter honesty in this play makes it stand out a mile from what has gone before in this genre.

*

The bit with the Beatles tribute band.

The bit with the film of the landscape you survived.

The bit where you were looking for yourself but found one of the others.

*

The dialogue is so casual it doesn’t feel like  watching a written play, it’s more like a show and tell session at school. The veterans speak with a certain distance, like time has formed a protective layer over the most painful memories. This makes it even more powerful, as it maintains the balance between factual and personal, preventing it from turning into any sort of sob story. That is not to say emotions are not shown, they are raw despite the passing of time. Each man lets down his guard slightly, some more than others, one- I feel- entirely. It is a privilege to be allowed into their histories.

This is a play that takes people who would have shot each other had they met several years ago, and today hold hands and bow together. At least I think they did, I couldn’t really see at the end through all the tears.

*

The bit with the strip tease.

The bit with the minefield.

The bit where you knelt at the front of the stage with the dead body while you told us the story of the man who might have been about to surrender.

Seen 7/06/16 Royal Court Downstairs

Minefield

“Scare yourself as safely as you can”: NSDF 2016

scarLessons I learnt from NSDF:

  • Calamity is a shared experience.
  • Chris Thorpe should run international peace relation talks.
  • What CMS means.
  • The password to the NSDF taxi account.
  • Cock jokes never get old.

Last week I had the privilege of being up in Scarborough working as a Deputy Editor on the magazine Noises Off for National Student Drama Festival. The Festival is a collection of 12 plays from universities all over the country. The week was packed. Both professional and up-and-coming theatre makers attended discussions, approached controversial subjects and collided in endless queues at a very busy bar. There was little sleep, lots of writing and many lessons learnt.

  • Sensitivity is appreciated.
  • I should listen to Wu Tang Clan.
  • Crew for Calais need volunteers.
  • You should get a mentor.
  • Eating your lunch in a discussion about your play makes people think you don’t care.

On the last day when we’d finished all the copy for the print issues, I went to a workshop and found myself in a room with Chris Thorpe, 40 other students and three hours to make something. We made a show that will never be replicated and only half remembered. No one will have a complete view of it because we were all part it. There was a rough ground plan and some basic structural rules but essentially we hadn’t a clue. There was lying on the laps of total strangers, running and joining a whirlwind, whispering other people’s secrets into a storm of words.

I think that can be the best of theatre. It’s the community, the willingness to jump into something with a blindfold on, the freedom to not be afraid- of making a fool of yourself, of doing something wrong, of being excluded, and equally the openness to not exclude- that gives theatre the potential to create wonderful things.

  • The secret to running a good theatre is running a good bar.
  • Two of this year’s selectors are married and met at NSDF 15 years ago.
  • Everyone should read ‘Do No Harm’ by Henry Marsh.
  • A lot of Universities have never heard of the Festival.
  • All good writers steal.

It was tougher than I expected to encourage people to come and write for Noises Off in between the massively busy schedule of workshops, shows, discussions and Bowie nights, and those who spoke up in discussions seemed hesitant to put their words on the page. But there were a few incredibly important articles written by students brave enough to share something deeper than an opinion or review. Two articles stood out for me. The first was Lily James’ piece on envy and the feeling of intimidation that is hard to escape at the Festival. The second was this open letter to the cast of Daniel, a piece of new writing about child pornography. The way the writer- who decided to post anonymously- described watching Daniel was as if it opened an old wound, but in a way that let it heal a little.

  • A man once fell in love with a pigeon.
  • If you talk to strangers at train stations you will learn new things.
  • You should follow your instincts.
  • If you care about something you should jump into it.
  • It is hard but not impossible to fight against someone who wants to make a bingo hall.

In his opening speech at the closing ceremony, the day after the Brussels attacks, James Phillips said this on what he’d learnt over the week:

‘That groups of young people are prepared to gather together to try and imagine the unimaginable. That imagination is what saves us. That even when guns are firing and the bombs are going off, young people will come together and say as one there’s nothing we can’t imagine, nothing we can’t talk about, that we can connect, that imagination can skim a stone across an ocean.’

  • It is never too late to change the direction of your career.
  • When listening to the cast of Kiss Me, Kate doing their tech rehearsal whilst trying to lay up two issues you will be extremely grateful for your headphones.
  • Everyone makes mistakes.
  • You should celebrate small triumphs.
  • Fear can push you in the very best way.

Stephanie Street, co-founder of Act for Change, gives out a few of the awards at the closing ceremony. Her three year old daughter, Asha, has been at the Festival all week as Steph has seen shows, taken part in discussions and been part of the judging panel. As Steph is speaking about the powerful female directors at the Festival, Asha reaches up for her from the front row. Calmly, Steph reaches down and picks up her daughter. She continues to speak, beginning to give out the awards. Asha then decides she wants to peer over the edge of the stage and Prasanna Puwanarajah, another judge, comes to kneel beside her to make sure she doesn’t topple over. Administrator and all round organisational-goddess Sarah Georgeson hands over Asha’s headphones and Steph puts them on her. Asha goes for a jog around the stage. Steph continues, talking in turn to Asha and to the two hundred people in front of her.

This is working motherhood. This is showing it can work. This is showing how a little help from a lot of people can make a world of difference. This is showing that women don’t have to be limited by a vagina and uterus, that actually women can do it all. This is maybe the most important lesson of all.

Title quote by Prasanna Puwanarajah.

“Scare yourself as safely as you can”: NSDF 2016

Pink Mist

Note: I know next to nothing about the army. I get the technical details in this from my plus one.

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‘We didn’t know it but we were already history.

And history’s what we’ve become.

Not the kind that’s recorded or sung, perhaps,

but history still. Our own, histories of one.’

Owen Sheers’ Pink Mist is a punch in your chest, a stab in your heart, a whisper in your ear telling you that someone is still there even when they’re gone.

On the thrust stage of the Bristol Old Vic are Hads, Taff and Arthur, our three boys, ‘We might have thought ourselves men/ but we weren’t, not yet, not then.’ It’s Arthur, the one with the cheeky smile, who pushes the others to sign up to go to war, so it’s Arthur who takes responsibility for what happens. As we see the three jump from their small life in Bristol to the wide world of war in Afghanistan, it’s hard to compare who they were with who they are after a few months away. It’s painful to think how much healthier they’d all be if they hadn’t left, but impossible to forget how much they grow in ways they wouldn’t if they had stayed.

It feels like you’re watching hearts and minds break. Almost every word is attached to a movement, making the moments of stillness shine. Noting the repetitions of movements for different meanings contrasts innocence and violence, a firework becoming a bomb just as a playground game of war becomes the real thing. Though dealing with such an aggressive subject, there is a layer of gentleness that runs throughout. As Arthur cradles a bird egg he stole before he went to war, the tenderness in his actions makes him seem like a young boy again.

Every moment tingles. The annunciation, the movements that are so precise. The way Phil Dunster’s body ripples as he leads us through these young men’s lives. The way they all look at each other. The lyrical beauty of Sheer’s words have the ability to either spike or flow, merging an incredible clarity of storytelling with youthful cheekiness and military terminology. It never leaves you behind, regardless of your understanding- or lack thereof- of tanks or training bases, of sangar, bluey or Brize.

Based on interviews with soldiers and their families, the thorough research behind the play is obvious. The green is the exact colour of night vision, the sounds are just what it’s like when a bullet whizzes past you, the helmets are the same as the one lying on the bedroom floor I left this morning. Pink Mist gets the sense of camaraderie that draws so many people to the army. Forget Queen and country, it’s about the men standing next to you. There are no limits to the lengths these men would go to for their friends on the field.

It’s not cheery, obviously. But it’s almost more painful when they’re talking about the good bits. The dark humour that they use to get through it all twists your emotions in seconds. I used to think that crying was this unexplainable thing your body occasionally did, but now I think it’s like there’s too much inside you that some of it has to spill out from your eyes. In a book review of Sheer’s poem is written, ‘there is no forced sentiment’ and this is completely true of the stage version. It is honest, open and funny. It is also terribly, terribly sad.

I imagine that Pink Mist has an extra layer of magic performed in its hometown here in Bristol, that it must lack elsewhere. There’s something special about being able to hear about Thekla in the play after walking past it on your way to the theatre.

This story makes you realise that sometimes it takes something awful to happen to make you see just how lucky you are. Count the blessings, not the curse.

Regardless of personal views or personal ties to the military, Pink Mist is a thing of beauty. But if you see it with someone whose future could be being played out in front of you, the play is a two-hour long explosion in your heart, and you might need your hand held for a while after the lights come up.

Bristol Old Vic, 23/02/2016

Pink Mist

Every Brilliant Thing

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I have rarely felt so full of love walking out of a theatre. I want to go and make a playlist of all the songs. I want to tell everyone I love that I love them. I want to go and eat ice cream and watch Jumanji and buy a record player so I can buy records and then read the sleevenotes.

I want to send everyone I know to see it. The ones who are having a really tough time at the moment. The ones who say plays aren’t their thing. The ones who need a break from work. The ones I haven’t spoken to in too long. The ones I want to share laughter and stories and embarrassing moments with.

In Every Brilliant Thing there is a list of all of the best things about life. The list is made to stop someone from killing themselves. It doesn’t work. But it is a brilliant list.

In the play the list gets to 1 million. I’d like to add a few, if that’s okay.

  1. Being embarrassed in front of your friend as you’re made to take off a single shoe and sock to make a sock dog, being asked to name it and somehow only being able to think of ‘Mr Socky’.
  2. How every single person who was involved in that piece was made to feel welcomed and loved and laughed at in the best way possible.
  3. Being able to go through the list at the end and see people’s additions: 414. Earlobes.
  4. How on it that Stage Manager was.
  5. How much my grandma would love Jonny Donahoe.
  6. Walking back from The Tobacco Factory, seeing a cyclist come towards you, stopping to let the cyclist go by, feeling confused as the cyclist slows down next to you and awkwardly realising you’ve stopped right in front of their house.
  7. Not looking where you’re going and almost being attacked by a bush.
  8. Eating strawberry laces as you discuss the warmth and openness in that room.
  9. Singing the Indiana Jones theme tune when you’re walking up Bristolian hills.
  10. Walking the rest of the way home in silence not because you don’t have anything to say, but because you’re too full of strawberry laces and every brilliant thing.

Tobacco Factory Theatre, 10/09/2015

P.s. I wrote more about Duncan Macmillan and Every Brilliant Thing here

Every Brilliant Thing

Duncan Macmillan- Every Brilliant Thing (with extra thoughts on Denise Gough, ice cream and failure)

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I wrote this preview for Every Brilliant Thing for one of my University magazines, Intermission. Unfortunately Duncan Macmillan is too interesting for 800 words so here’s the original article with some added extras.

After several failed attempts at Skype where the ringtone continues even after we can see and hear each other, we eventually get it set up correctly. I’m talking to Duncan Macmillan, author of Lungs, People, Places and Things and Every Brilliant Thing. I’ve never done a Skype interview before but find it makes it far more like a conversation. I can see his books behind him and his mug in hand and hear his crying baby from another room.

He’s in the middle of moving house. ‘I just took on too much stuff. I wasn’t writing for so many years that when people offered me work I just said yes to absolutely everything and then had a baby and then tried to move at the same time. And I don’t recommend doing most of those things, certainly not at the same time.’

***

Every Brilliant Thing follows a child’s attempt to understand depression. At its core is a list, started by the boy after his mum’s first suicide attempt. It begins with

  1. Ice cream

and gets added to at various points throughout his life until it reaches 1 million. ‘The list still has a Facebook group I think. People started their own list there and sometimes when we tour it around people want to add in their own little bits. That’s been really lovely.’ When people contribute their own, the same things come up again and again, particularly ‘hammocks, Kate Bush and different kinds of cheeses.’

Every Brilliant Thing began as a short monologue called Sleevenotes, now Macmillan’s Twitter handle. He wrote it as a ‘thank you and an apology’ to a friend who had been in his previous play but had no words and for the most part had her back to the audience. It became part of the Later series of writer’s performing their own work at Paines Plough, then formed into an art installation and then got taken to Latitude. ‘We really liked the feeling of people just getting up and reading it for the first time and not performing it too much’. Macmillan got Jonny Donahoe of Jonny and The Baptists involved, ‘a friend and a brilliant stand-up comedian’. Having a performer who isn’t an actor gives a play a different quality. ‘It happened whenever I read it, and it happens with Jonny now. People think it’s true.’

Macmillan worked intensely on the research process. ‘There was a lot that we wanted to communicate TED talk-style about depression and statistics and the brain and how moods are defined by chemistry- all this stuff I found really interesting and then you put in front of an audience and its totally dramatically inert so they don’t listen.’ They tested out lots of different ways of staging and storytelling and getting the audience involved. ‘We talked about it endlessly’. As it mixes comedy and depression, it is a difficult show to advertise. ‘From the title it sounds like a children’s play.’

They tested it out in Edinburgh. ‘Hilariously and magnificently, when no one had any faith in it whatsoever, it was reviewed brilliantly in its first preview.’ Later that year Chris Weigand of the Guardian put it as his number 1 show of 2014. ‘Suddenly the momentum rolled and rolled’. It got picked up by a production company looking for a cheap show to take to the Barrow Street Theatre in New York and as Macmillan notes, ‘this is the cheapest show you can find.’ When they went to larger theatres like this ‘it was a big question of how to keep the intimacy, the lack of artifice, without it feeling like a whole bunch of British amateurs had just arrived’.

Macmillan, Perrin and Donahoe felt the need to talk about ‘something really important which we didn’t feel anyone else was really talking about in an accurate or useful way.’ A huge step in the research process was stumbling upon the Werther Effect that explains how suicide is socially contagious. ‘So if you know someone who has committed suicide, that makes the chance of you taking your own life much higher. That was quite a terrifying thing to learn.’ Because of this, a huge responsibility comes with talking about suicide. ‘We will always be peripheral to some crushing loneliness and sadness in someone else and we need to be more alert and empathetic to that.’

‘If you live a long life and get to the end of it without ever once having felt crushingly depressed, then you probably haven’t been paying attention.’

‘I was brought up on a diet of mid 90s theatre where everyone was really desperately alone and miserable and abusive to each other and then they all killed each other in the end. It was all very hard hitting, in your face theatre. It seems a very uncool thing to say let’s all just be kind to ourselves and eachother and look for nice things that make it worth living, particularly in a show that’s trying to be formally innovative. But it did feel like it was a useful thing to say’.

In one of their development stages they gave out feedback forms. ‘It was really astonishing, when we were playing to maybe 20 people, how many had direct experience of suicidal depression’. In New York Donahoe has to make a policy of not going out after the show because so many people stayed around to tell their own stories. ‘He wanted to do it as much as possible but after doing a one man hour long show with so many variables it’s pretty exhausting. Its very emotionally and physically draining, and then he had to come out and talk to 30, 40 people about suicide and he found that quite overwhelming.’

‘I now realise that it’s important to talk about things. Particularly the things that are the hardest to talk about.’

The events around the show can also elevate it. Robin Williams took his own life around the time of their first performance in Edinburgh. ‘As he was often at the festival, and because everyone is a fan, it was crushingly sad.’ Audiences would leave the theatre after Jonny had talked about the ways the  media shouldn’t present suicide, only to see it all splashed out on the front pages. ‘To see it immediately in the cultural moment and to have that immediate frame of reference gave us new purpose.’ Towards the end Jonny, to keep the spirit of Robin Williams in the show, Jonny would often include a reference to Mawk and Mindy or Jumanji.

Every Brilliant Thing relies on audience interaction and improvisation. ‘He makes it so the audience they can’t fail and you’re not being cruel or humiliating that person, you’re allowing them to flourish.’ Jonny is the safety net for the audience. ‘He thrives on things going wrong. The shows where the unexpected happens,’ Macmillan notes, ‘they’re sort of the most magic ones.’ In part it’s down to Jonny’s casting of the audience. ‘The show always gets up late because he’s spending time getting to know everyone in the room and trying to work out who he can call on to do various bits and pieces.’

  1. Planning a declaration of love.

Comedian Josie Long played Sam, the girlfriend, in one of the first shows in Edinburgh. ’She basically sobbed throughout the whole thing, from where Sam is asked to read the list entries from 1000 to 1005 or 6. When she proposed to Jonny she made found a receipt in her pocket and she made this ring and he then wore it for the rest of the show. Moments like that, Jonny is alive to.’

Macmillan mentions another variable that depends more on where the show is being performed. ‘Sam can be a man or a woman which we did quite a lot in New York. Jonny doesn’t often choose male Sams here as it does different things in different rooms. In New York West Village it is radical in a slightly different way. Here’s a show about a gay man where we don’t know his sexuality until 45 minutes through the show, and I’m in love with this person and we never refer to the fact that we’re the same gender. And that was exciting and radical and exciting in its own way.’ He is working on several shows at the moment where those sorts of variables are inherently imbedded in the structure, ‘because I find that thing really exciting as an audience member’.

  1. Knowing someone well enough to get them to check your teeth for broccoli.

In general, Every Brilliant Thing is apolitical. Suicide and depression do not only affect one political party, and the gesture of this show is to be as inclusive as possible. However sometimes in ad libs it just slips out. ‘At one point in the play Jonny asks if anyone has a book. ‘I think it happened in Chipping Nauton. It was quite a small audience, just after the election. He asked if anyone had a book, they said no and he said, ‘this is why we’ve got a Tory government’.’ They cut a line for New York that says there are more suicides under right wing governments. That was fascinating to me, but we decided to cut that line because everything else in the show is very apolitical and if you are a right wing person you are with the show up until that line and its meaning something to you and then you think this isn’t inclusive.’

Macmillan’s favourite number on the list constantly changes. ‘There’s one I really like which was invented by one of the designers I worked with, which is about idioms in real life.’

  1. When idioms coincide with real-life occurrences, for instance: waking up, realising something and simultaneously smelling coffee.

‘I really like the word plinth. I really like bed, particularly at the moment when I’m not getting much sleep. I also really like the very specific ones. I really like palindromes, which is number 123321.’

***

ON DENISE GOUGH, JONNY DONAHOE AND THINGS GOING WRONG

‘The shows where things go wrong, they’re sort of the most magic ones. Hopefully it’s always good because Jonny’s always great and he thrives on things going wrong, sort of like Denise Gough does. Things happening live in the room she’s like great this is what’s happening and can respond to it really well. When traps and furniture doesn’t come up or down in the way that it should she can deal with it, she doesn’t get phased by that at all, whereas sometimes actors go, not necessarily in that show, but they go I learn my track, I learn where I stand and how I go about it, and if something throws me off I don’t know what to do, I’m panicking. Whereas Denise and Jonny- I’d love to just put them I a show together and just give them loads of instructions.’

ON MIXTAPES

‘I also love making mixtapes for people.’

‘How do you even make a mixtape anymore?’

‘Because I’m very old and I have my old technology. Or I love making playlists for people or making CDs,’ he pauses, ‘which are these old disks that old people have’.

‘I’ve heard of them’.

‘I love placing things. And I love how you place things which belong to different genres or categories but somehow collating things and looking at things in different contexts. God that’s a really boring way of saying I make mixtapes’.

ON LISTS

‘I’ve always had a short attention span as you can probably tell from interviewing me. But I also love really really long form novels. It’s just having the time to actually read it. But I love making lists, that’s how I break things down and make sense of them.

There’s something called the list in new York so we had to give the best something and I did the 10 best break up songs and Jonny did the 10 best places to get waffles in Manhattan.’

Duncan Macmillan’s 10 Best Break Up Songs:

(From The Culturalist)

  1. Love Will Tear Us Apart- Joy Division
  2. Against All Odds- Phil Collins
  3. No Children- The Mountain Goats
  4. Ex-Factor- Lauren Hill
  5. Total Eclipse of the Heart- Bonnie Tyler
  6. Someone Great- LCD Soundsystem
  7. I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself- Dusty Springfield
  8. Back To Black- Amy Winehouse
  9. Bring It On Home To Me- Sam Cooke
  10. I Changed My Mind- Lyrics Born

ON LISTICLES

‘I’m way too old to know what that is.’

*I explain*

‘I have no massively strong opinion on listicles.’

‘Fair enough. Let’s move on.’

ON ACTING VS WRITING

‘What was interesting for me at the point of doing the short story [Sleevenotes] for the first time was that I still maybe at that point harboured ambitions of being an actor, and it was a really interesting point of having an audience in front of me but realising that I must more trusted what I had written than my own capacity to act it.’

ON EVERY BRILLIANT THING, PP&T AND EXTERNAL CONTROL

‘With all my writing there’s an interest in feeling like I’m authenticating my own ideas and thoughts and feelings and actually the more you learn that there is no- and I go into this a lot with People, places and things, there really is no such thing as objective truth or the self, when you really interrogate what that is. You’re being controlled by all sorts of external factors and there was something really interesting and empowering about that knowledge.

ON ROBIN WILLIAMS AND PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN

‘[Robin Williams taking his own life during the run of Every Brilliant Thing in Ediburgh] was a bit like working on People, Places and Things and Philip Seymour Hoffman dying of a heroin overdose, and that causing such a ripple in the fellowship, in AA meetings, and so many people knew him because he’d show up at meetings wherever he was working around the world. His death was a big reminder to everyone how close they are to it at any time. Again an enormous talent that everyone loved and it was just so crushingly sad.’

ON ICE CREAM

‘What’s your favourite ice cream?’

‘Vanilla. That’s really boring.’

‘That’s really boring. That’s not going in the interview.’

‘God no. I mean ice cream is partly there as well as a reference to Wallace Shawn. I don’t think anyone else knows that. Wallace Shawn who’s one of my favourite playwrights. He’s an amazing actor too, you’d recognise him from The Princess Bride and Manhattan. I’ve been very fortunate to get to know him over the past few years and his work has always been an inspiration to me- him and Caryl Churchill, so its amazing to be at the same season as them at the Dorfman. But he just loves ice cream and will always talk about that as one of the joys and pleasures of the world. And so that’s sort of a reference to him. And it’s also a pretty indisputable thing. There are very few people who go ‘eurgh, ice cream? No.’ And it’s also the title of a Caryl Churchill play. So there are lots of things that no one will know but little literary references all the way through.’

‘I wasn’t expecting such an interesting answer from ice cream’.

***

After almost an hour of talking about theatre, clubbing and ice cream, an interruption from the police and a debate about the reputation of Drama courses, I have to run off to a lecture.

‘I hope you enjoy the show. It would be awful if you hated it now.’

***

P.S Every Brilliant Thing is in Bristol 6th-10th October. Macmillan used to go clubbing in the space that now holds The Tobacco Factory, ‘like many, many years ago’.

Duncan Macmillan- Every Brilliant Thing (with extra thoughts on Denise Gough, ice cream and failure)