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
- 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.’
- 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’.
- 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.’
- 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.’
‘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’.
‘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)
- Love Will Tear Us Apart- Joy Division
- Against All Odds- Phil Collins
- No Children- The Mountain Goats
- Ex-Factor- Lauren Hill
- Total Eclipse of the Heart- Bonnie Tyler
- Someone Great- LCD Soundsystem
- I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself- Dusty Springfield
- Back To Black- Amy Winehouse
- Bring It On Home To Me- Sam Cooke
- I Changed My Mind- Lyrics Born
‘I’m way too old to know what that is.’
‘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’.