“Tragedy, you die. Comedy, you get hitched,” quips a literature professor paraphrasing Italo Calvino’s much higher-sounding quote about the duality of story. Traditionally, there are only two drama masks, and the Station has definitely paid due attention to the first this season, so I think we’re due for something brilliant – both bright and smart – to bring us back up after a 1-2 punch from an Irish playwright. The upcoming production of Every Brilliant Thing written by Duncan Macmillan & Jonny Donohoe, promises to be a balm during this particularly dark winter.
Donohoe, the co-writer, also originated the role of the one-man show, partially based on his own experiences. The titular “brilliant things” come from a list of things that made seven year-old Jonny smile, which he hoped would rescue his mother from a suicidal depression. The play uses these things, many of which are handed out on slips of paper to every attendee, as the mooring-points for anecdotes from the man’s life as he grows. Since there is only one actor on stage, reportedly, he often has to dip into the audience for character support.
The Station’s production is being directed by Katie Prosise, veteran of both sides of the stage. About the audience participation, she explains, “This is an extended make-believe game; it’s what we did as children to recreate reality in our own perception. It’s liberating, if you’re comfortable with trying.” She goes on to reassure that both her actors are quite good at reading people, and are interested in creating a safe space where participants can be comfortable yet vulnerable, “and seeing where things take us.” She also encourages that there are places where having more volunteers will actually make the scenes funnier.
Both her actors? Yes, the director has chosen two different one-mans for this show, to perform on alternate nights. Jason Dockins is a stand-up comedian and member of the Abe Froman Project improv group. William Anthony Sebastian Rose II is a Celebration Company regular who is usually seen in more traditional dramatic roles. Since most of this performance is going to be about the delivery, rather than the plot, I sent each of them a few questions.
Smile Politely: Did the actors’ different theatrical backgrounds make a difference in the way they approached the role?
Prosise: Jason tells stories in his standup. He’s incredibly good at it. He knows right where the audience is -when they’re with him and when he needs to push- and he’s not afraid to be personal. In fact, he thrives on vulnerability. Froman, his improvisation troupe, is all about telling a story and basing characters on real was. He simply knows where the next step is.
William can transition from tragedy to comedy with neck break speed. He has me in tears of empathy and then snaps me into laughter the very next second. I’ve seen him do so many comedies over the years, and so few dramas, that it’s been an absolute treat to see him work.
Rose: When I first read the script for this show the first thing I thought was “That’s a lot of words.” Being that it’s a one man show I realize now how much I rely on other actors to keep me on pace with the direction of the story and the flow, but this show being so heavily reliant on audience participation and improvisation what I have found interesting is I actually start random conversations, that deal with the show, or scenes that are involved and I just start discussing them with anyone within range. All while trying not to give away too much of the story. But it’s very interesting what you can find out about yourself and society as a whole when you start having those uncomfortable conversations and examining the reactions. The most important thing I want is to make sure the conversation is one that is comfortable, relaxed, and fun while still making the story relatable and fully delving into all of its depths. I hope this gives you a glimpse into my world. This has not been an easy show but it is definitely an incredible one that I hope I can do justice to.
Dockins: I guess I began prepping for the show like a stand-up. I broke the script down to discreet chunks, gave them names, wrote them down like a setlist, then just learned the order of the chunks. That’s how I learned the show.
As far as preparing for the performance it was just a matter of finding the emotional tone for each chunk. The show can be very funny but it also holds some heavy emotional moments and finding how to weave those moments together has been key.
SP: Katie, before your directorial debut, the News-Gazette reported that you were interested in scripts with “a few characters and one set”, but were instead chosen for more traditional productions. Now with two dramatic plays behind you, you’re finally doing a one-man show – is it what you thought it’d be like?
Prosise: Both of my other shows were small casts (fewer than 6 people) but neither had one setting. This play has many settings, too, without using typical pieces like flats, doors, or decor. I’m learning that an inspiring script will make me stretch myself and my team a lot, and the “stats” don’t really make a difference to me.
Working a one-person show is about how I expected it to be, as far as the character and story development go. William is an experienced dramatic actor with superb emotional sense, and Jason is an improvisor with no limits to what he’ll try.
My personal life has shaped the process, and visa versa, much more than I anticipated. Having a child, working more than full time, and traveling have gobbled up all of my time. Not to mention this is the time for little ones to pass germs around! My whole family, cast, and some of the family I work for have been sick in the past month.
Fortunately, my assistant director, Renee, is more than willing and capable to handle things when I’m away. My husband, Mike, is as flexible, supportive, and understanding as a person can get. He’s also an actor, designer, and director; he gets it. He’s not eating sour grapes while I pass some of my jobs to him during these hectic weeks.
SP: Would you say it is more or less challenging than your other directing gigs?
Prosise: It’s hard to compare because I’m working with all new actors with each show I’ve done. While I’ve been ON stage with many of the actors I’ve directed, each cast has been completely fresh to me as a director.
I think it’s harder for the actors to memorize because there’s no back-and-forth. It’s much easier, as far as I can tell, to make decisions about the character and story, though, because they’re not affecting any other actors with their experimentation. They can just go for it.
SP: Which do you prefer?
Prosise: I hate to avoid answering but I can’t. All kinds of casts and stories have been a challenge in different ways.
SPL: Clearly, curing depression is more complicated than just making a list of good things (otherwise buzzfeed would be charging Tier III Pharma prices per click) and knowing that this is the strategy of a child makes it easier to understand. Would you say that the script acknowledges the complexity of mental health issues, and if so, in what way?
Prosise: This script acknowledges all of those complex issues. The storyteller even says that this list, out of context, is childish. And then the list changes…into a letter, a gift, a project, a distraction…
We get to help that story unfold. That’s just one reason I love Every Brilliant Thing so much.
SP: So what’s your favorite brilliant thing?
Prosise: #26 peeing in the sea and nobody knows.
It’s just a great feeling.
Rose: Number 25, wearing a cape!
Dockins: At the risk of sounding like a sap, number 9995: Falling in love.
Every Brilliant Thing opens Thursday, December 1st and runs through Sunday, December 17th, with performances at 8 p.m., except one special 3 p.m. matinee this Sunday. Tickets are $10 on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; $15 on Friday and Saturday. Regarding Ms. Prosise’s encouragement that more people will make a better show, discounts are available for groups of 10 or more. Call 217-384-4000 for more information, or make a reservation online.
All images from relatively old prior SP articles.