The first time actress Teresa Herrera and director Jenny Jamora met to stage Duncan Macmillan’s internationally-acclaimed Every Brilliant Thing, they didn’t even talk about the play.
“We didn’t talk about the story,” says Herrera, sitting cross-legged on a counter in her dressing room. She’s fresh off tonight’s performance, which ended in a well-deserved standing ovation courtesy of an audience of lifestyle journalists. “We talked about why we were doing it.”
The importance of why becomes apparent once one learns what Every Brilliant Thing is about: An ever-growing, changing list of wonderful, life-affirming things a character begins to create the first time her mother comes home from the hospital after her first suicide attempt.
“Jenny’s first question to me was, ‘What’s your history with mental health?’” recalls Herrera. “I explained to her that I had friends who’ve committed suicide. I’ve had my bouts of severe anxiety that have been debilitating. I’m aware of mental health, and it’s an important subject we should talk about, and put on the table.”
Every Brilliant Thing speaks of depression, but it is by no means depressing. Instead, it masterfully navigates the whole range of emotion that comes with life: hope, anger, confusion, love, happiness, and the like. The play goes from voicing darker thoughts we have in the dead of night (“Why is it so hard to talk about how we feel?”) to celebrating the small, profound things that make life worth living. The list of every brilliant thing in the world grows from ice cream, rollercoasters, and watching people fall over to the more uncannily specific, like aromatic duck pancakes with hoisin sauce, watching someone watch your favorite movie, and Christopher Walken’s voice.
The play is something one item on the list concisely describes: Something which articulates exactly how you feel, but lacks the words to express yourself. That universality is the challenge any actor taking on this one-woman show has to take on.
“I had to be completely vulnerable and completely raw to be able to access this character's depth,” says Herrera. As the list grows, so does the character behind it: the actress moves seamlessly between a narrator telling her own story to a seven-year-old talking to a sock puppet, a teenager yelling across a dinner table, a college student making eyes at a boy in a library. “I was really just working on vulnerability and making myself open. Usually, when I work on roles and characters, I start from the outside-in. The physicality, how do they look, how do they walk, how do they talk? But this time, it was the other way around. It started from inside, and then, work out. Because in a weird way, that's kind of how mental health is.”
Working from the inside-out is an apt way of describing this production, staged theater-in-the-round style and breaking the fourth wall between protagonist and the audience. Items on the list are given out on slips of paper at the beginning of the show, to be yelled out at Herrera’s say-so. As the character reenacts moments from her life, Herrera masterfully casts random audience members into roles every night with simple segues like “Excuse me, sir, can you play my dad?” And to everyone’s surprise, they gamely do.
“Each show is different,” says Herrera. “Each person we talk to, each person that I cast as a different character, gives me a different energy every single time. It keeps the show fresh, and it amazes me that if you give people a platform, they step up.”
How each impromptu cast member acts varies wildly, and every joke lands differently (you can imagine the reaction to Herrera whipping out guidelines on how the media, which makes up a big chunk of the evening's audience, can report suicide intelligently). What doesn’t change is the feeling of freedom that the intimate space—minimally designed, but for the occasional tower of books—evokes. All the audience can see is the actress, and she can see them right back.
“I can see people’s eyes,” she describes. “They’re sometimes tearing, or they’re confused, or they don’t look at me at all because it confronted something inside of them.”
What makes The Sandbox Co. and 9Works Theatrical’s production of Every Brilliant Thing even more unique is the talkback with a mental health professional that happens after every show—a refreshing addition from productions around the world. “We wanted to make sure that we handled the subject matter responsibly and were authentic about it,” Herrera explains “This is the kind of play that hits you days later. Just let it sit. Don’t overanalyze. What you saw now is just the beginning.”
It’s the beginning of a conversation getting louder in the country, on social media, newspapers, and dinner tables. And this take on Every Brilliant Thing does something that most others haven’t: giving people a voice.
Every Brilliant Thing opened February 2 at the Zobel de Ayala Recital Hall, Maybank Performing Arts Theater, 26th Street, cor. 9th Avenue, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. For tickets, visit ticketworld.com.ph, or call 0956-200-4909.