With a Little Help From Your Friends: Getting Every Brilliant Thing Onstage

What happened at Silo Theatre when live performance met the year 2020.

“I remember there was probably about three or four days where we literally just sat. I felt like I just sat watching my screen, completely frozen, almost debilitated in this limbo state where I just did not know what to do.” Jess Smith, Silo Theatre’s Executive Director, recalls what it was like to run a theatre company when, in late March, live performance was outlawed overnight. “I didn't know what the right decision was. I didn't know how we were going to even approach the idea of having to postpone a bunch of stuff or cancel shows, and how audiences were going to react.”

It’s now November, and here you are, together with a bunch of strangers, sitting in Samoa House in Tāmaki Makaurau, about to watch a show. After the year we’ve had, it’s a wee bit of a miracle. So here’s a small glimpse into running a theatre during a pandemic, and the story of how Silo Theatre’s Every Brilliant Thing finally made it to the stage, after all.

Like every theatre and performance festival, not only in Aotearoa, but across the world, once the reality of Covid settled, Silo began the painful, prosaic work of unproducing. Theatre seasons are planned up to 18 months out from launch, and often there may be shows that have been in the pipeline for several years. Marketing timelines, casting timelines, venue timelines, they all have substantial lead-ins, work that is chipped away at on a day-to-day basis. For theatres, whose work lies in turning the imaginary into the concrete, unproducing en masse – unpicking all of these elements, dismantling before anything sees the light of day – is a somewhat unnatural state.

"It's a piece of live performance that really requires togetherness"

The first decision was what to do with The Writer, the play that was due to begin rehearsals only five weeks after Silo’s Auckland Arts Festival offering UPU had closed. If the team was to launch a marketing campaign without knowing if the season dates for that show could remain, the company would start hemorrhaging money with no guarantee of recoupment. It swiftly became clear that The Writer would need to be postponed. Silo’s Artistic Director Sophie Roberts remembers, “Everyone was in that panic cancel mode.”

Then there was the waiting. That kind of waiting we’re all so familiar with now; making as many firm decisions as possible while trying to remain open to any eventuality. “After a month, then after another month, it started to feel increasingly like getting anything up this year was going to be impossible,” says Sophie. Break Bread, Silo’s devised show, was the next possibility to decide on, and it had to be struck from the 2020 programme too. “We had a whole timeline there for getting that team together, getting the work developed, created and then on stage by the end of the year,” Jess explains, “And again, we were just like, if people can't be in a room together, working together, there's just no way.”

A few months after Aotearoa emerged from Level 4 lockdown, the possibility of offering up a show to audiences sometime later in the year looked a squeak more possible. At that point it became clear that Every Brilliant Thing was a gift of a show to have in Silo’s programming arsenal for many reasons. “Logistically, it's a great little flexible piece of theatre. But also just thematically, it feels like the perfect kind of tonic to the year that we've had as well. And it's a piece of live performance that really requires togetherness”, Sophie says.

Described by UK theatre critic Lyn Gardner as the funniest play you’ll ever see about depression, Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing is a one-person show which, through collaboration with its audience, is partly created afresh each night. The play was first commissioned by Pentabus Theatre Company and Paines Plough, two leading UK touring theatres dedicated to new writing. Its touring roots have made it a small and nimble saving grace for 2020 programming. “It was the one we knew we would if we could,” Sophie notes. Which in 2020 is as close as anything gets to concrete.

Performer Jason Te Kare

Zoom rehearsal with director Danielle Cormack

In Every Brilliant Thing, a single storyteller tells us how, as a seven year old, they tried to make sense of their mum’s depression and suicide attempt. Back then, they began a list of everything in the world there was to live for, and the list grew and grew into the thousands as they moved into adulthood. The play manages to navigate mental illness, loss and the realisation that you can’t always make someone happy, with levity and a confiding honesty.

Macmillan’s text is a deceptively simple piece of playwriting. It takes the form of unadorned storytelling, but a basic principle is that, as the audience, we’re all very much involved. Before the show begins, a random selection of audience members are each given one line of text (one ‘brilliant thing’) that will be used at some point, and at various stages members of the audience play roles in our narrator’s story. I know, it sounds pat or terrifying, but there’s a soft everydayness at the heart of the writing that puts you at ease. The play demands a familiarity and informality from its performer; they feel like our friend. At the show’s conclusion there’s a rare sense of truly having helped create a little thing together, guided by our mate on stage.

The original production was scripted by playwright Macmillan in collaboration with its first performer, Jonny Donahoe, who is himself a well-known UK stand-up comedian and musician. The script was iterated through performance and informed by Donahoe’s countless live encounters, and that generosity to the live moment that stand-ups inherently possess is woven through the fabric of the play.

It’s this human intimacy – the performer’s acknowledgement and openness to the live audience – that gave Silo reassurance that even if the show had to go ahead with a socially distanced audience at a range of alert levels, this particular show wouldn’t feel diminished by a smaller gathering. “I think we knew with Every Brilliant Thing that we would be able to do it with those sorts of requirements in place and that the work wouldn't suffer,” says Jess. “The experience wouldn't be any less for the audience or the performer or the team that were making it.”

There’s a soft everydayness at the heart of the writing that puts you at ease

When it came to Silo’s production, however, there was another pressing pandemic decision to be made, and that was the small problem of both the originally slated performer Robbie Magasiva and director Danielle Cormack being based in Australia, and due to fly over to rehearse. There was no way that Robbie could leave locked-down Melbourne, or that Sydney-based Danielle would be able to quarantine in New Zealand with enough time to spare for rehearsals. A solution was found in seasoned actor and director Anapela Polata’ivao stepping into the solo role, and the equally experienced actor and director Jason Te Kare, who would share the role alongside her, performing on alternate nights. Danielle would direct the actors from Sydney via Zoom, and Jason would also support with direction in the room. Just as that was decided, Auckland’s second lockdown crashed in, and it looked like Silo’s plans might have to shift again. But lockdown fortunately lifted just as rehearsals were scheduled to begin.

There’s no denying it, the dynamic of the rehearsal room has been an unfamiliar one for all involved, with a director Zooming in on a laptop and working with two different actors on the floor. But theatre people are pretty comfortable with the unfamiliar, and Anapela, Jason and Danielle work with a focus, fire and huge aroha for the story they’re about to tell. As Danielle says, despite the necessary setup, “I still feel like I’m at home by being in the room with Ana and Jase, and [stage manager] Lucie, even though I’m across the ditch.”

The live performance industry is in for a long road ahead. But there have been upsides to such a tumultuous year. For one, the state of inertia Jess found herself in didn’t last too long. After that debilitating sense of paralysis, she picked up the phone one day and started to ring some colleagues. “[Those] I really don't talk to that often, and people who I would see as tuakana in terms of their dynamic or relationship with me. And was like, ‘I don't know what to do. What are you doing?’” As a result of those calls, good conversations have begun.

“It's funny, isn't it?” she reflects, “I feel like it's galvanised us in a certain way, the industry. I feel like it's pushed some of those weird barriers a bit out of the way and made us all realise that we're actually a lot more connected and a part of the same mission than perhaps we thought before. I think that’s a silver lining.”

Welcome back to Silo 2020.

Silo Theatre’s Every Brilliant Thing runs from 5 November-6 December 2020 at Samoa House, Auckland. Tickets available here.

Images: David St George Photography

This piece is presented as part of a partnership with Silo Theatre and appears in the show programme. Silo covers the costs of paying our writers while we retain all editorial control.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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