WHEN the narrator in the play Every Brilliant Thing was seven years old, his father delivered the news that his mother was in the hospital as she had “done something stupid”. When the child learnt that his mother found it hard to be happy, he made a list of everything that is brilliant and left it on her pillow. His list kept growing, as life turned out to be one emotional roller-coaster ride. The interactive play, written by British playwright Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, opened at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2014.
A couple of years later, Mumbai-based theatre practitioner Quasar Thakore Padamsee read the play and instantly loved it. “As with any play of this delicate a nature, it takes a little time to come to fruition. Firstly, you have to be in the right head space to embark on the journey of creating it, and of course find the right actor,” says Thakore Padamsee. The latest version of the play, directed by him and performed by Vivek Madan, opened at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre recently and has had several shows since. Some of them were followed by discussions on mental health.
The producers at Q Theatre Productions (QTP) — Toral Shah, Vivek Rao and Thakore Padamsee — toyed with several names before zeroing in on Bengaluru-based Madan to perform the play. Madan, who came on board last November, says: “I was intrigued by the brief that Quasar gave me even before I read the script. He said that this was a play stripped entirely of artifice; there was to be no acting. Secondly, we needed to tell a story that an audience could ‘witness’ and participate in.”
The format of the play, which is presented with lights on, blurs any barrier between the actor-narrator and the audience, who are seated in a circle. “One of the things we were very clear about is that the audience helps the actor take the story forward. Just like you need support when dealing with mental health issues, the audience supports the actor in narrating the story. It’s a shared experience,” says Thakore Padamsee. In this story told in first-person and infused with a feel-good vibe, members of the audience play various roles — a veterinarian, for instance, helped put to rest the narrator’s dog, his father, his school counsellor and his lover. As he listed all those those things he finds brilliant, some audience members read them from the chits that were given to them before the show started.
The play deals with issues of depression, mental health and suicide with sensitivity. “It’s a man’s story of how he wrestled with all that life threw at him. It’s a deeply personal story, and that’s why the writing works so well,” says Thakore Padamsee. For Madan, it was fun to keep talking to the audience and react to their responses. “The interaction with the audience is written into the text so cleverly that it is now hard to imagine how this story can be told in another way. The biggest challenge is that we can never really nail down the way the story flows. Every show is different. It’s equally challenging for the audience to be as vulnerable and trust me as the narrator. It’s truly a community exercise,” he says.
Initially, they didn’t know how to rehearse this play since so much is dependent on the audience. “Rehearsal was about preparing the actor for any possible outcome. To begin with, it was only Vivek and me in the rehearsal room. Soon, we were joined by Sanjay Bharadwaj, the stage manager. After a bit, Toral, the designer and creative producer, stepped in. We also brought in a young actor named Robbin Singh in. His job was to be different and difficult audience members. We did a variety of airings to groups of people,” says Thakore Padamsee. During the rehearsal, they took care to make the story an honest sharing. “We tried our best to keep talking to people instead of at them. This entailed a certain amount of being in the moment and making the story my own,” says Madan.
The post-show discussions allow people to share their thoughts. Meera Damji, who runs a show about mental health issues on the radio, volunteered to moderate these discussions. “The discussions have become very open and informative. The experts on the panel have taken great pains to explain things, particularly to people who want to be a support and don’t know how. Every Brilliant Thing is not just a play, it’s a much larger project. That’s why our flyers have links to iCall and Bridge The Care Gap,” says Thakore Padamsee, who has directed plays such as A Peasant of El Salvador and Project S.T.R.I.P. He wants to take the play to schools and colleges. “It’s an easily stage-able play, and talks about an unsaid topic in a very uplifting way. That’s the power of the play. Currently, plans are afoot for shows in Bengaluru, Pune and Delhi. Hopefully, in Chennai too,” he says.