Suicide and mental illness generally aren't topics we like to discuss with much depth, at least not out in the open.
But with the string of recent high-profile suicides in the news and depression rates on the rise, it seems we need these public conversations now more than ever. That's the aim of Duncan MacMillan's play "Every Brilliant Thing," opening this weekend at HatTheatre.
"It deals with suicide, but it's not a sad play," says director Frank Foster. "There's a hopefulness to it."
"Every Brilliant Thing" tells the story of a 7-year-old who learns that his mother has attempted suicide. He begins compiling a list of every brilliant thing he can imagine — all of the reasons that life is worth living —in hopes of raising her spirits. His mother continues to struggle with depression, however, and as he grows, so does his list.
"At different points in his life, the tone of the list may change," says Chris Hester, who stars in this one-man show. Hester says the play will resonate with audiences because the topic is so prevalent in our daily lives. "I don't know a single person in my life who is not impacted in some way by mental illness. Whether it is something they struggle with themselves or from being in the orbit of someone else."
The show addresses these issues without feeling too heavy, which is part of how it manages to invite further discussion of what, for many, is a taboo topic.
"This show, it's very funny. It's also sweet, and sad, of course," Hester says. "But the whole reason I wanted to to this show is that it is presenting this very stigmatized subject in a conversational, light hearted way, and I hope it does something to chip away at that stigma."
Foster says the show is unique in that it involves audience participation, but not in the way audiences might expect.
"The audience takes part in this — they are helping to tell this story," Foster says. Before each performance, Hester will roam the lobby, asking audience members if they are willing and interested in participating.
"They might get a slip of paper with a line to read, for example," Hester says, "or I may whisper something to someone, which they'll repeat." Both actor and director stress that although audience participation is a significant element of this show, it isn't required, and no one will be forced to speak or put on the spot at these performances.
"I've seen shows with audience participation, but I've never seen a show where the audience is kind of helping to propel the story in a lot of ways," Hester says. "It guarantees in a kind of amazing way that every show will be truly different. I'm excited about that and I think it's interesting, concept-wise."
Hester says that staging the play at the theater was a very specific decision.
"The space is small and intimate and I don't think it's ever been used in this way," he says. For this production in the round, Hat's black box theater is transformed, and audience members will be seated on all sides, surrounding Hester as he performs.
"It's been fun creating a space conceptually like a beatnik coffee house," Foster says. "Like it's an open-mic night and this is his chance to tell this story."
Audiences should go into this show with an open mind. It's unusual theater, and it's going to address some difficult topics, but the overall message is one of hope and redemption.
"There's so much heart in the story. There's so much hope," Foster says. "In the worst possible situation, here is a human being's attempt to find hope, and to find things that are wonderful, things that are brilliant, and the hope that you can help someone through that."
HatTheatre's "Every Brilliant Thing" runs from March 1 through March 15. Tickets cost $25. hattheatre.org.