Actors Theatre aims to spark conversation, joy with 'Every Brilliant Thing,' which delves into a life shaped by depression
The production marks an Actors Theatre directorial debut for new staff member Amelia Acosta Powell. Actor Jon Norman Schneider returns to the theater's stage.
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By Elizabeth Kramer
Last month’s news that Cheslie Kryst, Miss USA 2019, and Ian Alexander Jr., a musician, DJ and son of actor and director Regina King, died by suicide, struck a nerve with many in the small crew and one-member cast of of “Every Brilliant Thing.”
Amelia Acosta Powell, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s new impact producer, is directing the production of “Every Brilliant Thing.” Photo courtesy Actors Theatre of Louisville.
“This feels extremely relevant,” said Amelia Acosta Powell, who directs Actors Theatre of Louisville’s production that opens on Feb. 9.
This one-person play written by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe is about a son who works to cheer his mother’s depression which includes suicide attempts. He defines things for her that he finds wonderful in life, and, in the process, cultivates this list and it develops to give more meaning to his life. “Every Brilliant Thing” premiered at England’s Ludlow Fringe Festival in 2013 before going to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and then to London and New York. It has since been popular among many regional theaters.
STAY TUNED: Reviews of “Every Brilliant Thing” after the Feb. 9 opening:
from Gracie Vanover via Arts Bureau Edge, the youth arts journalism endeavor;
from Elizabeth Kramer, here on Louisville Arts Bureau.
Actors Theatre brings the play to the stage in the year after authorities reported Louisville’s suicide rates had risen to their highest level in a decade. The theater, recognizing this and the toll the pandemic has taken on mental health, wanted to stage a work that can destigmatize conversations around mental health and foster mental wellness.
Since mid-January, Powell, the theater’s new impact producer, and the crew have been working in rehearsals with Jon Norman Schneider, who plays the boy telling this story. As the sole person on stage, Powel calls his responsibility to carry the show “huge.”
Remember, any actor in this role is talking about depression and suicide but, as Powell said, doing so in “a very joyful and life-affirming piece.” Schneider credited the play’s structure and its use of improvisation for pulling this off.
To achieve the latter, Schneider has been getting coaching from Sarah Kirwin, an improvisational performer and teacher. Kirwin is his understudy, but her main role has been working with Schneider to help him sharpen his improv skills. A solo actor needs these to seamlessly integrate audience interaction into this play. Those interactions come from questions and conversations the main character initiates.
Jon Norman Schneider in the 2011 production of “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” by A. Rey Pamatmat. Schneider (left) and Teresa Avia (right). Photo by Michael Brosilow.
During rehearsals, Kirwin plays the roles of various audience members.
“On any different day, she will bring a different energy to rehearsals or deliberately go off the rails to try to get me to see how my work might be affected,” Schneider said. “I can try to steer the story back to where it needs to be.”
Sometimes Kirwin emulates a very cooperative spectator and other times a very shy person who is hesitant to participate. Then she portrays an overenthusiastic patron who, as Powell said, “wants to extend the interaction beyond the scope of what we’ve planned.”
Powell and Schneider called Kirwin’s role on the team pivotal.
Schneider, who has performed improvisation since his training in school, described this work as “fun” while “intimidating.” That’s saying a lot for an actor whose extensive resume includes main roles in the theater’s 2011 production of “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” by A. Rey Pamatmat and 2017’s “Recent Alien Abductions” by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas. Both were part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays. In the latter, his character gave a nearly 30-minute monologue.
He recalled the challenge of his role in “Recent Alien Abductions” comparing it to “Every Brilliant Thing.”
“I hadn’t done anything like that before,” he said. “And I knew I was able to do that. So (when) this came across my lap I thought — well, I was able to do that at Actors Theatre. Maybe that is the place to go to tackle this.”
Jon Norman Schneider in the 2017 production of “Recent Alien Abductions” by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas. Photo by Bill Brymer.
On other fronts, Powell said the staging introduces other qualities to heighten the feeling of a shared experience. For example, Actors Theatre is presenting the play in the round of the Bingham Theatre with lights not fully dimmed so audience members will be able to see each other across the stage during the performance. (The theater, which has upgraded its HVAC system to meet standards established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and enacted policies set out for ventilation for theaters by the Actors' Equity Association, also will follow safety protocols by limiting seating capacity to approximately 50% to allows for social distancing.)
Powel said she hopes it offers “a level of healing that I certainly feel when I watch the production.” But she has other goals for the production that extends beyond the stage and involves her larger role as impact producer, a title more prevalent in the documentary film world. The job has Powell working with staff to determine the intended impact of productions and projects and measure work in progress and results against initial goals and the theater’s mission.
She contrasted it to her most recent position juggling logistics as Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ associate artistic director, which involved line producing productions and working with artists as well as staff to mount full productions.
Powell, as an impact producer for “Every Brilliant Thing,” said she has been aware the play can spark conversations but also raise questions, issues and old wounds for people. So, she has overseen the theater’s work with community partners to facilitate conversations among artists and members of the public and with mental health expert groups such as the National Alliance of Mental Illness. There’s also an online project intended to inspire joy.
With this kind of work on her plate throughout the year on other projects, Powell said she will be directing at least one production at the theater each year.
With her first show at Actors Theatre, she said she has high hopes for “Every Brilliant Thing” as the last week of rehearsal approached.
“Practicing in a room with five people with our masks on,” she said, “just doesn’t quite emulate what it’s going to be like when we have a full audience.”
Actors Theatre of Louisville’s production of “Every Brilliant Thing” by Duncan Macmillan, with Jonny Donahoe.
February 9 through 20, Bingham Theatre, 316 W. Main Street.
For more information, www.actorstheatre.org.