Lives Worth Living
‘Every Brilliant Thing’ a new high for T2
by Lara-Jo Hightower
In a little over a decade, TheatreSquared has established itself as a powerhouse regional theater that attracts phenomenal talent from acting hubs like New York and Chicago, as well as homegrown talent from right here in Northwest Arkansas. But with the casting of Broadway veteran Liz Callaway in its production of "Every Brilliant Thing," TheatreSquared has reached a zenith. Callaway made her Broadway debut in Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along," sang Andrew Lloyd Webber's sublime "Memories" as Grizabella in "Cats" for five years on Broadway, was the original Ellen in "Miss Saigon" and received a Tony Award nomination for her performance in "Baby." Her resume also includes voicework in animated films like Anya/Anastasia in "Anastasia," Odette in "The Swan" and Jasmine in two of the "Aladdin" sequels.
Yet this Broadway luminary says that appearing in the one-woman show "Every Brilliant Thing" might be the bravest artistic thing she's ever done.
"When I say it's the bravest thing I've ever done -- some of it is that I really kind of get off on things being dangerous," she says with a wide-open smile. "I've always kind of liked it when things go wrong, and you have to figure it out."
While it's true that appearing in a one-person show -- where the full responsibility of the performance rests solely on one actor's shoulders -- is a terrifying prospect, that's not the only thing that might scare an actor about this particular show. The play is about a 7-year-old who starts a list of "every brilliant thing" that exists in the world to combat the stress of watching her mother struggle with mental illness (and attempt to prove to her mother that life is worth living). She adds to the list throughout her life, finding inspiration in the high times, comfort in the low.
It sounds like a fairly simple plot, but the play's intricacies make themselves known almost immediately, and this production is unlike any you're likely to have seen recently. First, it's staged in the round, with an audience on all four sides of Callaway in T2's already-intimate performance space. Second, the fourth wall -- the conceit that the performer is unaware of the audience -- is shattered from the moment the audience walks in, as Callaway delivers her entire performance directly to her observers. Third, while there is usually only one person on the stage, the script requires Callaway to recruit audience members to join her from time to time. Playwrights Duncan MacMillan and Jonny Donahue have devised ingenious ways to invite those people in to the action. (Those who just felt a shiver of fear, don't fret: Participation is far from mandatory, and the last thing Callaway's personable, thoughtful narrator wants to do is embarrass you or make you feel uncomfortable.) And, finally, the show requires Callaway be nimble enough to ad-lib as necessary as she works with the unpredictable interactions from these additional "actors" -- interactions that have not been and could not be scripted.
"You spend so much time as an actor, and even as a concert artist, where everything is scripted and directed and controlled -- and in this situation, you're letting go of some of the control," says Callaway, clearly relishing the challenge. "That's the thing that's so unique about it -- you're not only open to it, you want that. It's part of the charm of the piece."
Speaking of charm -- it's required of the actor playing the narrator in this piece, along with hefty doses of warmth and likability. Callaway has just over an hour to turn 170 strangers into co-performers and trusted confidantes. The ability to do that, says director (and Callaway's spouse) Dan Foster, is rare.
"The facility with the audience is something I don't think you can teach," he notes. The couple has been married since 1985, and Foster has directed Callaway in a slew of concert and cabaret performances. "And I don't think it's something you can direct -- you have to have a certain fearlessness that is not directable."
"The magic of 'Every Brilliant Thing' is the warm relationship that develops between actor and audience," says T2 artistic director Bob Ford, who contacted the couple about the possibility of working on "Brilliant" after Callaway performed for the T2 season opening celebration last year. "When we saw the connection between Liz and our gala audience, her personal warmth and wisdom, their enjoyment of her, she moved to the top of our wish list for 'Every Brilliant Thing'."
"I want to connect with every single person in this audience," says Callaway. "They're going to have an experience with me. I'm going to have an experience with them. And they'll have an experience with each other -- that's the beauty of it. "
Prior to opening, Callaway and Foster have done a series of run-throughs for small, handpicked audiences so Callaway can practice these connections. Performing a show for an audience before it is perfected can be a daunting experience for an actor, yet on a Sunday a week and a half before opening night, Callaway is relaxed and welcoming as she addresses the audience of 10 or so onlookers.
"It's wonderful to do this for someone other than stuffed animals and my cat," she says with a laugh.
The performance that follows seems seamless, though Callaway afterwards admits to some stumbles. They weren't noticeable, and any missteps or confusion with the audience-members-turned-actors are played off with witty banter, generating even more laughs. And there are a lot of laughs, despite the play's serious -- and, sometimes, downright grim -- topic.
"It's a softer way to deal with the subject matter," says Foster. "There's a fear that it might become didactic, instructional. You're talking about a heavy subject matter, but the idea of how it's presented, and the way the audience is asked to participate, provides these moments of buoyancy so that you don't realize that, subliminally, you're still getting all of that information."
"Buoyant" is a good word for Callaway's performance: Even at her lowest, her character finds a way to use her list to pull herself up. The show has been called "inspirational" in many of its reviews, and it's as good a word as any to describe the moving experience of watching Callaway navigate her journey. Her hope, as it turns out, is contagious. If you see the show, don't be surprised if you leave the theater whispering to yourself your own list of brilliant things.
NAN What's Up on 01/13/2019
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