Everything You Need to Know
Artwork by Cully Long
As one of eight plays at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this summer, Every Brilliant Thing fits in nicely with all the others. Like Hamlet, one of its themes is the possibility of suicide, but in Every Brilliant Thing it is the main theme. Like many of the plays this season (especially Macbeth, The Conclusion of Henry VI: Parts Two and Three, and The Price), it reveals the angst that sometimes is just below the surface in family relationships. And, like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Twelfth Night and The Book of Will, it is warm, humorous, and embracing.
It is also different in many ways: Scheduled for the intimate Eileen and Allen Anes Studio Theatre, it is a one-man show, full of audience participation. And it stars and is directed by an actor and a director whom Festival audiences will fondly remember and who also have a great deal of respect for each other.
The Festival recently posed a series of questions to director Vincent J. Cardinal and actor Michael Doherty as they prepare to return to Cedar City in a couple of weeks and begin work on this amazing play. We think you will find their answers revealing, inviting, and honest.
What attracted you to this play, what enticed you to want to direct/perform Every Brilliant Thing?
Vincent J. Cardinal: Every Brilliant Thing is audacious. It risks pitting reasons to live against the urge not to with no certain conclusion. It places the investigation in the hands of the audience at each performance, even as the narrator guides the story. Will the audiences bend toward affirmation of the resiliency of the human spirit or will this experiment dissolve into chaos? We are betting on affirmation, but it will be a different show and different outcome with each audience. This makes for exciting, unique, and spontaneous theatre.
I am very excited to work with Michael Doherty again. I first saw Michael in Charlie’s Aunt when visiting the Festival as a guest of the REACH program. It was as if Rowan Atkinson and Jim Carrey had a brilliant comic child—without the neurosis. I hired him the very next season to play the comic tour de force Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher, and the next season in a side splitting Noises Off! and was thrilled to join him at the Festival last season for The Foreigner. He is a director’s dream—wildly creative, serious in his work but never solemn in his spirit. He is the perfect match for the challenges of Every Brilliant Thing. He is an easy host, an engaging storyteller, a gifted comedian, and an actor with emotional depth and complex honesty. I know the audience will love going on this journey with Michael.
Michael Doherty: When I first saw this piece performed, a few things enticed me to it: it’s totally, uniquely theatrical; I’ve never seen a show quite like it, and I was constantly surprised by what came next. It’s a very generous experience; the delightful way the piece engages with its audience really buoys them through some challenging subject matter. Finally, it’s a play that really meets the audience and the performer where they’re at. As someone who gets asked to do a lot of farce and broad styles of comedy, it’s very refreshing to get to start the evening from a very calm and grounded place.
What challenges do you anticipate as a director/actor as you begin to put this piece together? What rewards?
Cardinal: The greatest challenge for the director is making sure that the actor is prepared for every eventuality in a show that depends so much on the unique participation of the audience of every performance. In many waysEvery Brilliant Thing is impossible to rehearse fully. It requires an audience, from handing out the items on the list, to playing the piano, to delivering the story’s climax.
I know it is always rewarding to work with Michael because as we anticipate what might happen performance to performance his wild imagination and quick wit will be in full force.
Doherty: Since the piece inherently changes from night to night, I imagine I’ll feel constantly on my toes. This will probably induce some nerves early on, but likely keep things fresh toward the end. Also, once the house opens, I get to greet the audience, but there’s also a lot I need to accomplish from the time the first audience member enters to the time I say my first line of text. A unique challenge, indeed.
On the rewarding side of things, due to its subject matter, I think this play can really function as a public service for those who need it. The heart of this piece is honesty, love, and humor.
Surely there are differences (and probably some similarities) between a one-person show and an ensemble. What do you anticipate the differences to be? How do you approach this show, when there is only one person on the stage for the entire time?
Cardinal: Directing the traditional one-person show involves a lot of imagining what the listener might be saying or thinking. The single actor has to self-generate much of the forward energy of the piece. The joy of this “one-person show” is that the entire audience forms the ensemble. They are actually offering the reactions and lines that make the story move forward. It’s a one-man show with a cast of 200!
Doherty: The main difference is that my only scene partner is the audience, but the good news is, I get to engage with them directly. This ain’t no fourth wall situation. The “ensemble” gets created anew every night, based on the audience’s ability to lean in and help tell the story.
With any one-man show, the challenge becomes, “how do you keep the audience engaged while you talk at them for an hour?” This play’s inventive theatrically helps with that a lot, not to mention having a director like Vince. Anyone who saw The Foreigner last season knows that Vince is a director who takes care of his audience, his priorities being keeping people engaged and crystal-clear storytelling.
There is quite a bit of audience interaction in this show? How do you rehearse for that? And what does this audience interaction add to the story and the experience?
Cardinal: All of us in the rehearsal room—assistants, interns, stage managers, well-meaning passers-by—take on the roles that the audience members fill.
The audience participation is part of what transforms an audience of strangers into a community of mutual support, hope, and humor. This specific tale becomes our mutual story through our interaction, through our witnessing of that performance’s unique twists, turns, and laughter and through our common conclusion as we end the story together.
Doherty: Since we’re rehearsing for something that interacts with its audience. I don’t imagine it will be long before I crave some people with whom to share the piece. Some early “trial audiences” will no doubt be of use. There’s definitely some mild anxiety at the outset of something that feels totally unpredictable, but Vince is already a master at curtailing my nerves, and I think we’ll build a world where the collective wishes the play to succeed.
Why is it important for the Utah Shakespeare Festival to be doing this show? Why is it important for you?
Cardinal: The Utah Department of Health asked the Centers for Disease Control to investigate the alarming upward trend of suicide rates in Utah. According to the CDC’s report, there has been a “141.3 percent increase in youth suicide rate from 2011 to 2015.” In comparison to Utah, the national average only increased by 23.5 percent over the same time period. Today, suicide is the leading cause of death among youth in Utah with rates increasing yearly [Source: The Salt Lake Tribune, April 6, 2019].
It is crucial that the Festival be part of the conversation about this crisis of the human spirit in Utah. The theatre is the best investigator of our humanity. Through the communal act of theatre, we enhance our empathy, and, through understanding others, we better understand ourselves. Without easy answers or condescending platitudes, Every Brilliant Thing grapples with reasons to live in the shadow of the ultimate despair. It is a play that re-affirms a commitment to life, one freewheeling performance at a time.
I have loved-ones who come from childhoods with mentally ill parents. They have spent their lives constructing their future on the wobbly foundation of that past. Like this play’s central character, they are resilient and driven to make it all make sense. They inspire me, in the way that this play can inspire. I understand that darkness and admire that drive to keep finding the light.
Doherty: I think it’s important for everybody to see this show, regardless of the community. It asks hard questions, explores topics not often discussed in public forums, and is incredibly life-affirming. It’s not very often that I get to work on a piece that I actually think is important (and in some cases, perhaps, vital) as an experience.
I feel very lucky to get to do this play for the Utah Shakes audience. As an institution, the relationship it cultivates between actor and audience is very strong. It’s lovely to get to invest further in that and share in the communion of this piece.
Why is it important for audiences to see this show? What do you hope they will take away when they leave the theatre?
Cardinal: In dark times, it can take a community of strangers to help us see the light. I hope it helps people to keep remembering their gratitude for life’s brilliance.
Doherty: Everyone should see this piece because it is worthy of consumption by all. There is so much to be gleaned from its ruminations, and it’s incredibly fun. Every show can be totally different, so come a few times. Help contribute to the generosity of this piece, or just take what you need.
I think each person will take something totally different and unique to their own experience away from this play. I invite people to see what catches their ear: what makes them feel joy or sorrow, or feel seen?
How can an audience prepare to see this show?
Cardinal: Your life’s journey has been your preparation. Come willing to serve our story and enjoy its unique unfolding—and to laugh, it’s always better when you laugh.
Doherty: Folks should come into this show with an open heart and mind. Though it engages with its audience, it is in a totally safe and fun and loving way. None of us can do any wrong in this space! And if you don’t wish to engage directly with it, you do not have to. Just come ready to listen.
What are your feelings about returning to the Utah Shakespeare Festival?
Cardinal: It is an honor to return to one of the nation’s premiere festivals! The community and the audiences are so wonderfully committed to the work and the artists. The world-class designers, technicians, and administrators support and enhance the productions like nowhere else. The actors are gifted and generous. And the region is simply awe-inspiring. There is no place quite like the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
Doherty: I think Utah Shakes is a place where magic happens. I try to explain to my colleagues all over the country the kinds of bonds that get formed in Cedar City, Utah. Great art made by great people, and I’m immensely grateful to be a part of it. [Artistic Director] Brian [Vaughn] has already trusted me with so much, and to get to do this play feels like a real gift.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Doherty: Only this: This will be my fourth summer in a row working with director Vincent J. Cardinal. The man is nearly unmatched in generosity and kindness. Going into something that both excites and terrifies me, there is no more calming presence I could imagine to bolster me.