UNC-Chapel Hill's PlayMakers raise mental health awareness with immersive ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ performance
A new play at UNC-Chapel Hill is raising awareness of mental health and suicidal ideation.
Starting Wednesday, the PlayMakers Repertory Company will perform "Every Brilliant Thing," a play that tells the story of a mother’s struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts from the perspective of her child.
Playwright Duncan Macmillan wrote the international production with comedian Jonny Donahoe, which starred Donahoe.
Tom Quaintance, who directed the Chapel Hill production, said a beautiful and unique aspect about the play is how it is set up: it takes a difficult subject and tells it through a combination of comedy, improvisation and most importantly, audience interaction.
“The first line of the play is: ‘The list began after her first attempt. A list of everything brilliant about the world, everything worth living for. Number one,’ and then an audience member says ‘ice cream,’ because you’ve given them that number,” Quaintance said. “And so those numbers are given throughout the audience … and so people are seeing each other, the community aspect of the way the piece is set up is for a conversation with everybody.”
Actor Sanjana Taskar, who is performing in the production, said that plays about depression typically have a melancholy “wilted rose” perspective, where the illness is romanticized. But "Every Brilliant Thing" is different, she said.
“It's just sort of a candid portrait of this person and their navigation through this journey of what does it mean to be happy,” Taskar said. “And I think it approaches it in a really thoughtful, kind and also really funny way. I think that something about this play that's really special is the fact that it's so funny. “
Taskar said she hopes this comedic, candid approach makes the production relatable to students who are going through their own mental health struggles.
“I really appreciate the fact that it is able to sort of be cross-generational in talking to students,” Taskar said. “I really believe in this play as well. And the impact we can have on young people in their own journeys of navigating mental health and depression.”
In late 2021, UNC-Chapel Hill had a mental health crisis on its campus where multiple students died from suicide. This led to several changes, including the implementation of well-being days and the launch of the university's Heels Care Network.
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Amy Johnson said part of this initiative is to create a “sustained dialogue around mental health.”
“This opportunity with PlayMakers to bring 'Every Brilliant Thing' to our campus…is not only a creative and new channel for us to continue that dialogue, but presents, I think, the best of Carolina in that we are a large university with a whole host of resources," Johnson said.
At the end of the play, performers will hold a post-show discussion, facilitated by trained mental health professionals. They will also share local and on-campus mental health resources that the audience can access.
On stage performances will start Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. and will last until Jan. 16.
PlayMakers will also host a series of performances for individual UNC-Chapel Hill schools, including the School of Education, Kenan-Flagler Business School, and College of Arts & Sciences. Those performances will continue into next month.
The run time for the play is about 65 minutes and tickets are free.