“I think we really do operate as a team of collaborators and creative people,” says Jake Miller, director of Germantown Friends School’s fall play and the head of the school’s theater department. “We are educators and we are artists, and we definitely approach our work as both educators and artists.”
GFS’s fall play, Every Brilliant Thing, explores themes of depression through the lense of a child whose mother was suicidal. The main character decides to make a list of everything brilliant in the world, and this shapes their experience of life as a whole. The piece was performed in the round on the sparse set of three wooden boxes and three metal stools lit by shifting colored lights and enriched by melancholy piano compositions. The story starts when the main character is a child and follows them through their college years, through their marriage and divorce, and through their own experience with overcoming depression.
The play was originally written to be a one-man performance, but Miller turned it into an ensemble piece where the cast is ever-changing, fluid between and during performances. Audience participation is an essential part of the play. As all the cast members play the main character at different parts of their life, other principal parts are pulled directly from the audience by cast members, often on the spot. These parts have different levels of involvement; the people chosen to be the old couple only must supply coloring books and crayons from a bag given to them before the show, while the audience member cast as the father has to make an impromptu speech in front of the rest of the audience. The person who becomes the school counselor has to take off their shoe and put their sock on their hand, and then talk to the main character through the makeshift sock puppet. This happens twice during the play. No one plays the mother, though she is arguably the character with the most influence on the main character. Even so, her disembodied presence is felt throughout the piece.
Despite the heavy subject matter, the play is ultimately hopeful and can be downright hilarious at points. “The direction and performances and staging were all impressive… I liked the way that a role written for a solo actor was split up into multiple parts, as if to say the responsibility for mental health is collective, something for a community to work for, not just for an individual to go through alone,” says Daisy Fried, the parent of a cast member. “The moments when the audience called out brilliant things—all the voices coming from all different directions in the semi-dark—were quite lovely.”
The deep exploration of mental health topics wasn’t the only significant impact of the play. Students involved in the process also had good experiences working with fellow cast and crew members. “I felt as if [the play] was a way to build community with people I didn’t know. I didn’t know anyone going into it, and I think I really made a connection with everyone,” says Grayson Graham, assistant stage manager and brand-new high school student. Coralie Lyford, another student involved in the production, says, “The cast and crew were super, super cool to work with, and they did a really good job of handling something so serious.”
The play left something with everyone involved, whether that something was good memories, more thought given to mental health topics, or new friends in other grades. “I knew early on that it was going to be something special, but I didn’t know how important it would be,” says Miller.