You’re six years old. Mum’s in hospital. Dad says she’s done something stupid. She finds it hard to be happy. You make a list of everything that’s brilliant about the world. Everything worth living for. 1. Ice Cream 2. Kung Fu Movies 3. Burning Things 4. Laughing so hard you shoot milk out your nose 5. Construction cranes 6. Me A play about depression and the lengths we go to for those we love. “Heart-wrenching, hilarious… possibly one of the funniest plays you will ever see” **** The Guardian
Every Brilliant Thing, by Duncan MacMillan and Jonny Donahoe/Paines Plough, 28 August, Roundabout @ Summerhall, Edinburgh
There are a few words you wouldn’t associate with depression, such as ‘funny’, ‘heartwarming’ and ‘inspiring’. But these are words that would apply to this one-man play about a seven year old boy’s reaction to his mother’s depression and suicide attempt. Johnny decides to create for his mother a list of every brilliant thing in his life, such as ice cream, the colour yellow, chocolate, rollercoasters and being allowed to stay up late. He hopes that his list will cheer up his mother, maybe even help her realise that life is worth living.
But as he grows older, he continues the list, and the brilliant things expand enormously. It reminds him of why life is worth living, despite his own struggles in life, including depression. The brilliant things, more than the experience that prompted him to write them down, seem to define his life. It’s not that everything is brilliant: as Johnny says, “if you got all the way through life without ever being heart crushingly depressed, you probably haven’t been paying attention”. It’s just that there are usually many more brilliant things than bleak things, if we really do pay attention.
This play is about a boy and a family, but the premise clearly applies more widely, to communities and organisations. Even when bad things happen or are happening, it is usually the case that there are many more good things. But so often we don’t pay attention to them. What is good about this community or organisation? What gives life? What brings joy? Very often, we don’t really know because we have never turned our attention to the question. Instead we tend to focus on deficits – things that are wrong or missing – and associated needs. Anyone who does groupwork with organisations will know that deficit-based discussions can be rather downbeat and dispiriting. The opposite is true in asset-based discussions. And this is reflected in Every Brilliant Thing. As the play progresses, audience members read out items from Johnny’s list of brilliant things in response to calls of various numbers from the actor. Audience members also play out various characters in Jonny’s life. Everyone seemed to do so joyfully.
Perhaps we should be more like Johnny, understanding deficits and attending to associated needs, but first understanding the assets that we value. If an organisation is relatively safe, why is this? What is going on that makes it a safe organisation? For sure there will be problems and risks and threats to safety, but unless we understand first what we have – what makes it safe (or healthy, or fun, or meaningful) we won’t know what to protect, nourish, and grow. How many organisations and communities make an inventory of every brilliant thing? I have recently paid much more attention to this question, inspired by asset-based approaches and Safety-II. When asked, people list all sorts of things, but they most often concern people and their skills, knowledge, values, relationships. What they also say is this: “No-one has asked that before“.
Every Brilliant Thing shows how joy can exist despite bleak situations. By attending to the brilliant things that keep us going – as individuals, families, communities and organisations – we find that the things that we had taken for granted, or not even noticed, really do need to be cherished.