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Performing Arts

The brilliant mind behind the play ‘Every Brilliant Thing’

Jonny Donahoe’s one-man show is sensational
Jonny Donahoe in a scene from “Every Brilliant Thing” in New York.

NEW YORK – Comedian and musician Jonny Donahoe has come to New York with a play that may sound like a hard sell: It’s a one-man show. It’s British. It calls for some audience participation. And it’s about depression.

Hold on. Don’t all rush for the exits.

“Every Brilliant Thing” at the Barrow Street Theatre is perhaps one of the more uplifting and joyful plays to see this winter, even if it delves into the subject of suicide and you might be asked to read aloud something short.

A hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the play includes a partial list of the many things a son writes down to prove to his depressed mother that life is worth living. The list includes wearing a cape, ducklings and dancing in public. No 999,996 is: “Peeling off a sheet of wallpaper in one intact piece.” The genial, energetic Donahoe asks audience members to read some of the items from scraps of paper he hands out at the beginning.

The play emerged from a short story by Duncan Macmillan, and Donahoe has helped write and shape it. He’s been performing the show in England and will next tour with it in rural Britain after hitting the road with his comedy band Jonny & The Baptists.

The Associated Press asked the Englishman about his own relationship with math, the time he faced a real nightmare in the audience and how Robin Williams affected the show.

AP: The show is a great mix of theater and improv comedy. Is that something you’re used to?

Donahoe: Where I’m from, stand-up, improv and storytelling and theater – they seem to exist in very similar worlds. People separate improv and stand-up here, and they separate theater and storytelling. I think it’s really important to bring those back together.

AP: Have you noticed much difference between American and British audiences?

Donahoe: I should be cautious here because I don’t want to seem rude to Americans, but I genuinely think that New Yorkers are more buttoned-up than Brits. This idea that the British are very withheld is sometimes true, but actually it’s more true here.

AP: Have your attempts to ask audience members to read lines gone awry?

Donahoe: There was one woman who went, “If you give me anything, I’m going to walk out!” I said, “OK.” So I tried to give it to her again because I thought, “I’m happy with you going.” She didn’t find that amusing.

AP: Did she stay?

Donahoe: She did stay and she loved the show. That’s the thing I found really interesting. I’m very easygoing and I’m very immediately kind. If you’re rude to me, what are you like to normal people?

AP: Is it hard to keep all the show’s numbers in your head?

Donahoe: I think I’ve got a slightly mathematical mind anyway. I’ve always been good with numbers. For example, as a little child, my mum used to take to us the same restaurant, and I knew the price of everything on the menu. She always thought this was hilarious. Putting a sentence with some numbers, to me, just flow into each other and make complete sense.

AP: Have you been touched by depression personally?

Donahoe: Absolutely, yes. I have suffered from depression very badly. My sister, too, and a lot of my family. So the show’s very pertinent to that. I’ve used that in a very positive way.

AP: Is the show fixed, or is it always being updated?

Donahoe: I keep thinking of new things and adding on new lines that relate to the issues because they change as well. When we opened the show in Edinburgh, we did the first preview and then the next day Robin Williams passed away. Every one of those shows for about three weeks was so clearly about him. I never mentioned him once onstage, but it was so immediately clear that every audience member was thinking about Robin Williams.

AP: Is that why his film “Jumanji” makes the list?

Donahoe: It’s my favorite Robin Williams film even though I am well aware that it’s not his best work. But that doesn’t really matter because it personally resonates with me.

AP: Can this show ever be done without you?

Donahoe: Not if I have anything to do with it. I feel a real sense of ownership. I will be very grumpy with whoever wants to take it over. If someone takes it over and is brilliant, I will be very annoyed.

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