Pursuits

Every Brilliant Thing Is a Poignant, Powerful Showcase of Humanity

Part TED talk and part improv performance, the play features heavy interaction with the audience.
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Every Brilliant Thing, the first show of The Sandbox Collective’s fifth year as a production company, tells the story of Angela (Teresa Herrera), a woman whose mother suffers from bipolar depression. After her mother attempts suicide, Angela attempts to make things better by putting together a list of every brilliant thing worth living for, starting with the goal of listing a thousand items, and eventually reaching a million. Early on in the attempt, however, the mother takes her own life, and Angela finds herself needing to continue to list as she struggles to deal with the emotional fallout.

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Part TED talk and part improv performance, the play features heavy interaction with the audience. Members are occasionally asked to play characters in the one-person show, while others are given the task of calling out an item from Angela’s list, when prompted by Herrera. Though there is a generous peppering of humor in the material, the subject matter itself is an incredibly complex beast which, depending on the viewer’s experience, can feel incredibly personal.

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My father struggled with depression in the days before his sudden passing in 2015; the emotions drawn out by Every Brilliant Thing are still incredibly fresh. To witness Angela’s attempt to uplift her own mother’s spirits through such a monumental gesture was, for me and others like me, an act of wish fulfilment: Survivors often find themselves wishing they had done more for the departed, something deeper or grander or just plain different—something that, in rawest honesty, might’ve been more effective. Perhaps, if we had listed every single brilliant thing there was for our own loved ones, they would have lived to embrace them.

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As the numbers on Angela’s list grow, however, as the brilliant things shift from the simplistic to the specific (“#1: Ice cream” to “#103: Inappropriate songs played at emotional moments”), what truly shines in the play isn’t the attempt the give audiences reasons to appreciate life’s joys, but the audience themselves. Pockets of pure humanity step into the spotlight as Herrera interacts with viewers, from red-faced kilig, to genuine sympathy for a person one had met just over an hour ago.

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Herrera’s Angela approaches the audience with the comfort of an old friend, regardless of her current state of emotion. She shifts seamlessly from wide-eyed enthusiasm to sober reflection to utter hopelessness; a herculean task for any actor, given that the roughly 90-minute performance comes with no intermission. While, at times, balancing the script with heavily improvised scenes does appear to take its toll on Herrera’s performance, any noticeable flaws onstage (the occasional stutter or missed cue) simply add to the genuineness she presents onstage—a quality that creates the play’s most captivating moments.

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In our particular viewing, a woman from the audience received a “phone call” from a particularly distressed Angela. Without prompting, she leaned forward and consoled her, reaching out without having to leave her seat. As Herrera knelt on the floor, ashamed of the fact that her only recourse for consolation was in the voice of a complete stranger, the woman gave her every ounce of warmth she could muster, telling her—again, without any prodding—that everything would be alright, and that she could call anytime.

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Later, during the post-show talkback, another audience member opened up about the guilt she felt for being unable to prevent her friend from taking his own life. One of the show’s consulting psychologists helped her deal with the pain, with the full support of everyone in the room and without judgment.

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This is where the play’s power lies. Every Brilliant Thing, through the genius of its staging, creates a safe space to share the experience of humanity. The show cultivates real, unfiltered empathy through Angela’s laughter and tears, through her conversations with every single person in the room, and through the moments where it’s the audience that takes the stage. It tells its viewers (participants would be apter a term) that emotional connections—whether it be to things, people, places, or the even-numbered Star Trek films—are what make life brilliant.

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It’s the message that lies behind the need to break the stigma on mental health. Had Angela’s mother been able to connect with others more freely about her diagnosis; had there been no hesitation on Angela’s or her father’s part to have conversations about bipolar disorder, and to have their understanding of it drive better connections with her mother; perhaps things would have turned out differently for their family. Empathy is, in countless ways, one of the most brilliant things there is to list down. That Every Brilliant Thing manages to foster it in its viewers is what makes the play one of the most important shows to watch this year.

In having Angela constantly reach out to the audience, Every Brilliant Thing encourages us to reach out to her and to others. For many of us, even those don’t seem to need it at all, that act of reaching out—of listening, of understanding, and of accepting—makes all the difference in life.

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“Every Brilliant Thing” is directed by Jenny Jamora. The show runs on all weekends of February at the Zobel de Ayala Hall, Maybank Performing Art Theater in Bonifacio Global City. Tickets are available on Ticketworld.

The Natasha Goulbourn Foundation has a crisis hotline available for individuals who need someone to listen to them. They can be contacted at (02)804-HOPE (4673) and 0917-558-HOPE (4673).

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Marco Sumayao
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