BWW Interview: BRILLIANT Jonny Donahoe On Making You Laugh Through Your Tears
The heart-wrenching, audience-inclusive comedy on depression EVERY BRILLIANT THING arrives at The Edye at The Broad Stage February 2nd. These ten performances culminate a four-year international tour, which included a taped version of the show premiering on HBO last December. BRILLIANT star and co-writer Jonny Donahoe made time to chat with BroadwayWorld and myself.
Thank you, Jonny for doing this interview.
How did the subject of depression become a vehicle of entertainment for you?
I've always thought the most important way to tackle such a serious issue as depression in a piece of art is to use humor. I'm a stand-up comic. Duncan MacMillan, who is the co-author and the starting point of the piece, is a playwright. We wanted to work together to use both those skills. It's a serious play and deals with very serious issues, but because of my background in comedy and improvisation and interacting with people as a comedian, it gave us the ability to be very entertaining and comical about the most serious things. I've always thought it a quite British trait to find humor in the darkest possible things. But actually, the more we travel the world, it's something almost everyone does. It's surprisingly universal.
You co-wrote EVERY BRILLIANT THING with Duncan. Not having the chance to see your show yet, would I be correct in guessing that the main character is based upon you, as opposed to Duncan?
Actually, the main character is based on neither of us. Influences come from things that we've experienced in our own lives, but the play comes from a short story that Duncan wrote called Sleeve Notes. That's the story of a little boy who made a list of everything that is brilliant for his mum. We developed that into a full-length piece along with George Perrin the director.
If you were to pitch this show in a concise three-line pitch, what would it be?
This is a play about depression, sharing, love, family and the lengths we would go to help the people that we love the most, at any age.
You break the fourth wall in EVERY BRILLIANT THING and interact with various members of the audience. You must have honed your improv skills with all your stand-up experience, right?
That's right. I started as a stand-up. I've worked extensively as a comedian, but also as an actor, writer and a theater maker. I think having all those things together has made me have the skill-set to make this piece of work.
The Broad Stage is your last stop on your North American Tour. What's the craziest response you've received so far in the past four years performing EVERY BRILLIANT THING?
People respond in surprisingly similar ways around the world. The thing I find fascinating is that I was anticipating coming to America and thought the responses would be bigger and louder and less withdrawn. My assumption was that the British are more withheld than the Americans. However, I've found the reverse is true. In a theatrical experience, it's taken me longer to coax things out of New York audiences or audiences at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina - whether that's because they are American or because that's where those audiences are. I'm looking forward to seeing that in Santa Monica. It wasn't the case when I performed the show in Salt Lake City, Utah. Maybe that is not representative of all of America, that community, but they were fascinatingly warm and outgoing.
How would be the simplest way for you to describe what makes a British audience laugh vs. an American one?
It's really hard because I am British, so I only know what makes an American audience laugh from the point-of-view of a British performer. When I tell the joke about Margaret Thatcher in EVERY BRILLIANT THING, the British audience sort of laughs. The American audiences go wild for it because it seems so risqué. Americans don't have a sense of how hated she is in Britain.
After performing EVERY BRILLIANT THING at The Broad Stage, you have two weeks off before beginning your Jonny and the Baptists tour with Paddy Gervers. What are you looking forward to, performing with Paddy again after the last two years.
We are touring a show that we made last year called Eat the Poor, which is about the wealth gap in the UK. The thing I'm most looking forward to about that is that Jonny and the Baptists is a musical comedy band and I miss singing. So I'm very much looking forward to getting that started again.
You're a man of many talents: stand-up comedian, actor, playwright, musician. Which was your first passion?
I wanted to do things that were entertaining and thought-provoking. Everything became a way to facilitate those things, whether it's comedy, drama or music. I think Eddie Izzard said people are always asking him, "Which do you prefer: stand-up or acting or writing?" He'd say, "It doesn't matter which one I prefer because I wouldn't live without any of them." That's my answer. Same as his. The benefit is I don't have to give one up. I love them all equally.
What do remember of the very first time you performed on stage?
I was in primary school. I played Joseph in the nativity, Jesus's step-dad. I didn't have any lines, but I led a similar-aged girl playing Mary on a wooden horse, which was supposed to be a donkey. That was my entrance into this world.
How old were you when you had an inkling you wanted to pursue a career in comedy?
I can't remember ever not wanting to do it. When I was four, I used to listen to the radio and imitate the voices of people, probably very badly. I've done a "real job," but I've never wanted to.
How were your comedic idols in your early years?
I'm a huge fan of Stephen Fry. He's an incredibly clever, witty, Jewish, super-intelligent polymath and I wanted to be all of those things. There is a British/Danish comedian, Sandi Toksvig, who I think is one of the most extraordinarily-talented human beings or all time. I'd love to be more like her. Eddie Izzard, I idolized as a kid because he was so warm and charming with his comedy whilst also being incredibly progressive. He didn't make his politics the forefront of it, he just let politics be something you couldn't avoid. I think it had a huge effect on the rights of transgender people - the fact that he was out there doing his job, brilliantly. People who had previously had an issue with that community, found that they didn't because they adored him.
Do you subscribe to the thinking that great comedy requires some deep tragic experience?
I do. I think comedy is a craft. You use it to express things in the same way that drama is a craft and used to express things. The form of the great dramatic play is something you need to understand, if you ever come to write one. But it's a way of getting across the things you want to say - I think that's true of all art. Comedy doesn't have to be inherently tragic, but it has to be inherently meaningful and human for you to want to listen for more than a minute.
Which would give you more satisfaction, making your audience laugh? Or making them cry?
Here's the thing: making an audience laugh is very immediate. You can hear it echo around the room and you can also hear the absolute silence if they don't laugh. Making an audience cry, isn't big and loud. You can feel the mood of the room change. I suppose you need both, but I still think laughing.
What would you like your Broad Stage audience to leave with after your last joke?
I would like them to leave with the feeling of the play, which is that depression and suicide are impossibly complicated and awful things. But they are things that we must talk about and deal with because they exist in our society. I hope that the audience feels, at the end of it, like they are able to strike up a conversation or at least have the slightly better tools to deal with one of those conversations about suicide or depression.
Thank you, Jonny! I look forward to experiencing you making me laugh and cry.
EVERY BRILLIANT THING runs through February 12, 2017. For further ticket and schedule info, log onto thebroadstage.com