“Good Morning West High!!”
The voice over the speakers went on with the daily announcements—basketball games, the school play, club meetings—as teenagers shuffled into the auditorium at West High. Kids here come in all colors, black, brown and Utah blonde, but they all dress the same in dark hoodies, tees, sweats and trainers, lugging big backpacks. Anyone who’s been in an American high school recognizes the scene. It’s the unseen that’s frightening.
Before graduation, several of these kids may have tried to kill themselves. Teen suicide rates in Utah are the highest in the nation. Despite a slight dip in 2018, rates are rising again.
And that’s why these kids are here now.
Special companies from Utah Shakespeare Festival have been traveling the state presenting a play called Every Brilliant Thing. The one actor, one-act work deals directly and innovatively with the issues of depression, anxiety and suicide. Written by Duncan Macmillan and British comedian Jonny Donahoe and presented in the UK and o Broadway, the Utah version strikes the same chords of emotion ranging from despair to laughter, as the performer recounts his personal journey through his mother’s three suicide attempts, the first when the character is seven years old.
“Your mother did something stupid,” the father tells the seven-year-old child as they drive to the hospital after the first overdose, inspiring her/him (the role can be played by any gender) to start a list of brilliant things to live for. His list of brilliant things is the theme of the play—by the end, it numbers one million and friends, family and even strangers have contributed.
“#1. Ice Cream!”
The play is interactive. Before the performance the audience receives numbered cards; when the actor calls out the number, the audience member reads the card aloud.
“#2. Water fight”
“#3. Staying up past bedtime and being allowed to watch TV”
And as the play progresses, the list grows and the numbers get higher. The audience has to pay attention and listen for their number.
“#998. Bicycling downhill”
Teens are one of the hardest demographics to communicate with—rebellious, resistant, skeptical and naively cynical. Trying to reach them with a meaningful message is a tough sell. West High history teacher Jacob Taber watched as his students gradually warmed to the actor. “Of course, they start out rambunctious. But not long into the play they were self-governing their behavior, shushing each other,” he says. At times, some are called on to play the parts of a vet, the dad, a sympathetic teacher, ad-libbing their responses. The teen audience was engaged in spite of themselves.
There have been lots of efforts and organizations working to lower the rate of teen suicide in Utah. Hope Squad, for example, was founded by Dr. Gregory A. Hudnall, a former high school principal and associate superintendent with the Provo City School District. He has been involved with suicide prevention for the past twenty years and has personally been involved with over twenty-five suicides as a first responder or consultant. Hope Squad is a school-based peer-to-peer approach to teen suicide prevention. A three-year program trains groups of students how to recognize warning signs, talk about suicide and help a peer in danger. There are Hope Squads in 31 Utah school districts. Caring Connection, Samaritans, suicide hotlines—there are so many organizations fighting the rise of teen suicide, all the time. As Katherine Supiano, associate professor in the University of Utah’s School of Nursing, and director of Caring Connections, says, “These kids probably see three or four suicide lectures a year. I’m sure they thought, great, one more suicide prevention thing. But the play comes at you sideways and not in your face. The message sneaks in. It’s about them, not at them.”
The Utah Shakespeare Festival, uniquely, is using art to convey the message. Every Brilliant Thing was endorsed by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; funding was obtained from the State of Utah, The Utah Department of Heritage and Arts, Utah Division of Arts and Museums, Southern Utah University- Rural Health Scholars and the Richard K. and Shirley S. Hemingway Foundation. The play has been on a multiple run, presenting shows at high schools across Utah. This is the third production of the day at West.
Like the Hope Squads, the production staff of Every Brilliant Thing are trained in QPR—question, persuade and refer— necessary because of the students’ response to the play. “Some of them always come up and talk,” says actor Cordell Cole. “The key to the performance is becoming equal with the students—being one of them. You have to be on their side the whole time or it doesn’t work.”
Some students’ confidences are shocking:
“Both my mother and my father killed themselves.”
“My best friend tried to kill herself.”
“I need help.”
In at least one instance, the conversation led to the troubled teen’s connection with a trained counselor.
Every Brilliant Thing explores not just depression and suicide, but the effect of suicide on those left behind—the guilt, the grief and the never ending questions— because the protagonist’s mother is eventually successful. Although, as he points out, “Suicide is never a success.”
During the course of the play, as the seven-year-old becomes an adult, marries and divorces, the monologue talks about how to deal with the survivor feelings and how to avoid them leading to a similar ending. “Suicide is contagious,” says the play’s character. “Every time suicide is front-page news, every time a celebrity or a character on prime time television takes their own life there is a spike in the number of suicides.”
He explains the Samaritans, a suicide prevention organization, and reads their list of suggestions for how journalists write about suicide. (Each production of the play is altered to refer to its location.)
Utah journalists have written a lot about suicide in the last few years. There have been big increases in every category—age, gender, race and ethnicity, but most articles have been about the rising rates of teen suicide. And mostly, the articles try to examine and answer the question “why.”
Drug-use, homophobia, bullying, careless parenting, gangs, religious oppression, lack of mental resources and easy access to guns have all been explored as causes.
Every Brilliant Thing doesn’t really ask the question why. Instead, it focuses on why not.
“The play is so profoundly affecting and effective: it’s not in your face, it doesn’t go after your brain, it goes after your heart,” says Supiano. “Art can do that, science cannot. The arts, just because they’re so experiential, can connect to a different place, obliquely not face-on. That’s why art—painting, theater, dance—is so much closer to truth.”
The main character’s list of brilliant things to live has reached a million items by the end of the play.
#999999. “Completing a task.”
And the protagonist does have advice for anyone contemplating suicide. “It’s simple,” he explains to the audience. “Don’t do it. Things get better. They might not always get brilliant. But they get better.”