As actor Shannon Emerick was rehearsing Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, she felt, as the kids say, all the things. It was a challenge. It was a growing experience. It was a chance to stretch herself. Some days, she wasn’t sure she could do it.
And then came the one-woman show’s opening night on September 18.
“The most joyful thing for me was how invested the audience was,” she says. “They wanted to jump in; they were willing to help me tell the story. They found humor and hope with me and also sat with me emotionally in the really tough parts. It was a true communion of sorts, which, to me, is what theater is.”
Emerick is a lot less interested in theater as a one-way street where actors and audiences stay in their respective lanes. She wants experiences that bring joy, or cause people to think, or, even better, send cast and crew and audience home talking about what they’ve seen. “It’s about, can we share a moment in time and sit next to someone we don’t know and share this experience,” she says of her approach.
Emerick’s been acting for more than two decades, having graduated from Yale with degrees in theater and English. She’s worked in New York and voiced for anime. Houston audiences know her for her work with Main Street Theater, where’s she’s performed in multiple shows, including Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, Men in Boats, and Silent Sky, among others. She’s known for her layered performances, her ability to embrace nuance. Emerick brings a deep thinking to her work.
Directed in Every Brilliant Thing by Main Street Artistic Director Rebecca Green Udden, Emerick melds her acting chops with her sense of social justice. The play follows a girl whose mother attempts suicide, and in response, the girl begins to make a list of all the good things in life to live for. Tracking the girl’s journey from childhood to adulthood, it explores ideas of mental health, depression, and how we cope—and sometimes don’t—with all the triumphs and tragedies of life.
“I’d never done a one-woman show before,” says Emerick. “Becky had seen it in Tennessee and told me about it, and I said, Please, please, please, I need to do this.”
There wasn’t space for it on the Main Street calendar, so Emerick decided to take it on herself. She rented Main Street’s space, and in addition to taking on the duties of acting the show, served as its producer. Every Brilliant Thing runs basically in repertory with The Hard Problem, which opened at Main Street on September 14. That play deals with how the mind works, what goodness is, and where it comes from, and Emerick liked the idea that these two pieces that deal with both the brain and the human spirit could be seen together. More than that, she wanted Every Brilliant Thing to help people better understand mental health issues, so she worked to set up a series of after-show discussions about topics like suicide and support.
“I have some depression,” she says. “And in society, this is still not talked about as often as it should be. This is a way to get people to look at this issue.”
The play occasionally relies on some audience participation, and Emerick has enjoyed exploring how to ask audience members to read a line or two with her and be part of the story. And she stresses that even though the topic is heavy, the play has great humor in it.
But what she loves most about Every Brilliant Thing is that it taps into her own anthem when it comes to making art.
“This is a story of what it is to be a human being,” she says.
Thru October 5. Tickets from $15. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706. More info and tickets at mainstreetheater.com.
Upcoming Post Show Discussions:
Wednesday, September 25: Discussion with WyKisha McKinney, advocate for suicide care and board chair of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention–Southeast Texas.
Wednesday, October 2: Discussion with Dr. Susan Pollard, licensed psychologist, member of the Texas Psychological Association, the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, and the National Register of Health Service Providers.
Saturday, October 5: Discussion with Angelina Hudson, program director for National Alliance on Mental Illness–Greater Houston.