River & Rail Theatre Presents Timely New Play About Suicide

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After a string of student suicides this semester at Farragut High School—and widespread public discussion in Knoxville and nationwide about a television show centered on teen suicide—Knoxville’s River & Rail Theatre Company is staging a show at a local school about coping with suicidal thoughts.

Every Brilliant Thing, which opens tomorrow at Emerald Academy, is about a 7-year-old boy who, in the hopes of helping his mother recover from depression after suicide attempts, makes a list of experiences to live for. The audience is very involved, says River and Rail founding artistic director Joshua Peterson; viewers help the boy by reading items from the list.

River & Rail announced last week that all high-school and college students would be admitted free to any of the play’s performances. “We were aware when we chose this show of some suicides in our community at Bearden and [the University of Tennessee] and our church,” Peterson says. “Then we heard about what had been happening at Farragut.”

After two suicides at that school in the last month alone, the Knox County Schools held a public meeting with Farragut families about it, postponed some end-of-year activities and announced it would be adding the warning signs of suicide to the school’s curriculum next year.

For every theater ticket purchased for any production, River & Rail has always had the plan to offer one free ticket to someone who would not otherwise be exposed to live theater. (In December, it gave away 600 tickets to its first production, the musical The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby.) But after hearing about the suicides at Farragut, River and Rail decided last week to extend the practice to all young people for this show. (Peterson rates the play PG-13 for mature themes, and doesn’t recommend it for those younger than high school-aged.)

Peterson is calling the play “the anti- 13 Reasons Why.” That teen drama, airing on Netflix, has stirred controversy; some critics say it romanticizes suicide with its depiction of all the reasons a bright high-school student decides to kill herself. Peterson says Every Brilliant Thing, on the other hand, is human but also hopeful and funny.

“Our show presents this issue in a very different way. Our character talks about how the media and TV sensationalize suicide,” Peterson says. “The show is about intentionally celebrating all the things and people that make life work living, and the practice of gratitude.”

Peterson says he was drawn to the show originally because the issue of mental health is very personal to him. His father had bipolar disorder, which Peterson says contributed to his dad’s early death, at age 59.

The theater company had originally planned to have talkback sessions after four of the 13 scheduled performances, but when Peterson and his colleagues decided to offer free tickets to high school and college students, they arranged for talkbacks with a mental-health professional present after every performance.

The play is about an hour long and is being presented at Emerald Academy charter school through May 21.

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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