February 24, 2020

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Rules of engagement

Members of the audience -- even the shy ones -- will be asked to join in

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Michael Torontow performs in Every Brilliant Thing at the Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre. The play opens Thursday, Jan. 23.</p></p>


Michael Torontow performs in Every Brilliant Thing at the Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre. The play opens Thursday, Jan. 23.

In most plays, members of the theatre audience get to occupy a dark, safe space, observing but not observed. Our participation is generally limited to laughter, toe-tapping, perhaps the shedding of a discreet tear or two, and of course, applause.

That safe space disappears in the drama-comedy Every Brilliant Thing, which premières Thursday, Jan. 23 at the Royal MTC’s Tom Hendry Warehouse. There is drama, to be sure: The premise involves a son gamely trying to cheer up his clinically depressed mother with a list of the things that make life worth living. As the boy grows into a man, the list keeps growing.

But the play, produced in association with Barrie, Ont.’s Talk Is Free Theatre, relies far more heavily on audience members than the usual displays of engagement.

"We always say in theatre that the audience is the final character of the play or the musical that you’re in," says actor Michael Torontow. "But this one really requires them, more so than anything I’ve ever done."

"I am asking several people to participate in this journey with me, not just reading things out." (Torontow will distribute some 60 cards to audience members with bits of script, putting them in the roles of the hero’s father, or a veterinarian or a guidance counsellor.)

"There are about five people that I bring on stage and ask them to perform with me, so to speak," he says. "Nobody gets embarrassed or anything like that. I’m not asking them to do anything really strange."

Torontow is sympathetic to anyone who feels shy about that prospect. Indeed, he characterizes himself as an "introverted extrovert."

"I do like to have my alone time," he says.

"And I can become quite the hibernating person sometimes, especially in weather like this," says the Toronto-based actor.

"But you have to approach this with a certain level of extrovertedness — if that is the word — to be able to make sure that the audience it’s going to feel comfortable and safe with you," he says. "It’s not just about being an extrovert, it’s about being a generous person to make sure everyone feels happy and that they want to return that generosity to me and to the rest of the audience by not being afraid of coming up and helping tell the story."

Torontow’s own comfort zone is in the realm of musical theatre. (He was last on the Royal MTC stage in March 2017 playing multiple iterations of a heartbreaker in Bittergirl: The Musical.)

"This play was never really even on my radar," he says, recounting how he was approached by a producer at Talk Is Free Theatre to take on the role.

"He thought it would be a good thing for me to do, partly because most of my experience on stage has been in musicals or plays where you don’t really have to involve the audience.

"I have had to do a show in the past that required to invite one audience member up on stage and it’s something that I was actually afraid of," he says. "I don’t even like asking people to borrow five bucks let alone ask them to ask to bring them on stage.

"So it was really about breaking down my fear of that and so now that that is gone, because I got it out of my system."

Now, Torontow has learned to deal with the curveballs that may come his way when audience members share the stage with him.

"There’s a moment towards the end of the play that I won’t reveal, but out of nowhere a lady got up and crossed the stage and just gave me a hug," he recalls. "She was just the best example of how this play can really really touch people."

"Little things like happen a lot and it makes a show a little more exciting for me as a performer," he says. "I know for a fact that every single performance is going to be different. The words basically stay the same, but there are some things that are going to change every single day and that forces me to really be on my toes."

The process has allowed Torontow to explore the deeper challenges of the play.

"Even though this is specifically about suicide and surviving suicide, it really is just touching more on the global subject of mental health and that is something that I am definitely have a passion about," he says. "I live with people who have depression and I spent a lot of time trying to understand what the best ways of dealing with these people."

"So I’m happy to get a chance to do this play again because it because it gives me the opportunity to give a message to that group of people, every day."

randall.king@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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