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Faculty Spotlight: “Every Brilliant Thing” in U-M Classrooms

In September, UMS opened its 2017-18 Theater Series with Every Brilliant Thing – an interactive theater piece about depression, love, and the things that make our lives brilliant (from “the color yellow” to “ice cream” to “surprises”). The one-man-show featured Johnny Donahoe as the narrator, with many audience members playing parts in the story. Over 36% of the audience for the seven-performance run was composed from University of Michigan students; many of these students attended with a University of Michigan class that incorporated Every Brilliant Thing into the curriculum.

Below, some of the professors who brought their students to Every Brilliant Thing share their experience with the work, and how it impacted their students.

Photo: Moment in Every Brilliant Thing. Courtesy of the artist.

Colleen Seifert – Psychology  443: Creativity

My Psych 443: Creativity class is designing programs to build Gratitude in the Workplace; the play served as research about what people are, and can be, grateful for in life. The “brilliant things” list provided suggestions about being thankful for small things, and that noticing them can make you feel good. They each posted a brilliant thing in our chat room, which helped to get to know each other and to celebrate the small. Students raved about the show, and found it moving. Many mentioned how it fit into their life plans, as they are approaching the transition from college, and thinking about what they want in their lives. It served as a reminder that the small things make life worth living. It seemed to inspire them about their ideas for the Grateful Workplace, and raising the “humanness” of experience as a common bond even in stressful situations.”

Carol Tell – Lloyd Hall Scholars Program

“The Lloyd Hall Scholars Program (LHSP) is a first-year living learning program focused on writing and the arts. We brought our whole community (about 130 students) to the performance. We’ve been bringing our whole community to a UMS performance for a couple of years now. Instructors integrate the performances into their classrooms in many different ways–through discussions, assignments, blogging and other low-stakes writing, reviews, essay assignments, arts responses.

“Every Brilliant Thing” was particularly challenging for students to process and discuss. I think the subject hit a nerve with many of our students, who have either suffered from mental illness or have had a family member who suffered from it.

One of the LHSP writing instructors, Scott Beal, powerfully described how he integrated the play into his writing class: “On the Monday class after the performance, the students shared their impressions about the performance, and I noted some specific lines from the script to get their responses.  One theme we focused on, which seemed most pertinent to our course, is that it is a play about writing. The protagonist’s list is a piece of writing which is originally intended as a persuasive essay to convince his mother that life is worth living.  We talked about how it’s a piece of writing with an author, an intended audience, and a purpose, and about how the purpose is not realized effectively for the intended audience.  And we talked about how the piece of writing still ends up being powerful for other audiences in unintended ways (like the love interest from the library), and how it’s most important effect is in transforming the author himself.  There is a line late in the play about a moment when he realizes how much the list has changed his way of living and seeing the world.  We wrapped up our discussion by focusing on this line, which seemed a useful inspirational message early in the semester about why we’re all here in a writing class together:  not just to gain the power to persuade others, but more significantly to transform ourselves.”

Laura Olson – Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology 397:  Writing in Biology

“Overall, the students LOVED the experience. For at least one student, it was the first time she had ever been to a play. Many expressed surprise at how much they enjoyed the experience.  Two of our overarching themes in this course are ‘audience’ and ‘ego’ – both of which we discussed in terms of this event. We will also return to discussing this performance when we do our unit on “Science for a Public Audience” at the end of the semester. We ended up talking a lot about the impact of the medium on the power of the message that was delivered. We also talked about extemporaneous and improvisational presentation of material. The reflections they wrote on this experience were very interesting and enjoyable to read. ”

Twila Tardif – Psychology  114, Honors Intro to Psychology

“We covered a chapter on mental illness before and after the performance and talked about the narrator and his mother, what might have been going on with them in terms of a diagnosis, what the narrator said the diagnosis was vs. alternative possibilities, how depression and suicide affects family members, and various coping strategies. We also each added to the list of “brilliant things” with our own ideas in class.

The students loved the performance and were very responsive to talking about it. It made the topic of mental illness much easier to talk about and to personalize. Thanks so much for the opportunity to share this with my class!”

Are you a U-M faculty member who would be interested in bringing your students to a UMS performance? $15 Classroom Tickets are available for students and faculty in courses that require attendance at a UMS performance. To learn more about how to work with UMS, email Campus Engagement Specialist at or check out our new guide How to Integrate a UMS Performance into Your Course