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‘I believe this production will save lives’: How the Utah Shakespeare Festival is playing an active role in suicide prevention

‘I felt it then and I feel it now: This may be the most important work I’ve ever done, you know? Actually trying to save lives. That’s the most humbling thing I think I could ever try to do.’ — Actor Cordell Cole

Actor Cordell Cole performs the one-man play, “Every Brilliant Thing,” for students at North Sanpete High School on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.
Provided by the Utah Shakespeare Festival

MOUNT PLEASANT, Sanpete County — He started the list the day his mother attempted suicide.

Ice cream.

Water fights.

Staying up past your bedtime and watching TV.

The boy was 7 years old, and he wanted to make note of every brilliant thing in life: roller coasters, things with stripes, the color yellow, people falling over. That last one really made him laugh.

He kept adding to the list. And when he got to No. 314, he placed the list on his mother’s pillow.

Eight pages filled with reasons to live.

So begins “Every Brilliant Thing,” a play about suicide prevention that the Utah Shakespeare Festival is offering to every public high school and college in Utah — an effort that has received attention and support from Lieutenant Governor Spencer J. Cox.

“Suicide has become far too prevalent in Utah and has especially affected our youth. … Young people need affirmation that they are not alone in this fight and that there are many reasons to stay with us. As a young man, I too had thoughts of suicide,” Cox said in a public message. “Many youth today do not have adequate support structures and demand our attention and the encouragement from efforts like this. I believe this production will save lives.”

Actor Cordell Cole performs the one-man play, “Every Brilliant Thing,” for students at North Sanpete High School on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.
Provided by the Utah Shakespeare Festival

Utah has the highest rate of suicide for youths ages 10 to 24, and ranks sixth highest in suicide rates in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The suicide rate in Utah has been consistently higher than the national rate for more than a decade, according to a 2018 report from the Utah Department of Health.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival is presenting more than 150 school performances of “Every Brilliant Thing” through February 2020 — a tour that will bring the life-affirming message to more than 75,000 students free of charge.

“It’s a big endeavor, but I think it’s some of the most important work we do,” Frank Mack, Utah Shakespeare Festival’s executive producer, told the Deseret News. “Youth suicide is so tragic and it’s so painful and it’s difficult to talk about and deal with. This show, it’s not therapy, it’s not treatment … but sometimes when we see somebody else’s story, we gain insights we wouldn’t otherwise see on our own. And that’s what this story does so well.”

Bringing the story to life

Actor Cordell Cole was focused, sitting quietly on the far left side of the stage with his eyes shut tight. He wanted to do this story justice.

“A couple of months ago I was speaking with a French accent in a comedy,” he said, “and now I’m quite literally trying to help save lives in the only way I know how, which is to tell this story the best that I can every single day.”

At 9:20 a.m. on Nov. 1, students began filling the rows of the North Sanpete High School auditorium in rural Mount Pleasant. Fifty students sat along the edge of the stage. Sixty-five students were given cards with numbers on them. And then it was showtime.

Actor Cordell Cole gets ready for his performance of “Every Brilliant Thing,” practicing before students enter the auditorium at North Sanpete High School on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.
Provided by Utah Shakespeare Festival

Cole jumped on and off the stage, letting his audience become part of the story — a story that focuses on reasons to live rather than speculating on the reasons behind a suicide. A story that rather than sensationalizing suicide focuses on how suicide affects those left behind. A story where the audience becomes a support system for the main character.

When Cole shouted out numbers during the play, students shouted back with the brilliant things listed on their corresponding cards. They brought the list to life. They became characters in the story — a father, a college professor, a veterinarian, a school counselor. They became a community.

“With this specific subject ... we need to feel like family,” Cole said. “I’d rather it be like they’re hearing their brother tell his story as opposed to some guy they’ve never met. And when their friends are called up — and when the dad is played by someone who is apparently popular in the school — in that way, it kind of connects us all because they’re attached to him. … We’re all breathing together.”

“Every Brilliant Thing” is only an hour long. Creating a network of support for a character coping with depression during that brief time is a theatrical “magic trick,” Mack said.

“But it also tells us that we can do that — we can help other people and it’s really kind of that easy.”

A life-affirming story

When the show ended, a teacher approached Cole and told him it was the best thing she’d seen in her 52 years at the school. Some students laughed about the roles they played in the story. One student walked up to Cole, speechless, and gave him a hug.

And in the back of the auditorium, the high school students created their own list of brilliant things.

Eslie Allred, a 16-year-old junior and drama student, jotted “cheesy pickup lines and puns” on a piece of paper and stuck it to a whiteboard. For 17-year-old senior Isa Wright, happiness was “reading a book on a rainy day.” Both students said they appreciated the play for its engaging approach to mental health issues like depression and suicide.

Actor Cordell Cole performs the one-man play, “Every Brilliant Thing,” interacting with students at North Sanpete High School on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.
Lottie Johnson

“People shouldn’t be afraid to address these issues,” Wright said. “It’s happening all the time now, and so we need to make sure that it’s being addressed so that not only the people who are experiencing it can understand that there is a solution … but also that the people who aren’t experiencing it can figure out how to address it with other people.”

A 2015 study comparing teen and young adult suicides in all U.S. counties from 1996-2010 showed suicide rates in rural communities were nearly double those of urban areas, with that gap only increasing, the Deseret News previously reported. Suicide has “highly affected” Sanpete County, assistant principal Jeff Ericksen said, and “Every Brilliant Thing” was a welcome addition to addressing the issue in his school.

“Every Brilliant Thing” is reaching students all over the state. But Mack said the Utah Shakespeare Festival has received pushback from a few schools that are hesitant to bring the play inside their walls.

In 2017, the book “Thirteen Reasons Why” — which regained popularity due to the Netflix series — was the most challenged book in schools because the plot revolved around suicide, Insider reported. The graphic content of the Netflix series further worried teachers, as a study reported there was a 28.9% increase in suicides among Americans ages 10-17 in April 2017 — the month following the release of “13 Reasons Why” on Netflix.

Cordell Cole performs “Every Brilliant Thing” at North Sanpete High School on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.
Lottie Johnson

But “Every Brilliant Thing” takes a significantly different dramatic approach to suicide, following media guidelines to not sensationalize or normalize it or present it as the solution to a problem, according to its writer, Duncan Macmillan.

”It felt like when suicidal depression or suicide was appearing in theater or in film or in TV, it was oversimplified, it was glamorized to some extent, it was fetishized, or it was stigmatized,” Macmillan told NPR. “There didn’t seem to be any voices sort of talking about the complex realities of it.”

“Every Brilliant Thing” doesn’t simplify depression or suicide. In an hour’s time, it goes through highs and lows. It takes the subject matter seriously and shows the complicated nature of depression. But in all of that, it also takes the time to show why life is worth living.

Saving lives

The boy in “Every Brilliant Thing” doesn’t think much about the list after he places it on his mom’s pillow. He gets older, goes to college and meets a girl. But when his mom attempts suicide again, more reasons to live flood through his mind:

No. 517: Knowing someone well enough to get them to check your teeth for broccoli.

No. 777,777: The possibility of dressing up as a Mexican wrestler.

He keeps adding to the list because he fears feeling the same way his mom has felt. He fears taking the same action. And that’s when he realizes this list isn’t just for his mom — it’s for him.

It’s a coping mechanism. And even though there are times he’s so depressed he can’t think of anything to add, with help from others, he reaches 1 million.

One million brilliant things in life. One million reasons to live.

When that story popped up in his inbox a few months ago, Cole was shopping at a Kroger in his Georgia hometown. He pulled up the story on his phone and began mouthing the lines as he walked through the aisles. The more he read, the more he connected to the story. One line in particular grabbed him: “If you live a long life and get to the end of it without ever having once felt crushingly depressed, you probably haven’t been paying attention.”

Actor Cordell Cole interacts with students while performing “Every Brilliant Thing” at North Sanpete High School on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.
Lottie Johnson

Although suicide wasn’t a part of his life, he understood the story’s magnitude. While preparing for the show, Cole was also required to take QPR training, should someone experiencing suicidal thoughts approach him after the show. He’s used that training a few times since embarking on this tour with the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

“I didn’t know if I would ever use that, but I have to know how to refer them to someone who can actually help,” he said. “I felt it then and I feel it now: This may be the most important work I’ve ever done, you know? Actually trying to save lives. That’s the most humbling thing I think I could ever try to do.”

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts can call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Utah also has crisis lines statewide that operate 24 hours a day.