By all accounts Sheila Heti’s play was a failure. The Toronto-based novelist began writing All Our Happy Days Are Stupid when she was twenty-four. Over the years the intervening twelve years the play was subjected to countless readings and workshops and rewrites before Sheila shelved it, letting it languish as a Word document on her computer—and perhaps in the filing cabinets of a few dramaturges across Canada. The play was initially commissioned by Nightwood Theatre in 2001, Toronto’s feminist theatre company, shortly after the release of Heti’s first book, The Middle Stories. From there, the play passed through the hands of three different directors and multiple workshop processes resulting in numerous revisions. I had first read about Sheila’s attempts to write her unwieldy and unwanted play All Our Happy Days Are Stupid in her novel How Should A Person Be? In the book, the character Sheila’s struggle to finish the play becomes nothing short of an existential crisis.
Not long after the novel was published in Canada in 2010, I emailed Sheila to ask her if the play really existed. It did. She sent me her favourite draft; one that lay closest to her initial impulses, before all of the years of rewrites. She warned me in her email: ‘Just so you know, it’s not very good.’
Thankfully she was wrong. It was, and is, very good. In fact, I couldn’t believe how much life there was in it. It was sprawling, disorienting, profoundly insightful, and achingly funny. All Our Happy Days Are Stupid is a surreal dark comedy with fifteen characters, several major shifts in dramatic focus, and eight cryptic, jangling songs by indie-rock darling Dan Bejar (aka Destroyer). The narrative follows the Oddis and the Sings, two families from the same small town who encounter one another serendipitously while on vacation in Paris. When the Sings’ son Daniel goes missing in a parade, we assume the play will focus on an effort to find him.
However in a desire to liberate herself from her “tedious” family, Mrs. Oddi impulsively escapes to Cannes, pursued by Ms. Sing, who becomes desperate for her approval and friendship. Free from familial obligations, the women navigate a complicated relationship and their mutual desire for self-actualization. Numerous other characters make memorable cameos throughout. Its unusual construction is what makes All Our Happy Days Are Stupid so disarming and effective. But the drawn-out development process made Sheila doubt the validity of her script.
While reading the play, I thought a lot about the question:
“Why play?” It’s sort of the same question as “why make a play?” and a question whose thread is so easy to lose. After years of workshops and feedback and rewrites and letdowns, what began as a play can quickly feel like the furthest thing from playing. It’s drudgery. It becomes a vortex of artistic malaise and self-doubt. The pleasing imperfections and incongruities in our narratives and characters are recast as problems to be fixed. But they can’t be fixed, not without destroying the very essence of why we fell in love with them in the first place. And so sometimes we kill a play. We kill characters, we kill subplots, we kill lines, and scenes and jokes and images and ideas until there isn’t a drop of blood or breath left in our play.
I read the play that summer at a cottage. The man who owned this cottage had the head of a black bear mounted on his wall. I asked the man: why would you kill and stuff a bear? “Because he is sublime,” he said. His answer confounded me. The only way he knew how to be with something so powerful and overwhelming was to kill and stuff it. But then I realized that this is what had happened (or almost happened) to Sheila’s play. Sometimes theatres are confronted with plays that are so overwhelming, they’re at a loss as how to “tackle” them. So they attempt to kill and stuff them. To neutralize their danger by removing their essence.
But when I first read Sheila’s play I had no intention to direct it. I’m a playwright and had only ever directed my own work before. We met up for coffee to talk about how she might go about getting it produced. Her delicate features and girlish bangs defied the decade that had passed since she first wrote the play. I pitched her a few directors who I thought might be a good fit, and wrote down the names of a few artistic directors on a napkin who’d probably be amenable to reading it. She seemed appreciative, if a little deflated; she’d already been given lots of advice over the years on how or who or where it should be done, and it had never worked out.
But over the following weeks and months, I couldn’t shake the play from my mind. One night Sheila and I bumped into each other at Double Double Land, an event space hidden down an alley in Kensington Market. In the dark din of the sweaty, tightly-packed crowd I shouted over the music: “I think we should do your play!”
“Really?” she beamed, her enthusiasm laced with skepticism. I felt like I was asking her on a date. We both adjusted our hair self-consciously. Clutching an overpriced PBR, I leaned into her ear, covering my mouth with my hand to spare her my beer breath. “We could organize a reading first. With some friends.”
There seemed something intuitive about asking a group of our friends to come together and bring this thing to life. This was, after all, the only way I’ve ever known how to make theatre. And it’s also the most genuine answer I have to the question of why play? The opportunity for friends to gather together to hear each other say beautiful and strange words. To become other people and, in so doing, come to understand new facets of ourselves. Perhaps this would be we would avoid turning this play into theatrical taxidermy.
So, in the summer of 2012, Sheila and I organized a reading of the play in a backyard with a group of mutual friends. Sitting on a assortment of kitchen and lawn chairs, wasps buzzing over a cobbled-together potluck breakfast, this eclectic mix of individuals—artists, journalists, sketch comedians, a cardiac surgeon—seemed to intuitively understand the off-kilter tonality of the play. The group burst out laughing not more than three lines in. In their reading, this ensemble of mostly non-professional performers were able to reveal the play’s humour in a way that previous workshops in more official settings had not. Sheila was thrilled. As we washed dishes in the sink afterward, she said, “The things that just never worked, somehow they worked.”
Having no money or support, we decided to stage the play in October 2013 in the humble confines of Videofag, a storefront theatre I run and live behind with William Christopher Ellis out of an old barbershop we converted in 2010. The production, which I directed with my best friend and collaborator Erin Brubacher, sold out and prompted line-ups down the block – which was perhaps not the hardest thing in the world to do when your capacity is thirty-three (thirtyfive when people sit on the two speakers). There was a palpable sense of “event” about the production. There was a sense of enthusiasm and curiosity among audiences for this thing that had been so publicly maligned for so long, suddenly, improbably and joyfully, coming to fruition. Of course Sheila’s star had risen since she first wrote the play and this contributed to the buzz. Though her newfound celebrity helped reveal what had been there all along: a great play.
On opening night, tensions were high.
‘Goddammit, who has my goddamn shoe,’ muttered filmmaker Alexander Carson, eyes to the floor, scouring the cramped confines of my kitchen. “Has someone seen Mr. Oddi’s shoes?” called Laura Hendrickson, our everpatient stage manager. “They’re in the bedroom!” shouted artist Jon McCurley, eating a plate of lentils in the bathtub on a pile of winter coats. From down the hall, music critic Carl Wilson, dressed as a king, shouted “Heads up!,” and tossed the shoe to Laura who calmly handed it to Alexander, before turning to me: “Ten minutes to curtain, you’re up.” Each night during preshow I became a beer vendor, walking around the audience like a guy hawking refreshments at a baseball game.
The stage left exit led to my kitchen, where the stove and sink disappeared behind the costume rack and the counter was buried under an inch of mascara, foundation, lipstick, fake eyelashes, guitar picks, flasks of whisky, underwear, nylons, clothespins, wigs and their styrofoam head holders. Up to twelve actors crammed shoulder to shoulder in its 11×11 confines, doing frantic quick changes in dead silence with the audience no more than four feet away. The cast silently gestured to one another during scene changes for props and costume pieces like bank robbers mid-heist. Everyone except Nancy, the brash saxophone-playing drag queen who made a memorable thirty-second cameo in Act 2 and happened to have a bad cold throughout the run. Nancy didn’t give a fuck about being quiet and no one dared ask her to stop letting out her resounding, full-throated coughs.
The stage right exit lead out the front door of the theatre – and onto the street. On opening night, after hawking booze, I found myself stuck stage right as the lights went down and I made a beeline for the door. Outside, we had set up a tent to help guard the actors against the late autumn cold during quick changes. I ducked into the tent and doubled-over in laughter watching an actor quick-change from a full-bodied panda bear costume into a tuxedo in under a minute, while another came dashing into the tent, doffing her polkadot dress for a bikini, followed by yet another with a large cardboard cutout of a city bus. Such was the drama of this backstage flurry that small crowds of passerbys would often stop to watch on the sidewalk in delight.
The production was a raucous and occasionally shambolic affair. By no means was it flawless, nor was the play suddenly without shortcomings, but it was quite beloved by audiences and critics alike. And because of the diverse makeup of our ensemble, hailing from the worlds of comedy, visual art, literature, journalism, and music, the production drew a decidedly nontraditional theatre crowd. One thing we heard repeatedly was the degree to which the play was a play for people who had ‘given up on theatre’. It ultimately demonstrated to me the value of approaching a play on its own terms and modifying the context of its presentation rather than modifying a play to suit a theatre and its perceived mandate.
And it reminded me never to forget why we call these things plays.
Jordan Tanahill is a Canadian playwright, theatre director and filmmaker. He co-runs the storefront gallery and performance space Videofag. His plays include Late Company, Concord Floral and the award-winning rihannaboi95. Tannahill’s production of Sheila Heti‘s play All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, which he directed and produced with frequent collaborator Erin Brubacher, premiered in 2014 at his storefront theatre Videofag. The production, nominated for four 2014 Dora Mavor Moore Awards, was remounted at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre and The Kitchen in New York City in 2015.
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.