Hundreds of short phrases reverberate through all aspects of existence. In a reading augmented by projections, Jordan Tannahill delivers this bewitching litany, a declaration of love to a terminally ill mother.
His theatre is fuelled by the unexpected, the unattainable and playfulness, and has launched him at warp speed onto the international stage. At 32, Canadian artist Jordan Tannahill is a force to be reckoned with. His first visit to the FTA involves an impossible quest: portraying the hurly-burly of the elusive sensations, images and impressions that make up a lifetime.
Heading home aboard an aircraft shortly after learning that his mother had an incurable cancer, Tannahill wrote in one go hundreds of declarative phrases: This is my left hand / This is an empty promise / This is a broken condom. In the original version of the play, five performers improvised and embodied those statements in a fascinating ballet. Today, the author himself delivers this bewitching litany, in a reading augmented by projections. What is life? What is death? An archive of the senseless abundance of existence in the form of a declaration of love to a terminally ill mother.
Produced by Festival TransAmériques
Text, images and performance Jordan Tannahill
Présentation en collaboration avec La Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines
Written by Paul Lefebvre
Translated by Neil Kroetsch
The original version of Declarations premiered at Canadian Stage, Toronto, on January 23, 2018
Jordan Tannahill (Toronto)
In less than a decade, the director, writer, filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist Jordan Tannahill has emerged as a major voice in English-Canadian theatre. In 2012 at the age of 24, he founded Videofag with William Christopher Ellis in a former barbershop in Toronto’s Kensington Market neighbourhood.
That tiny theatre became a dynamic creative centre, in particular for artists in the LGBTQ community. When Videofag closed its doors four years later, Tannahill was already an influential artist. His play rihannaboi95, produced live on YouTube for streaming by anyone anywhere, led to a Dora Award in 2013. His production of the Sheila Heiti play All Our Happy Days Are Stupid in 2014 was remounted at Harbourfront Centre and later presented at The Kitchen in New York. That same year his trilogy of one-acts, Age of Minority: Three Solo Plays, received the Governor General’s Literary Award for English Drama. He won the GG again in 2018 for Botticelli in the Fire & Sunday in Sodom.
His 2015 essay Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama caused a stir in the theatre world. Liminal, his novel published at La Peuplade, was selected for the Prix des libraires du Québec 2020. His second novel, The Listeners, is being published this August by HarperCollins.
His career took on an international dimension in 2017 with the presentation of Late Company in London’s West End, and was further enhanced by his work with the choreographer Akram Khan. He co-created and wrote the text for Khan’s Olivier Award-winning final solo Xenos, and for Khan’s Outwitting the Devil, presented at the Avignon Festival in 2019.
His virtual reality theatre piece Draw Me Close, co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada and the National Theatre of London, was presented at the Venice Biennial and at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017, and had a run at London’s Young Vic Theater in 2018. Declarations first premiered at Canadian Stage in 2018, and should have been presented at FTA 2020. Jordan’s new play, Is My Microphone On?, will premiere at Theater der Welt in Düsseldorf this June, before a run at Canadian Stage in Toronto.
In your remarkable essay Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama, published in 2015, you approach theatre as an experience that can only take place once, rejecting theatre where everything has been planned in advance. Is that how you still view theatre?
It is a driving force in my work. I am interested in the essential power of events unfolding in real time; in performances that are very much alive and responsive to the present moment. Something truly live, something for which the outcome is not predetermined, is always something actively flirting with failure.
But failure can generate unique moments that expose our humanity. Disarming and revealing mistakes are not something that I confine to the rehearsal hall, but rather allow to be integrated into the final product. This is something that I’m looking for as a constituent element of liveness in the performances I offer to an audience.
Declarations is very much about the fleeting and ephemeral nature of both theatre and existence. It is a piece that also relishes in the failures and imperfections inherent to both live performance and living. The script attempts the impossible and ultimately doomed task of accounting for all of the sensations, images and impressions of a human life – “This is the colour yellow / This is a bully / This is Abraham and Isaac / This is the smell of my mother lingering in a closet / This is the last sentence in a long book.” In the original version of the production, five actors improvised gestures or movements for each of these declarations. These unrehearsed gestures created spontaneous image/word events, which, like life, could be anything from beautiful, comic, and poignant, to banal and meaningless. In this way, Declarations was a piece which changed substantially from night to night, always responding to the present moment in the theatre, and the impulses of the performers.
Now that Declarations is a staged reading, we loose the revealing moments of liveness that came with these improvisations. In their stead, I have replaced the image/text juxtapositions of the performers’ gestures with a series of images I have sourced from my own personal life. My desire is to recreate – and create anew – the sense of surprise, discovery, and revelation that came from the chance collisions of the text and gestural scores of the piece.
We are living in a very different world than the one Declarations premiered in back in 2018. I am grateful for this chance to reimagine Declarations at time when many of us have been taking stock, and contending with loss. It feels very special, almost sacred, to be back in a theatre, sharing this space with friends and strangers.
You describe Declarations as a ritual. In what sense?
Ritual is a word I do not use lightly. Declarations may be playful and often joyful, but it does ask some fundamental questions. What is it to live? What is it to die? What is it like to lose a loved one? These are essential questions that are part of everyone’s lives, but they are impossible to answer. Trying to do so leads sooner or later to failure. Nonetheless, because of those questions, for thousands of years and in all cultures people have gone to the temple. I may be an atheist, but I do have a temple. And it is theatre.