Hundreds of short phrases reverberate through all aspects of existence. And five actors, night after night, improvise and embody them.
His theatre is fuelled by the unexpected, the unattainable and playfulness, and has launched him at warp speed onto the international stage. At 32, the 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. A bewitching theatrical device is activated by five actors improvising and embodying those statements in a fascinating ballet. What is life? What is death? An archive of the senseless abundance of existence in the form of a declaration of love to a dearly departed mother.
Produced by Canadian Stage
Written and directed by Jordan Tannahill
Performed by Robert Abubo + Danielle Baskerville + Jennifer Dahl + Philip Nozuka + Liz Peterson
Lighting Design Kimberly Purtell
Music Caroline Shaw + Roomful of Teeth
Sound Design Philip Nozuka
Costume Design Ming Wong
Stage Manager AJ Laflamme
Assistant Stage Manager Ashley Ireland
Presented in association with Place des Arts
Written by Paul Lefebvre
Translated by Neil Kroetsch
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 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 wrote the script of Outwitting the Devil, a Khan piece presented at the Avignon Festival in 2019. Draw Me Close, a virtual reality theatre piece 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. In 2018 the major Toronto company Canadian Stage commissioned him to create Declarations.
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’s the driving force behind my work. I make theatre because of the essential power that comes from anything that is very much alive in the present moment. Something truly live, something for which the outcome is not predetermined, is always something bordering on failure–or success. But failure generates unique moments that reveal our humanity.
Failure is not something that I confine to the rehearsal hall, with the idea that inevitable accidents and delightful cock-ups will be integrated into the final product. On the contrary, it is something that I’m looking for as a constituent element of liveness in the performances I offer to an audience.
The very nature of Declarations leans toward failure, for it is impossible to take into account all the sensations, images and impressions of a human life, even with hundreds of declarative phrases serving as the foundation of the piece, such as “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“.
There is also a constant possibility of failure at another level, as every evening the actors must improvise gestures or movements for each of these declarations. In this way, Declarations is a piece which changes substantially from night to night, always responding to the present moment in the theatre, and the impulses of the performers.
The actors have performed Declarations hundreds of times. How do you ensure that risk is a constant presence, that they don’t repeat movements or gestures that have previously proved successful?
It’s quite difficult to maintain that essential freshness. To answer the question, consider the very nature of the piece, which is fundamentally non-narrative, even though certain fragments have a narrative line: a mother-son relationship, becoming an adult, a mother who is dying.
The first question we asked in rehearsal focused on the nature of the text I’d written at one go during a transatlantic flight. I was flying back home after learning that my mother had less than three years to live.
We soon saw that this theatrical device was musical in nature, with three movements–the senseless abundance of existence, the death of the mother and love–and that it called for solos, duets, counterpoint. Rhythms gradually emerged, then more rhythms, then song.
All these elements combined to form a musical suite. It was with that process and in that spirit that we developed the movement and gestures. We eventually established certain rules for maintaining creativity in those gestures. For example: aim for simplicity, avoid illustrative mime or dance, avoid all facial expressions and familiar hand symbols (the peace sign, a pistol, raising the middle finger), no imitating butterflies or birds.
The most important thing is that during the performance spectators feel the difficulty of what the actors must accomplish; that they experience along with them the failures as well as the moments of grace. The audience becomes an active participant.
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.
“Declarations is a devastating but joyous statement about life and grief […] The ensemble is superb.”
The Star, 26-01-2018
“Declarations beautifully charts the flow of human memory. Jordan Tannahill’s experimental show articulates why we shouldn’t take life’s uneventful moments for granted.”
“Thought-provoking […] Definitely unique”
The Buzz, 01-2018
“Though Declarations offers a meditation on death and dying, the audience has an opportunity to pause and celebrate life along the way […] A satisfying lullaby for the grieving.”
“The rapid pace of the text combined with the adrenaline rush of improvisation creates a sort of manic exhilaration in the theatre. It’s hard to look away when you haven’t seen anything like it […] I found myself laughing, reflecting, and lamenting.”
“Declarations is an exquisite, complex, moving, layered, poetic, theatrical piece about a son’s love for his Mother, grief, belief, joy and life.”
“Liz Perterson [is] a captivatingly mischievous local performer […] Her performance is an interesting study in disciplined impulse, chaos and order.”
The Globe and Mail, 26-01-2018