Jonny Donahoe: ‘Having never liked Christmas, I wanted to write a Christmas show’
Best known for performing and co-writing Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, Jonny Donahoe has turned his attention to making a piece of festive theatre. He tells David Hutchison why the world needs a different kind of Christmas show…
What’s your Christmas show about?
It’s a play with songs about alternative Christmases. It’s about a brother and a sister who tell their story of growing up through all the Christmases they’ve spent together. A lot of people – and I’m one of them – have experienced some sort of trauma around Christmas. If you lose somebody in your life around then, you’re stuck with that for the rest of your life. It permeates through everything and you can’t escape it. Everything around you is a reminder of what you’ve been through. There isn’t anything else in our culture that’s so big and marks every single year. And having never liked Christmas, I wanted to write a Christmas show. I’m an atheist Jewish socialist – but I’m stuck with it.
You toured Every Brilliant Thing for three years. Do you have to change your mindset for a new piece of work?
Not really. You make a piece of work on its own merits. The fact that Every Brilliant Thing had a life of its own is separate and brilliant – it’s fantastic that a piece of work gets to be seen. But I don’t start things thinking like that or hoping that will be the case, because if you want to make large-scale, commercial work, you can, but you’re beset by rules and regulations and other people’s money. We’ve been lucky to have funding for this show, but we’ve got a full run at Oxford and then we’ll see if it has a life beyond that.
Every Brilliant Thing deals with suicide and depression. You’ve spoken before about people approaching you with personal stories and responses. How do you respond to that?
Obviously it’s incredibly lovely to have anyone say anything nice to you. Plus, I’m 33 and I’m still aware of the recent past where no one had ever said anything nice about a piece of work I’d made. I do struggle in so far as I’m not a trained professional when it comes to mental health issues. Duncan and I undertook an enormous amount of research for the play and it draws on a number of true stories from both of our lives. So there have been points on the tour where people have shared things with me that maybe they’ve never shared with anyone else, but I’m just very privileged by that. If it makes someone talk about something for the first time, I’m very happy to listen and then give them the telephone numbers of people who know what they’re doing.
What’s the best piece of theatre advice you’ve ever been given?
I often perform on a variety of stages. With touring, I can go from playing to 50 people to 400 people every other day. I once interviewed Simon Russell Beale, who said: “The thing that no one ever teaches performers is that you have to play to the depth of a room.” People think it’s very hard to play the Olivier stage [at the National Theatre] – I’ve done it once when I was supporting Mark Thomas in 2014 – but actually it’s quite easy. Every time you say something, you just need to count to three, because that’s how long it takes for an idea to get to the back of the room. It’s not about the sound, it’s about the idea. In terms of playing a room, you just need to know how big an idea is before you go on.
CV: Jonny Donahoe
First professional role: Extra, corporate video
30 Christmases runs at the Old Fire Station, Oxford, from December 13-23
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