New work from David James Brock at Young People's Theatre
MFA alumni David James Brock gives us some insight into his new show at Young People's Theatre, A Million Billion Pieces, running from November 25 to December 13, 2019.
On writing for young audiences...
This is my first time writing something that’s marketed for young audiences, though I get some nice feedback about my most recent poetry collection—Ten-Headed Alien—from younger readers, which I think is very cool. A Million Billion Pieces deals with big themes (love, death, the whole of space and time!) and big music (composer Gareth Williams and I have written arias and a mini-opera within the play itself).
I feel like the proccess with this project has allowed me to continue experimenting with how music is incorporated into my text-based work. YPT has been really supportive, not forcing me to write in any particular way or asking me to hold back on frank conversations around sex, death, and spirituality, while also providing dramaturgical feedback that comes from knowing their audience. The show is suggested for ages 13 & up, and I think I’ll learn a whole lot more from simply being in the audience for some of the school shows. I’m a little exhilarated and terrified, to be honest.
And though the play’s characters are teenagers, they’ve lived their whole lives being told they won’t survive to adulthood, so they're hyper-aware of this finite amount of time in life. They have the same concerns that a lot of teens do (social group, teen milestones), but their concerns are also quite adult (bucket lists, end-of-life care, legacy), so I think this play has appeal across a wide audience.
On the genesis of the play...
A Million Billion Pieces is an extension of the Breath Cycle project I co-created with Gareth Williams [pictured on L (with David Brock)] for Scottish Opera where we explored opera singing and cystic fibrosis and wrote and recorded a number of pieces with and for singers for whom breathing is difficult. A Million Billion Pieces is not about CF, and the play is more in the sci-fi/fantasy realm. A simple touch can cause our two main characters to explode into a million billion pieces (hence the title) due to a rare genetic illness. Given the genesis of the play, of course Gareth was always going to be the composer on this project. I sent an early draft of the script to YPT through a granting process, and it was one of those funny little moments where they rejected the specific grant, but instead, commissioned the play.
But I always knew the play would have elements of opera in an alternating structure which ends up moving into the real world of the play. There are vocal warmups and arias throughout and Gareth and I even wrote a full 'classic' operatic scene—a bit of a send-up of opera clichés—that bears directly on the play’s action. It’s about a woman who loves a man named Armando in her dreams, but is forced to marry another man in her waking life. I think we did an okay job on creating that scene because the cast went to Google to find out which opera we were referencing. Alas, it was an original Williams/Brock!
As for the overall story’s development, the central premise is that two characters decide to meet in real life in a motel room (despite the fear that they will explode into a million billion pieces) after a year of online conversations as idealized versions of themselves. For one character, Pria, her online persona manifests as PriaSoprano, "the greatest opera singer in the world," so that character needs a big opera voice. Soprano Jonelle Sills and actor Kate Martin [pictured, R-L] are cast in the PriaSoprano/Pria roles, respectively. At least once a day in rehearsal, one or both of their voices knock a few tears out of us.
On collaboration and the rehearsal process...
In addition to seeing everyone cry those opera tears, watching Philip Akin direct has been incredible. I know I’m not alone among the people putting this play together, but working with Philip is one of those experiences that feels like it will radiate long after the run of this play.
This is my fourth major project with Irish composer Gareth Williams and that collaborative relationship is something I’d like to continue for the rest of my creative life. He understands theatre composition and musical storytelling so innately; watching him adjust music on the fly and then communicate that to the singers...well, Canada is lucky that his work has been getting so much attention here the last few years.
David James Brock is a playwright, poet, and librettist whose plays and operas have been performed in cities across Canada, the US, and the UK. He is the winner of the 2011 Herman Voaden Canadian National Playwriting Award for his play Wet. Brock is the author of two poetry collections, Everyone is CO2 & Ten-Headed Alien both released by Wolsak & Wynn. He has created text for opera and new music with companies that include Noise Opera, Tapestry New Opera, Young People’s Theatre, the Canadian Art Song Project, Write off The Keyboard, FAWN Chamber Creative, and the Paul Dresher Ensemble. For Scottish Opera, Brock co-created Breath Cycle with Gareth Williams, a multimedia operatic song cycle developed with cystic fibrosis patients, which was nominated for a 2014 Royal Philharmonic Society Award. David lives in Toronto and has taught writing courses at the University of Guelph, University of Victoria, Humber College and YPT.