Drama Club Field Trip to “Every Brilliant Thing” Brings Positive Change to Hauppauge High School


Stevie D. Rosenfeld, Author

      On September 20th, 2022, Jeffery Sanzel performed Every Brilliant Thing at Theatre Three in Port Jeff for the advanced acting students of Hauppauge High School, the play’s first student audience. The show was directed by Linda May, originally written by Duncan MacMillan with Jonny Donahoe, and 50% of the play’s proceeds are donated to the Response Crisis Center. Every Brilliant Thing is a one man show telling the story of a man’s quest to document every brilliant thing in the world after being exposed to continuous tragedy. Every Brilliant Thing is a piece of immersive theatre, calling for both active and passive audience participation. The trip was taken in tandem with the Hauppauge Natural Helpers club, a program dedicated to teaching students to help each other and to create a better community. The combination of this group with Hauppauge’s experienced drama students, teachers, and the wonderful and powerful nature of the show made for an incredible experience that may create valuable change within our school. 

     Every Brilliant Thing is a piece of immersive theatre in which the Narrator holds a conversation with the audience about his life with a suicidal mother. Rather than grimly lamenting the tragedy, the Narrator happily tells the story of his life, and noting the tragedy as only a part of who he is. And though there are bad parts, the rest of life is made of brilliant things. Jeff Sanzel remarked that he loved performing this play because “There is no fourth wall at all.”

Every Brilliant Thing director Linda May (left) and leading man Jeff Sanzel (right)

     Every Brilliant Thing is a one-man show, told entirely by Jeff Sanzel as the Narrator. Director Linda May noted that this is a particular challenge because  “All of the things you’re doing you have to find within yourself.” However,  this is the second one man-show Sanzel has performed in his career.

 “I did another one,” he joked, “The audience hated it.”

     Production of Theatre Three’s Every Brilliant Thing began in 2020, but was stalled until last March due to COVID-19, and though the show requires serious emotional commitment, Sanzel was more than excited to start up again. “You have your whole lifetime to do Neil Simon plays,” he said, “The fact that you have the opportunity to do something like this is incredible.” 

     The intense subject of the play does require a large emotional investment from both the actor and the viewer. To come down from the intense emotion he feels while performing, Jeff Sanzel said that he sits in his dressing room with a book after every performance to clear his head. Despite this, he does not consider the play to be tragic or depressing. 

     “What separates this from a play like Night Mother is that there’s a lightness and a humor to it. I feel like the humor is what gives it its humanity,” said Sanzel.

      Every Brilliant Thing is more than humorous. Even in the saddest, darkest parts of the play, the Narrator found ways to make the audience laugh. And the fact that it is a piece of immersive theatre truly heightened the experience. Sanzel particularly loves the play because “There’s no fourth wall at all.”


Students preparing to see Every Brilliant Thing

      Before Every Brilliant Thing begins, slips of paper are placed at each seat in the theater. These papers each have a “brilliant thing” listed on them. Over the course of the story, the Narrator adds to a list of Every Brilliant Thing in the world. The list was originally intended to inspire his mother to keep on, it eventually became his inspiration to continue living. As the show proceeds, the Narrator calls out numbers from the list, and that is a signal to the audience member with that number to call out the brilliant thing on their sheet. This makes the audience a part of the story, and calls on them to remember the brilliant things in their lives. But this is not the only way Sanzel makes his audience a part of the play.

     Hauppauge junior Megan Connolly was seated in the middle of the theater when Jeff Sanzel asked her to take her shoe off.

     “And your sock,” he added.

Students before Every Brilliant Thing begins

      Sanzel had asked Ms. Connolly to play the role of his elementary school guidance counselor, Mrs. Patterson, who’s main therapy technique consisted of having a sock-puppet dog talk to children about their feelings. Though Megan Connolly said she “was embarrassed” during this process, she admitted “It made me pay attention more.”

     Megan was not the only Hauppauge student to be integrated into the play. Senior Nazz Stith was called up to play a seven year old version of the Narrator with the Narrator playing his own father. Part way through the scene, Sanzel declared that it was time to switch, moved his chair to the passenger side, whispered a line into Nazz’s ear, and began to play his seven year old self with Nazz as his father. After receiving great applause for his performance, Nazz remarked “It was very heavy and very emotional. Diving into that was just new, and a good experience.” Nazz also added, “If you have a chance to see [Every Brilliant Thing], go see it. It’s so moving.”

Students socializing before the show

     Junior Daniela Silva was also called to play the Narrator’s favorite college professor. She explained “He gave me a book, and he sat down and told me to give a whole review of the book.” This book was “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” a novel about the tragic death of a man caught in a love triangle, and is not on any high school English reading lists. “It was nerve wracking,” she joked, “but it was a lot of fun as well.” 

     Even students who weren’t called on stage had an incredible time watching Every Brilliant Thing. Junior Jake Morris told his theatre class that he was so invested in the story that he “forgot [he] was watching a show.”

      Senior Alexa Ingrassia commented on how she was nervous to take on the intense play 26 Pebbles, which will be staged by the Hauppauge Drama Club in late October, but felt more comfortable after seeing Sanzel take on a difficult topic himself. During the Q&A section of the performance, she told Sanzel “Seeing you perform such a heavy piece, how I responded to it, and how the room responded to it, it’s just like ‘Oh, this isn’t going to be so bad.’” Every Brilliant Thing gave the student audience a new outlook on life and newfound confidence in themselves and their futures.


     But this field trip was much more than a single experience. Hauppauge theatre teacher Ruthie Pincus arranged for her advanced class to attend Every Brilliant Thing because they will be writing several pieces on mental health over the course of this school year, and the play was meant to serve as an example and aspiration for them. Mrs. Pincus deeply believes that this play teaches truly valuable lessons to students. In spite of everything, no matter how terrible, Mrs. Pincus says that Every Brilliant Thing teaches us that “There’s going to be a next moment, there’s going to be brilliant things.”

      In addition to this, the Hauppauge Natural Helpers group went on the trip as a way to learn more about mental health issues and how to approach the subject in a meaningful and helpful way. Natural Helpers was founded “to have a trusted group of students that other students can go to whenever they need help with any sort of emotional problems they are having instead of going to one of the social workers,” explained Natural Helper Jack Collins. Jack believes that seeing Every Brilliant Thing helped him become a better person and will absolutely improve his work with them. “The show was asking you to focus on the positives of your life rather than zoning in on the negatives… It taught me a lot about focusing more on the positive, and I think when you sort of figure out more how to deal with your emotions, it helps you deal with other people and help other people deal with their emotions.” In addition to this, Natural Helper Destiny Santanna believes the idea of “The List” is an incredible journaling method that she will encourage others to use as a coping mechanism. 

The Hauppauge Natural Helpers who attended the field trip: (from left to right) Jack Collins, Elizabeth Dolce, and Destiny Santana

     Hauppauge’s theatre program has been focused on “creating social change through the arts” since it was formed. Hauppauge has hosted Stage The Change, written and performed social justice based plays, and has sponsored fundraisers and charities for years. The Every Brilliant Thing field trip is just one of many steps the drama program has taken to create a better community, and by coming together with Natural Helpers to see such a powerful and influential show, that community has become even stronger.