Jungle Theater welcomes back performances with interactive play

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At the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, there’s a feeling of excitement and optimism. The Lyn-Lake neighborhood stage will celebrate opening night of "Every Brilliant Thing" on Friday, which is the start of its new season.

“It’s beautiful to be back in front of people and having a live, exciting experience,” said actor JuCoby Johnson.

Johnson will be the only actor on stage during the 60-minute performance. As the narrator, he will walk the audience through a conversation about mental health and suicide, balancing the heaviness with humor.

“It’s about a person whose mother struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts and he created a list of brilliant things, things worth living for,” Johnson said. “This play really drops in at a moment in life where he really wants to tell people about this list that he made and how it has affected and changed his life.”

His portrayal of this mental health journey comes at a time when many are struggling with their own challenges. Health care providers across the country have reported increased cases of depression and anxiety during the pandemic.

“I think this play is really important now for helping to handle some of that and carry some of that weight,” Johnson said. “This show makes it not taboo that we all have mental health struggles at varying levels and we have to be able to normalize those things to be able to seek help in community. And that’s really important thing about being in the live theater — that we have community.”

"Every Brilliant Thing" is an interactive play that asks the audience to participate.

“It’s fun to really be with people and get to the heart of what’s different between theater and TV and film, which I love,” he said. “The difference is that in-person interaction, being in a space together, so it’s a perfect show to come back with.”

Artistic Director Christina Baldwin described the anticipation of opening night as “moving” and “emotional.”

“This show, ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ has, unlike any show I’ve ever seen, a recognition for the people who come to see it,” Baldwin said. “There’s a need for the people to be there in the room and treat each other with empathy and joy and just that release that happens when you’re able to tell a story together.”

The theater went dark in March of 2020, the day before another play called "Redwood" was set to open.

“We had to make the call to shut the show down, back then there was that sweet naivety, ‘Oh, it will just be for a few weeks or a few months and we’ll be back,’” Baldwin said. “Twenty months later, here we are but lucky we’re here.”

"Redwood" is now scheduled to start on Feb. 5, 2022.

She explained the theater has benefited from a robust network of support, however, the pandemic has taken a toll on the industry.

“That is a resounding thing in this time of the pandemic,” she said. “In theater, in specific, there are really great people with whom I’ve had the chance to work with, who’ve had to make tough decisions to do other things now.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), the number of theater employees has dropped since the start of the pandemic. During Quarter 1 of 2020, there were 2,313 filled jobs. The first quarter of 2021 showed 792 jobs.

“Many theaters have had to think about the financial burden of not being able to do their work during the pandemic and artists have had a really hard time because this is how we make our living,” Johnson said. “I just hope people come and they’re open and they’re ready to have fun, ready to feel things, and that we can really celebrate being back together again.”

"Every Brilliant Thing" runs through mid-November. Jungle Theater guests will be required to wear masks at performances, and bring proof of either vaccination or a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of showtime.

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