This story features “Every Brilliant Thing” produced by Olney Theatre Center. Learn more about this performance and get tix on the event page here.
Waiter. Nanny. Dog walker. It’s no secret that actors often take on day jobs to stay afloat while pursuing a career in theater.
Alexander Strain is a psychologist.
A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and a four-time Helen Hayes nominee, Strain called time out on a successful career in D.C. theater in 2014 to pursue a master’s degree in legal and forensic psychology at Arlington’s Marymount University.
“I didn’t really have any plans to come back to theater,” said Strain, who was born in the U.K. and moved to Northern Virginia with his family when he was 13. “I knew that eventually there would be something that would kind of catch my eye.”
That “something” turned out to be “Every Brilliant Thing,” the one-person show written by Duncan Macmillan with collaborator Jonny Donahoe. A standout at Scotland’s 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the play combines elements of stand-up comedy, improvisation and audience participation and delivers a humane, entertaining and sometimes hilarious message about coping with suicide and depression.
Directed by Jason Loewith, Olney’s artistic director, “Every Brilliant Thing” is unique; a show for people who love theater and for people who might think they don’t. It begins in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab with tea and cookies, and the affable Strain hobnobbing with the audience and setting up a few interactive events that unfold throughout the performance, occasionally with unexpectedly funny results. Over the course of an hour, some audience members say a word or two, others join the action—but the emotional burden is on Strain as he brings the play’s premise to life.
In “Every Brilliant Thing,” a child copes with a mother’s mental illness and all its life-changing implications by creating a list of everything that makes life worth living. That list, over time, becomes life-affirming in ways its author could never imagine. “One of the reasons this show caught my attention was its subject matter,” said Strain. “It’s unique in terms of how theater handles mental illness.”
While most plays that deal with mental illness tend to focus on the “otherness” and the stigmas and tragedies attached, Strain observed that “Every Brilliant Thing” manages “to explore it in a much more universal way. That was really interesting and inspiring to me.”
It’s interesting and inspiring to the audience, as well. The in-the-round setup of the lab provides a blank canvas for Strain to paint a portrait of a life touched by mental illness—which the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says affects 43.8 million Americans in a given year.
“One of the things that drew me to the play was that it was very accurate,” Strain said. “It was very straightforward to connect to the material. The difficult thing is that there aren’t many plays like this, making such a really concerted effort to present mental illness in a way that isn’t stigmatizing.”
That puts an extra responsibility on Strain as an actor, because as a psychologist, he knows that many audience members are dealing with their own mental health issues or the mental illness of a loved one. His knowledge, he said, “makes me all the more aware of how real it is.”
So how did he end up with that knowledge, anyway?
“It’s a bit circuitous,” he admitted. “I started to get really interested in theater in high school: I enjoyed it and was good at it.” Armed with his theater degree from NYU, Strain lived the actor’s life in New York City for a year. “I was working but it wasn’t fulfilling,” he recalled. “I travelled a bit and came back to the D.C. area and started to get involved in the D.C. scene. I was inspired by how vibrant it was, and the kind of opportunities it afforded.” Roles at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Round House Theatre, Theatre J and Everyman Theatre followed, but ultimately Strain felt a higher calling.
“At a certain point, I realized I didn’t necessarily want to be a fulltime career actor all the time,” he said. “At the end of the day, while I had a handful of shows that I felt very, very proud of and were very fulfilling, it just wasn’t what I wanted and where I wanted to be.”
Strain said he decided he only wanted to do shows that “felt really meaningful to me,” while spending the bulk of his time “actually directly helping people, being a bit more hands-on.” In “Every Brilliant Thing,” he’s afforded a unique opportunity to do both.
“I thought it might be a little bit longer before something came along, but this particular play —the timing of it, the nature of it—it all fell into place very nicely.”
Right now, his work in disability services and with crisis intervention centers has “a certain flexibility” that allows him to take on acting projects, especially one like “Every Brilliant Thing,” with its underpinning themes of mental health, resiliency and crisis intervention.
“I’ve been working in psychology and finding ways that I can maintain a healthy relationship with theater, but it isn’t necessarily what I do all the time,” Strain said, noting that while in this instance his work as an actor and as a psychologist dovetail, he understands that won’t always be the case. In the future, he admitted, “I’m not sure how it will work.”
Still, he believes his training and experience as an actor inform his work in psychology, and vice versa. “It’s given me great insight into how human beings behave,” he said. “Just by being emotionally open and empathetic, I think theater definitely encourages performers to be at their best. And then drawing on those skills to be able to talk to people and listen to people has been very helpful.
“At the same time, learning more specifically about psychology, human behavior and the choices people seem to make, and working with different populations who are experiencing difficulty, has made me more aware of what’s possible as a performer as well.”
“Every Brilliant Thing” runs through April 1 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Performances begin at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 1:45 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets start at $47, with discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.