Since 2005 much of the theatre I have created has been with Keystone Theatre, a Toronto theatre company that takes its inspiration from silent film. The plays that we create have all been in Keystoneâ€™s signature silent film style, which means that when I appear on stage, I wear white makeup, and most notably, I donâ€™t speak on stage. My character might â€œspeakâ€, but at no time do I make a sound. My “lines” are expressed through gesture and physical detail, but never through the spoken word. I have not spoken aloud on stage in nearly 5 years.
Rehearsing The Commandment has been a process of relearning how to do a lot of things I used to take for granted. Things like how to breathe and speak on stage. And how to remember lines. I went into this thinking that remembering lines would be easy, because I wrote the play. But writing isnâ€™t the same as acting, and so the process of learning was not made any easier by having written it. I struggled with learning these lines more than I have with anything I have ever written or performed before. I think there are two reasons for that: first, its more lines than Iâ€™ve ever had to learn before, and second thereâ€™s some personal stuff in the play that has never been easy for me to talk about.
When I say personal stuff, I donâ€™t mean that the play is autobiographical (Iâ€™ve never had god speak to me while I was using the toilet), but I did use writing the play to deal with the suicide of someone I loved very much.
When I first came up with the idea for The Commandment, I told myself that there was no way that I was going to turn it into something that might have any elements from my own life in it. This wasn’t going to be theatre as therapy or anything like that. It was going to be a somewhat silly, completely fictional story about a guy who finds himself in a bad situation. But it wasnâ€™t working very well. It was missing something.
I had the idea for The Commandment, the premise, and Iâ€™d been trying to write it, but something wasnâ€™t working. At the time, it was reading a little more like stand up act than a play. It had no emotional core. And I didnâ€™t know where to find one. I didnâ€™t have anything that I could draw on because I was fine, right? So I put the play aside and told myself there was nothing there.
In 2006, I picked up a copy of Stephen Adly Guirgisâ€™ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Iâ€™d heard about the play and was told it was blowing audiences away. I knew I had to read it. And it was good. But it didnâ€™t blow me away. Until the last few pages of the play. Judas speaks to Jesus, for the first time, and heâ€™s pouring out all his pain, and I feel something. Because he had this anger that I felt, and he is, in many ways, saying what Iâ€™d been hiding from. And then, he says â€œAll I know is that you broke me unfixable – and Iâ€™m hereâ€, and thatâ€™s what breaks me. Because thatâ€™s what I was, thatâ€™s what was pushed way down inside that Iâ€™d been hiding from. I couldnâ€™t even start reading the final monologue of the play, because the floodgates opened. And I started to weep the same way I did at the funeral. And then I got angry. And I had to do something with that anger. I had to deal with it somehow. And I channelled it into The Commandment, and then I had the core of the play, its heart.
I had been so mistaken about my own emotional state. I thought that I was fine. I thought I had dealt with it because I had wept so much trying to deal with Erikaâ€™s suicide. I had known about her depression, it wasnâ€™t a secret, but when she took so many pills that she died, that was a shock. I had assumed that she was in control, that her depression wasnâ€™t as bad as that. But I had been so wrong, and in the days before and after the funeral, I wept until I didnâ€™t have any tears left. And then, I thought I was fine.
But I wasnâ€™t. I was angry at Erika, but itâ€™s hard to be angry at the dead. We tend to forgive the dead and make them saints in our minds; we donâ€™t â€œspeak ill of the deadâ€. So how to deal with the fact that I was angry at Erika for what she did? I didnâ€™t. I buried it. I held it in. And I told myself Iâ€™d forgotten it, that Iâ€™d dealt with it.
Weâ€™re a society that doesnâ€™t do a great job of talking about death. We have lots of euphemisms that help us avoid the topic. Someone â€œpassedâ€ or is â€œno longer with usâ€. And when the death is a suicide, we have even more trouble with it. We donâ€™t talk about that part. We donâ€™t even have good euphemisms for that. The obituary might say that they â€œdied unexpectedlyâ€, but it will never say that they died by suicide. Even at the funeral itself, weâ€™ll dance around the topic. And in the end, because no one is comfortable talking about it, the people left behind, the friends, the loved ones, end up feeling more alone and more lost, because they just canâ€™t talk about it the way they need to.
The Commandment isnâ€™t a play about suicide. Itâ€™s a play about someone in a bad situation, coming from an even worse situation. Its comes at the topic from the side. Itâ€™s not a play that throws suicide at you right away. The main character is dealing with some pretty big stuff. Like being a reluctant prophet, and his life being ruined. The play has this comedic premise (An atheist who finds he’s been chosen to deliver God’s new commandment), which provides a few laughs before it ever deals with the serious stuff. But when it comes, it doesnâ€™t turn away. It says the words. And it looks the aftermath of suicide in the face, and finds some peace in the end.