Performing Sadness

| Feb 10, 2014
Performing Sadness

Tanya Palmer, Pivot Artistic Associate and Director of New Plays at the Goodman Theatre, talks about her idea for a Sadness Show with Pivot Arts Director, Julieanne Ehre.

JE: What prompted you to want to create a Sadness Show?

TP: I’ve always been into sad things — you know, Emo music, Sylvia Plath poetry, depressing foreign films, episodes of INTERVENTION.  And since those things continue to exist in the world, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who likes them. So I thought it would be fun to build a whole evening around celebrating that emotion, and share the joy of feeling sad with a bunch of other people who, if they don’t enjoy it, they’re at least drawn to it like a moth to flame.

JE:  As a Canadian transplant, do you find that the U.S. has different cultural views on sadness than in Canada?

TP: I haven’t done a close study of it, but probably yes. Canadians, as a whole, are filled with self doubt, and are under no delusions that they’re the center of the universe. This is a vast generalization, but I do think Americans are resistant to things like grief, failure, sadness — they like triumph, success, a happy ending. I really admire how Americans are, in general, really positive and optimistic, but a lot of the world views that optimism and relentless cheeriness with great suspicion — all that smiling and positive thinking can seem willfully ignorant or delusional to those with a more pessimistic world view.

JE:  When I tell people that we are producing a “Sadness Show” the first response is generally laughter and then enthusiasm.  Why do we often find the idea of sadness so funny and entertaining?

TP: Most comedy actually comes out of sadness. The best comedians are usually drawing on some pretty bleak, sad stuff to make us laugh (check out pretty much anything that Louis C.K. says or does for example) so in some ways I think sadness and laughter are linked. And there’s something funny and liberating about just embracing and loving sadness — this thing that we’re supposed to avoid. ‘Cause the truth is we all feel it. So why not embrace it?

JE:  You have extensive experience working with playwrights. What do you find makes for a powerfully sad story?

TP: I think the best sad stories are stories that are both incredibly specific (in their circumstances and details, in the way the character thinks or talks, in the specificity of the emotional experience they’re describing) and vast — in that they connect with something that a huge number of people have experienced and felt no matter who they are or where they come from.

JE:  Any funny funeral stories you want to share?

TP:  Well, I’ve been to quite a few funerals, most of them pretty sad. But I do think the moments around deaths and funerals are often filled with comedy, because everyone is so raw and defenseless and desperate for release that laughter comes pretty easily and frequently. I do remember getting ready for my grandmother’s funeral and we were running late because my mom could not find her shoes — she was looking everywhere and getting kind of hysterical and then my aunt said “no shoes, no service.” We all started laughing uncontrollably. It wasn’t the most amazing joke ever, but it was pretty funny at the time.  This isn’t a funeral story, but the other thing that pops into my mind is when I was about 19 or 20, I had 2 friends, both of whom had lost a parent early — one friend’s mother had died of cancer the year before, another’s father had died, I think of a heart attack, when she was 12. And my father had committed suicide when I was 18. So we jokingly started this club we called “the dead parents’ society” and basically we’d hang out and make jokes about death that made everyone around us really uncomfortable, which was honestly in retrospect was part of the point. It was like we had this special power and dispensation to laugh at horrible things, and it gave us all a strange kind of pleasure to watch other people who didn’t have this power squirm.

JE:  Thanks, Tanya.  That’s funny – and well, super sad.

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