An Interview with Sheila Heti, Jordan Tannahill, and Carl Wilson, by Marie-Hélène Westgate
October 26, 2013
Sheila Heti wrote a whole book about feeling aimless. It’s called How Should a Person Be? and for much of the book, its narrator struggles with a failed play. In real life, that play is called All Our Happy Days Are Stupid. It was Heti’s burden for twelve years.
Then the director Jordan Tannahill read How Should a Person Be? and asked Heti if the play was real, to which she said yes, at which time Tannahill read the script for All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, and made it into a musical by enlisting a cast of friends and other non-professionals, including Heti’s former husband, Carl Wilson. All Our Happy Days Are Stupid sold out its seven-night run before even opening.
Here is a chat with Sheila Heti, Jordan Tannahill, and Carl Wilson, on the eve of the premiere of this unlikely work.
Marie-Hélène Westgate: It sounds as if having All Our Happy Days Are Stupid produced turned out to be quite the saga. How did you eventually find a way to put on this play?
Sheila Heti: It was neat to have it produced. It was such a debacle all those years. It was commissioned, then there were three different directors, and it was getting worse and worse and worse. I remember seeing it and thinking, I don’t understand why this play is so terrible.
And then, like in the book, I pulled the play from the theatre. No one minded. Well the director was a bit upset but not that upset. Then Jordan Tannahill read my book and asked me what happened to the play. I gave him the script as it had been left ten years ago.
Jordan Tannahill: I read about Sheila’s decade-long struggle to write All Our Happy Days are Stupid in her novel How Should A Person Be? and when I read the script, it felt like an impossible prospect: seventeen characters, a dozen locations, and nine songs. I suggested a few directors and companies to Sheila but never had any intention to take it on myself.
Then a few months passed and I emailed Sheila and said: ‘Okay, I wanna do it!’ We held a reading in a friend’s backyard last summer and it was magical; the play suddenly leapt off the page in a way that had once felt impossible.
Heti: It’s so strange how something can transform, not by anything you’ve done but just by the passage of time.
Westgate (to Heti): So how many years did you work on the play before dropping it in 2006?
Heti: It was commissioned in the fall of 2001 and I delivered it in spring of 2002. Then it was four years, on and off, of productions, dramaturgy… Toronto theatre is really big on dramaturgy. They wanted the characters to act more like people. But the play is absurdist.
I finally decided to abandon the play in the spring of 2006. I was already three or four years into trying to make it work. In How Should a Person Be? that’s when I leave it. Yeah. Some of the stuff in the book is true and some of the stuff is not true. That was true for sure. I remember where I was with Margaux in New York, at a diner in Chelsea. The Moonbeam Cafe, I think?
Westgate: The Moonstruck Diner.
Heti: (laughs) Yes! Margaux and I were staying in Chelsea together and that was the place we went to and that was the last – well, I thought that was the end of All Our Happy Days Are Stupid. You can listen to the world sometimes and tell something just isn’t working on any level.
I want to express to you that the weirdest thing about the play, for me, is just that thinking back to 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, all along I thought there was something really flawed about the play. Now I don’t think there’s anything flawed about it. And this is not because the play changed. It’s because the circumstances around it changed, or the context for it changed, or I changed.
It sort of seems like so many things in life are like that: you keep forcing and forcing and forcing, tying to make something better – a relationship or yourself or whatever you’re working on – and it doesn’t work in any way. It’s just so stubborn. And then you give up, and a long time passes, and then finally the thing works. But it’s not because of the work you were doing. Time has just changed and the elements around the play, or whatever the thing is, have changed, and now it’s a great thing. I don’t know. I think that that applies to a lot of things in life, when you think there’s this big problem you need to solve or –
Westgate: Or you want to affect some kind of change over something.
Heti: Yeah. So you struggle. I mean, it’s so Zen, right? It’s kind of what the whole thing is. But I’ve never seen that happen, you know?
Westgate: Until you carried this play around with you for twelve years?
Westgate: That’s a pretty intimate experience of this phenomenon.
Heti: To write this whole book about my failure, and then for the play to be good, and for it to be good not because I made it better, but because I wrote this book about how the play is a failure, and then someone was interested in the play, and then –
Westgate: Then the whole book was a lie!
Heti: (laughs) And because people like the book so they’re interested in the play in a way that they would never be without the book. I just find the whole thing really weird.
Westgate (to Heti): In How Should a Person Be? you get a sense of what a crushing weight the play becomes for the protagonist. It seems like such a burden. I wonder what the difference was in your reality…
Heti: I felt really guilty. I kept blaming myself; I was like, just make it better. Just make it better. But I couldn’t figure out how to make it better. I didn’t know how to make the play better. I sort of felt like, it is what it is, for better or for worse. All the things people ask about – like why does Mrs. Sing leave Paris? Why wouldn’t she stay there waiting for her son to come home? Well, I’m like yeah, of course, but it’s absurd.
Westgate: It isn’t a play about motherhood.
Westgate: Or about being a good mother.
Heti: No! It’s not supposed to be higher realism. It’s like a dream. But I couldn’t make it better. I felt very bad about dropping it but I also felt really good about dropping it.
Westgate: I read that part of what made it possible to put on All Our Happy Days Are Stupid was having friends act and work on the production. What was it like relying on friends?
Heti: It feels homey. And it feels even more absurd and like a strange dream because my ex-husband plays one of the parts. It’s like a dream. It makes me happy because those people like Carl, who I was with while I was writing the play; he’s now in the play. It makes me happy that even though we’re divorced, he’s still a friend, and he’s acting in my play. So things can shift around and turn out to be quite good.
I always have a feeling that things are really going to all be very bad (laughs) as time marches on and it’s nice to see that sometimes things are good, you know?
Carl Wilson: Well, we’ll see once we get it up in front of people. But working with friends is a great pleasure. After all, who else should one want to work with? If money didn’t exist, and in this case it basically doesn’t, we’d never do anything any other way.
Tannahill: In the middle of rehearsal this week, I suddenly felt like I was back in high school. This process has felt a lot like how it felt to make plays back then: an excuse to hang out with friends at the end of the day. I’ve been able to spend the last three weeks in a room with people who I enjoy but might not otherwise see more than once a month. And here we are, getting to fall in love with this wild and wonderful piece of theatre together. A couple of the cast members are actors, but most aren’t.
Heti: Yeah. It feels like being a kid. When I was a kid, I always put on plays with my friends, and this is what the play feels like now, which I think is the way it was always supposed to feel. Having professional actors and serious dramaturges is like, well – you’re six years old. You’re don’t want a dramaturge.
Westgate: It’s a play!
Heti: It’s a play! It’s just you and your friends putting on a play. So I feel like this attitude is more natural. I like working with friends so much. It feels more in the spirit of the kind of thing I enjoy.
Westgate: The play is set in Paris. I’m curious about accents: will Plurabelle have a French accent? Will the Man In the Bear Suit have a semi-French accent? What about Livinia?
Wilson: Some kind of accent but not a French one. My character is a historical anachronism – a Prince in modern-day France – so I am playing him more like a medieval throwback. It’s not a realistic play, so we are not playing it realistically. A couple of the characters do have French accents, but they are cartoonish accents that seem deliberately put on. It’s joyfully inconsistent.
Heti: In this reading, The Man in the Bear Suit is going to have a fake French accent. He’s a real actor, so he knows how to do an accent. But even if they’re bad accents, it’s okay. It’s fantasy.
Tannahill: Ah oui, The Man in the Bear Suit and Livinia both have thick French accents! Everyone else in the play is from elsewhere – interlopers or vacationers.
Westgate (to Sheila): All Our Happy Days Are Stupid tells the story of two families’ inability to shed their dissatisfaction despite being in ideal circumstances, on a Parisian vacation. Do the characters want to be happy?
Heti: I think everyone wants to be happy, so I think everyone in the play wants to be happy. All the characters have these things that they’re moving towards; things they think will make them happy. And you think, that’s never going to work to bring you happiness. But without that drive toward happiness, none of them would have acted. That drive brings a motivating force for action.
I can’t really analyze it though because I don’t know. The play is just a weird thing. And it’s a comedy.
Westgate: And now for a dreadful question: what is this play about?
Heti: I don’t know. It’s about a boy going missing in Paris and this sets off all these reactions in his family. I don’t know what it’s about. You should ask Jordan.
Tannahill: There is a line in the play that I think sort of sums everything up.
‘There is no better life, Ms Oddi. There isn’t one.’
I see All Our Happy Days Are Stupid as a playful critique of the pursuit of happiness. The surreal narrative follows The Oddis and the Sings, two families on vacation in Paris. Far from the blissful respite they seek, their holidays become their undoing. Over the course of the play both families undergo extraordinary personal upheaval and transformation – The Sings loose their son Daniel, the Oddis’ marriage dissolves. I think it explores the fallacy of two ensconced Western institutions: the perfect family and the perfect holiday. Sheila uses the ‘holiday’, a time of self-indulgence and pampering, to amplify the selfishness and detachment of her characters to illustrate how these deeply ingrained traits are the root of their misery.
Wilson: Like all of Sheila’s work, the play is about questioning how a person should be: conventional or liberated? Kind and giving or willful and self-serving? And questioning whether it even makes sense to ask that question. A better answer might be to say that it is about two hours full of noisy, obnoxious people, and strangely beautiful music.
Heti: I think the play is partly about how to be an adult. What’s an adult? Jenny thinks she’s so adult, and Ms. Oddi doesn’t think she is, and she isn’t, and in the end it’s kind of Daniel – at the very end – who turns out to be the only adult. So in some sense it’s like the same thing the play is about, which is that to be an adult is to make something, because Daniel is the only one who makes anything, and he’s the only one who is, like, even by the very end. For me salvation came in writing the book, right? And with the play, the salvation is that Daniel becomes the singer that writes these songs. In my imagination that’s what happens.
Marie-Hélène Westgate is the interviews editor for Freerange Nonfiction and a contributor to Psychology Today. Her writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Believer, Tin House, Guernica, and Bitch Magazine. She earned a Masters of Fine Arts in Nonfiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Marie-Hélène is a Montreal native who now lives in Brooklyn where she spends as much time as possible locked alone in a room.