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Playwright and theatre director Jordan Tannahill poses in the rehearsal space at Canadian Stage in Toronto.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

Having never died – so far as I can remember – I can't offer much wisdom about what might come after. I can be sure of at least one thing, though: On that moment, the "I" that I so preciously hold onto, that sense of me that has been the essential fact of my time here, will get subsumed into the great mass of humanity that has so far existed. "I" will become a "they": no longer an individual, capable of defending my particular point of view, my only proof of existence, but part of some vague collective, a group that can only be generalized about, averaged out, thought of only as a shapeless mass.

This loss of individual importance is what we're worried about when we talk of, say, our legacy: It's not enough to be part of the general effort of humanity; our specific name must live on in some way. And yet, in another way, it's nothing to be afraid of – it's one of our highest desires. We search almost ceaselessly for connection, for the sense that there are no solid boundaries around our selves, that we can become something greater, and grander, when we let go of the "I" and become "we." Almost every major milestone in our lives, almost every ceremony, religious or otherwise, is predicated on letting us become part of something bigger, of erasing part of our self and embracing a group identity.

Of course, humans being human, we cling to our "I" until we're forced to do otherwise. For Jordan Tannahill, whose relative youth has not prevented him from becoming one of Canada's most celebrated creators of theatre, that moment of reckoning came not when he was confronted with his own mortality, but his mother's. A diagnosis attached to a finite timeline sent Tannahill into a search for the meaning in our "me," from which has emerged two big works that wrestle expressly with the end – or, rather, all of the things that lead us to it.

One of them is his first novel, Liminal, a dense and dizzying dive into the psyche of a young man, Jordan, in the moment he sees either his mother, sleeping, or her body, dead. Exploring what exactly those two states mean is the central thread of the novel, woven into a memoirish recollection of Jordan's life, which bears some resemblance to Tannahill's own: Like his character, he, too, is a queer suburban kid raised largely by his mother who grew up to find a spiritual and artistic home in Toronto's Kensington Market.

"It's so obnoxious, in a way," Tannahill explains with a smile, sitting in the rehearsal space at the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto, "to be confronted with the pending mortality of a loved one, and it actually triggers this completely self-absorbed investigation.

"But I think for me I was contending with unresolved or unaddressed questions that I have," he continues, adding that the existential fugue and its triggering incident are closer to real life than the events he describes in the book, however much they mirror his biography. "That incident did happen, and I felt this immense panic explode in me for that instance. And I think I wanted to find a way I live within that one second and unpack everything that it contains."

Living within a second is also an apt description of Tannahill's other response to the news about his mother, Declarations, opening at Berkeley Street on Jan. 25. Living, as most of his work does, in an in-between space – in this case, the ether between a monologue and modern dance – it features five performers presented with an expansive list of things and ideas that make up a human life: a dog, Ikea, a father leaving, a mother chopping onions, the troposphere, the fall of America. As each reads a concept, they also improvise a movement – try to freshly embody that idea, what it might mean, each night.

It is, on the one hand, wrestling with that oblivion-into-community that buzzes underneath the idea of death. Each of these performers both gives up some crucial part of themselves – they are forced to respond to ideas and images that are not theirs, that are someone else's life – while also asserting themselves – turning these ideas into movements unique both to them and the moment.

"They are embodying themselves and allowing their own impulses and intuition to claim the text for themselves," says Tannahill, "but they're also individuals who are simultaneously speaking their life experience and evoking a kind of collective life as well."

It's that evocation that gives the work its wider resonance. Tannahill refers to a Gabriel Garcia Marquez concept, that one of the tenants of magical realism is a notion of woefully incomplete lists: an attempt to catalogue a place or people or thing that inevitably fails. For him, this idea captures something essential about life as much as art.

"There's that age-old cliché of one's life flashing before their eyes when they die," Tannahill says. "But obviously the entirety of it can't, because you'd be there for 80 years watching the whole thing again. What interests me is what is framed out? And why do the often inconsequential things come to the fore? There's an inexplicability to that, but also something about it that feels very human.

"And that kind of liminal space," he continues, "that failure space between human experience and our ability to articulate it and represent it in its entirety … all art is basically our failure to fully articulate the human experience."

That prospect might seem doubly horrifying for an artist who has tried to capture one very particular human's experience, but Tannahill does not exactly see it that way. For him it is precisely this failure, this limit, that gives our efforts meaning, that gives meaning also to our turn from an "I" into some great collective.

"I think for me it's so much more moving and joyous to accept our non-ness," he explains. "I think temporality and the void and the incomplete, these things are the very reason for me that pleasure exists or has any value. Or that beauty has any value. Or human relationships have any meaning or value.

"It's because they're finite."

Declarations runs through Feb. 11 at the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto (canadianstage.com); Liminal is available from House of Anansi Press starting Jan. 23.