A Million Billion Pieces
A Million Billion Pieces
By David James Brock
Music by Gareth Williams
Directed by Philip Akin
This guide was written by Tita Kyrtsakas. Tita is the recipient of the 2019/2020 Ada Slaight Drama in Education Award. For more information see: youngpeoplestheatre.org/about-ypt/artist-opportunities/ada-slaight-drama-in-education-award/
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A Million Billion Pieces centers on the love between two teenagers, both dealing with a life threatening illness, who connect online and decide to meet in person. Their rare disease could prove deadly if they make contact. This play began as an opera project called Breath Cycle (www.breathcycle.co.uk) for singers with Cystic Fibrosis created by Composer Gareth Williams and Toronto-based Playwright David James Brock. Resonating deeply with YPT’s season theme, which references the Seven Ancestral Teachings of the Anishinaabek, Brock’s play embodies the teaching of Love. This new play explores what it means to belong, our willingness to live, and the necessity of emotional and physical relationships.
Throughout literature, there are countless examples of young people falling in love and daring to take chances. With the onset of social media, teenagers now have the ability to meet online, share their views on the world, and make emotional connections to others not in the same physical sphere as their own. These connections are real but are they enough? In this study guide, students will explore the importance of self-love and examine the complicated nature of decision-making. In the pre-show unit, students will learn about how loving themselves can inspire self-love in others, and how loving other people is an act of courage. The post-show unit will focus on decision-making, as well as students’ own creative writing.
This play follows two teens, Theo and Pria, sharing an unnamed illness. Meeting online as Eagle19 and Priasoprano, the two initially connect in a chatroom over the fact that they are both sick. After a handful of conversations, which are interwoven throughout the play as flashbacks, the two decide to meet in a motel to have their first sexual experience. The situation is precarious: they think they are going to explode due to their diseases. When Theo shows up in a hazmat suit, he is evidently more hesitant than Pria, leading the two to have emotionally intimate conversations, sharing how they feel about being “ticking time bombs” or “canaries in a coal mine.” Scattered with humourous comments and musical moments, the play ends with a crescendo of emotion and a kiss. It is up to the audience to decide what happens next.
This play about two teenagers who are experiencing the same serious illness includes conversations about sex and sexuality, drug and alcohol-use, life-threatening illness and suicide. There are also brief depictions of online bullying. Some coarse language is used and an herbal cigarette is smoked on stage.
- Health and Physical Education – healthy and active living
- Health and Physical Education – social relationships and decision making
- Biology – genetics
Seven Ancestral Teachings
- Finding the beauty in life in difficult circumstances
- Taking risks
- Finding support in others
About the Playwright
David James Brock is a playwright, poet and librettist whose plays and operas have been performed in cities across Canada, the US and the UK. He is the winner of the 2011 Herman Voaden Canadian National Playwriting Award for his play Wet. Brock is the author of two poetry collections, Everyone is CO2 Ten-Headed Alien, both released by Wolsak & Wynn. He has created text for opera and new music with companies including YPT, Noise Opera, Tapestry New Opera, the Canadian Art Song Project, Write off the Keyboard, FAWN Chamber Creative and the Paul Dresher Ensemble. For Scottish Opera, Brock co-created Breath Cycle with Gareth Williams, which was nominated for a 2014 Royal Philharmonic Society Award. He lives in Toronto and has taught writing courses at the University of Guelph, University of Victoria, Humber College and YPT.
In A Million Billion Pieces, Pria and Theo are both afflicted with the same lethal genetic disorder. Both grow up “mired in precautions” believing they won’t reach adulthood, that even being in a room with someone who has the same disease will cause them to instantly explode into “a million billion pieces.” As far as I know, no such disease exists, but I think their feelings of fragility and isolation are familiar ones to a lot of us—as is the intense desire to be around people who understand us.
Pria and Theo want to fit everything into the seconds they believe they have left. When they don’t immediately explode (what a short play that would be), it’s enough for them to start doubting the mythologies they live by. To challenge the truths we hold about ourselves is no easy business.
This play is about making the time we have count. For Pria and Theo, their in-person meeting after a year of “safe”, online interactions is an act of defiance against science, rumour and time. As they wade into the unknown, they carry the weight of explorers to a new planet. Stepping into this new world is less about a fear of dying than it is about a fear of not living. And as part of that life, this is also a play about love, in all its cheesy, logical, passionate and, yes, operatic forms.
While writing Pria and Theo, I was thinking about how to make each second for them as big as possible; as part of that bigness, I always knew that opera would be a part of the play, an integral part of the character identities. Opera is exceptionally good at magnifying emotions, and Gareth Williams, who I’ve worked with for a decade now, consistently wows me with music that is both intimate and intergalactic.
Though A Million Billion Pieces portrays a fictional chronic illness, it’s a creative extension of Gareth’s and my work on Breath Cycle, a community opera project we co-created to explore opera and voice for singers with Cystic Fibrosis. Gareth and I are indebted to vocal coach Marie Claire Breen, Scottish Opera and the entire medical staff at Gartnavel’s Respirology Department (Glasgow) for their support. This play is dedicated to the original co-creators, singers and performers of Breath Cycle, not only for their artistic collaboration, but the reminder that big music inhabits single seconds. Finally, thank you to YPT for taking this chance on a “play with opera”, where at any moment, the two main characters might explode into a million billion pieces.
David James Brock
Foreword by Christine Bear
Young people living with illness, their families and why it’s important to open the lines of communication.
My name is Christine Bear and I’m a researcher at SickKids Hospital studying new therapies for the life-shortening, genetic disease called Cystic Fibrosis (CF). Not so long ago, the average life span for a person with CF was about 20 years. Now, with proper health care most people survive into their fifties- a life span that is still too short. Managing their health, keeping lung infections and lung damage to a minimum requires 3-4 hours of treatment time per day- eating into time for family, friends at school and work. It’s potentially isolating and mental health can be a major concern.
As a researcher, I don’t see patients at the clinic, but I have met some really remarkable individuals with this disease who refuse to feel isolated and stigmatized because of their illness. I’ve known people who fight against feelings of hopelessness by setting themselves and achieving incredible goals– proving their personal strength despite the odds. One of my students, who also had CF, took part in bike-riding challenges in the mountains out west and I know of people who participate in marathons after lung transplantations.
Jeremie Saunders created the podcast called “Sickboy” because he wants people with CF, or any life-shortening disease for that matter, to embrace life and not let themselves become isolated. He rallies folks with disease and their loved ones to talk about the hard times, the day to day struggles, their longings and joyful moments, to break down stigmas and to overcome the fear and isolation that comes with fatal disease. Like Jeremie, there are many people with chronic illness who want their voices to be heard.
Sickboy Podcast: Sickboy Podcast is hilarious, ridiculously insightful and absolutely determined to break down the stigma associated with illness and disease! The show started with three best friends who recognized that when faced with difficult situations, illnesses and diseases, people tighten up, they get awkward, and they simply don’t know what to say. Taking the lead from Jeremie’s life long battle with Cystic Fibrosis, the boys help people understand that sometimes the best way to deal with illness, disease and life is simply to laugh.
Jeremie Saunders: BIO (Sickboy Podcast) Jeremie is a multi-award-winning professional actor and yoga instructor who happens to live with a genetic lung disease called Cystic Fibrosis. He is an advocate for grabbing life by the balls and never letting go. He is married to a super babe of a wife named Bryde, and they own a big goofy dog named Bigby
- interpret short drama works and identify and explain their personal response to the works;
- analyse drama works to determine how they communicate ideas about issues, culture, and society.
Health and Physical Education – Healthy Active Living
- demonstrate an understanding of the skills and strategies needed to build healthy social relationships (e.g., peer, school, family, work) and intimate relationships;
- describe factors that influence sexual decision-making, and demonstrate an understanding of how to use decision-making and communication skills effectively to support choices related to responsible and healthy sexuality;
- describe how coping and interpersonal skills and their knowledge of personal protective and risk factors can be used to develop resilience and enhance their ability to make healthy choices, including the avoidance of substance use and addictive behaviours;
- identify the skills and resources that they will need to maintain their personal health and well-being as they become more independent.
- evaluate, on the basis of research, the importance of some recent contributions to knowledge, techniques, and technologies related to genetic processes;
- describe some genetic disorders caused by chromosomal abnormalities or other genetic mutations in terms of chromosomes affected, physical effects, and treatments.
Pre-Show Discussion Questions
- What does it mean to feel as though one belongs? Describe belonging.
- Does biology (genetics) determine outcomes in people’s lives? What role does personal choice play in the way people live?
- What is desire?
- Describe the importance of community.
- What is consent?
- What are the positives and negatives of being involved in online communities?
- Why is it important to have dreams?
Pre-Show Warm-up Activity: Loving Ourselves: Pass a Compliment
Students will explore how self-love is integral to personal development.
- Ask students to create a circle.
- Instruct students to “pass a compliment” by describing something they like about one of their classmates.
- Mary passes the ball to Abdul. Mary tells Abdul that she likes how passionate he is about film. She then sits down.
- Abdul then passes the ball to Giovanna and he compliments her on how wonderful she is in math. Abdul then sits down.
- Once the students have received a compliment, ask them to stand again.
- Ask students to do the same again, but as they receive the ball they say one characteristic that they like about themselves.
- Once they have shared what they like about themselves, ask them take a seat again.
- How did it feel to receive a compliment from someone?
- How did it feel to vocalize something you like about yourself? Was it more challenging to talk about someone else or yourself? Why?
- How do you think this activity might connect to the play we are about to see?
Pre-Show Activity: Friendship Improvisation
Students will explore the importance of meaningful relationships.
A copy of the scene template for each pair of students (see below).
- Divide the class into groups of two or three.
- Distribute the scene template to each group and read the scenario and given dialogue to the class.
- Ask students to improvise a short scene (1 minute!) expanding on the given dialogue. The given dialogue can be used at any point in the scene.
- Ask students to improvise the scene again incorporating compassion as they play out the scene. For groups of three, have different students take on the two roles.
- Ask students to improvise the scene again incorporating another emotion they think the characters feel during the scene.
- Ask for a couple of groups to perform their scene to the rest of the class.
- Why was it important for your characters to meet?
- What emotion did you incorporate into your scene and why?
- Did your characters take a risk in this scene? If they did was it important to, and why?
- What makes a meaningful relationship?
Scenario: Two friends are both sick, and decide to meet against their parents’ wishes. They meet at a park and sit down on a bench.
Use the dialogue below at some point in the characters’ conversation:
THEO: I can’t believe we decided to meet.
PRIA: I’m happy we did. It would be wrong if we let our parents keep us apart over some silly suspicion.
Post-Show Discussion Questions
- How does Theo’s decision to meet Pria affect him? Why do you think he is afraid to meet her?
- Why does the playwright jump back and forth between settings? (i.e. from Theo in his room to the motel scene)?
- Who is Priasoprano and what is the significance of her singing her lines?
- YPT is connecting this show to the Ancestral Teaching of Love. Where do you see love in this play?
- How does the imagery of the canary relate to the beginning of the play? What does the canary flying across the starry sky signify at the end of the play?
Post-Show Activity: Decision-making
Students will explore the cause and effect of decision-making.
Four signs with strongly agree, strongly disagree, agree and disagree written on them
Part One: Four Corners Activity
- Pre-set one sign in each corner of the classroom taped to the wall.
- Say the statements below out loud one at a time and have students walk to the corner that reflects their opinion on that statement.
- I believe I have 100% control over the decisions in my life.
- I do not need my parents’ approval for everything.
- I determine my life choices. Fate or biology do not control what I do.
- Emotional relationships are important.
- What is a statement that you strongly agreed with?
- What is a statement that you strongly disagreed with?
- What is challenging about this activity?
- How can you connect these statements to the play you watched?
Part Two: Character Writing
- Ask students to choose one of the above statements that is meaningful to them.
- Ask them to choose one of the characters from the play and to write a series of tweets or a DM (direct message) to another character in the play related to the statement they chose (that will be the topic of the conversation). Questions for students to think about that could inspire these messages can include:
How do the characters feel before meeting at the motel?
What are their worries or fears?
What are they excited about, or what do they hope for?
What is at stake?
- What topic did you choose and how did you connect it to the characters from the play?
- How does being honest affect how someone may react?
Post-show Activity: Continuing the Story
Imagine how the narrative continues once the play is over and write the next scene of the play.
Pencil or pen; or computer;
- Remind the students that the play ends with a sole canary flying across the sky and the words “is it safe?”
- Ask students to work in pairs or individually to create the next scene of the play. Ask them to imagine where the story goes after Pria and Theo’s mutual decision to have “everything”. This can be written down or improvised dramatically, or both.
- The scene can include both characters, a single character, or new characters.
- Where did you decide to set the next scene and why did you include the character(s) that you did?
- Should there be a sequel to this play?
- What is challenging to an audience about an ambiguous ending?
- What “fate” did you decide for your characters?