Arts·Queeries

With his new play, Jordan Tannahill has created a path for us to face death fearlessly and joyously

Tannahill's Declarations, written in response to his mother being diagnosed with stage four cancer, both reckons with death and celebrates life.

Written in response to his mother's cancer diagnosis, Declarations both reckons with death and celebrates life

The cast of Declarations. (Alejandro Santiago)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

A few months after he found his mother had been diagnosed with stage four cancer, Jordan Tannahill was on a six hour flight from Vancouver to Ottawa to visit her. As one would be in that situation, he was feeling very overwhelmed.

"I just felt like I was in this echo chamber of my own thoughts," the Governor General's Award-winning playwright tells CBC Arts. "So just to centre myself and get myself out of my head, I just looked at my hand and said, 'This is my hand.' I didn't say it out loud, but I said it in my head. 'This is my hand.' It felt really edifying — just to have this thing front of me and to be like, 'OK, this thing exists.'"

Tannahill began to itemize things around him. "This is a styrofoam cup. This is the window. This is the view." 

"I began writing this list from this moment and kind of expanding to include almost every sensation or image or memory I could think of," he says. "And so by the time I was done the flight, I had this archive of over a thousand of these declarative statements."

Jordan Tannahill. (Alejandro Santiago)

Three years later, those statements are being made onstage in Tannahill's extraordinary new play, Declarations, in which five performers (Robert Abubo, Danielle Baskerville, Jennifer Dahl, Philip Nozuka and Liz Peterson) bring hundreds of those statements to life via voice and gesture. It's ultimately a devastating 70 minutes to take in — but at the same time, it's also rather jubilant.

"I thought of this as a woefully incomplete archive of a life," Tannahill says of Declarations. "For me, all art essentially falls in that kind of space between human experience and our attempt to articulate human experience...The way I wrote it really felt a little bit like a sort of tone poem with a sort of rhythmic quality that then takes over by the end and really breaks down into almost ritual."

For me, all art essentially falls in that kind of space between human experience and our attempt to articulate human experience.- Jordan Tannahill , playwright

Declarations is part of what he calls "a sort of informal trilogy" of work in response to his mother's diagnosis that also includes his new novel Liminal and last year's NFB-produced VR experience Draw Me Close.

"I had a lot of time to really meditate on these ideas and really kind of contend my relationship to them," says of the period after he found out about his mother, who is still battling cancer today. "I don't believe in art as therapy and I don't think this book or this play or any of it functioned as that for me, but they were definitely reckonings with these timeless questions that I hadn't asked myself as thoroughly as I have until now."

The cast of Declarations. (Alejandro Santiago)

Tannahill considers himself an atheist, so when he was confronted with these questions, he had to figure out a framework for understanding it. 

"Art has been, for me, largely that framework," he explains. "Art, philosophy, science...The theatre kind of functions as my temple and this idea that needing a space to go to reckon with death and also a place to reckon with and celebrate life. So I think of [Declarations] a little bit like a ritual for the temple — a secular temple in which I, and hopefully others, are able to face down death fearlessly and joyously."

Declarations. Written and directed by Jordan Tannahill. Until February 11. Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto. www.canadianstage.com

About the Author

Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag and interactive project Superqueeroes, both of which won him 2020 Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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