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There is an elegance to John Mighton's theatrical writing that betrays his daily profession: mathematics. In fact, John Mighton is a playwright, mathematician, and educator. Accomplished and innovative within these forms, Mighton is an adjunct professor at U of T, founder of the math tutoring program JUMP, as well as a two-time GG winner for drama, three Doras, one Chalmers, and the 2005 Siminovitch Award for playwrighting. His latest play Half Life is currently being remounted at CanStage after a hugely successful run at the Tarragon Theatre in 2005. Half Life is a delicate meditation on age and memory, and a re-imagining of a forgotten love affair that might have been shared by two seniors who meet in a home for the elderly. Here in the Fields Institute at U of T, Mighton talks about writing Half Life, and the different ideas and experiences that feed into his work as a writer and mathematician.
"Many of the things I write are based on found material," says Mighton when asked how the idea of setting Half Life in a seniors' home developed. "My mother was in a home for five years, and there was a couple who fell in love and decided to get married. They were both in wheelchairs, and had difficulty communicating. You could see the progression of their marriage - all of it happening in an accelerated form. So the idea partly came from that."
The various characters in Half Life reveal Mighton's background in philosophy. In fact, he got his undergraduate degree in philosophy from U of T, before moving on to graduate studies in the subject at McMaster. "I've always been interested in the question of what makes us ourselves, and the extent which our identities depend on memories and what happened to us in the past. One of the questions within the play is that even if Clara and Patrick weren't in love when they first met, does it matter? They seem to be in love at the end of the play, after those memories have faded. Maybe they've constructed their present love through their past."
By comparison, Donald - Clara's middle-aged son - has more difficulty understanding the older characters' seemingly irrational newfound love. "The whole play is about entropy and our fight against loss of memory, loss of order, and dissolution," he says carefully, his hands opening to illustrate the statement. "I think one of the things that prevent us from diving into life is quite often our memories," he states with a slight laugh. "It takes a lot of mental discipline to control our memories. We all have very deep memories of things that have shaped us that are almost impossible to let go of, and that will stop us from taking risks, changing careers, or even reinventing ourselves. We'll think, ‘I don't have that ability, no I wasn't born with that gift,' so we don't do certain things."
The structure of Half Life is a series of dreamlike vignettes -scenes fade into blackness, or are abruptly interrupted. When asked how he developed this form for the play, Mighton relates it back to his affinity for found material. "I didn't know what to do with all this material until I just remembered randomly one day that people tend to forget stories at parties. As soon as I wrote the monologue that opens the play I realized I had a form for the rest of the piece. Then I didn't have to worry so much about wrapping everything up… which is always a problem for me," he laughs gently at this admission. "I could just let the stories tell themselves and then fall away whenever they needed to."
And what about the constant interruptions that happen within Half Life? Do they serve as a larger comment on how much of a struggle it is for people to get to the end of things? "Almost every conversation, a large percentage of what we do is interrupted," suggests Mighton, looking both regretful and resigned to this fact. "That's not usually shown on stage. Characters usually get to the end of their thoughts, leading to the dramatic conclusion of the scene. In a nursing home in particular, you're constantly at the mercy of the home and its schedules, so it was very important that the play have that feeling that things are always being interrupted."
I'm curious as to why Mighton is drawn to this mixture of mathematical, philosophical, but ultimately sensitive subject matter. How does he navigate through all that found material, and what does he respond to most? "I love it when people speak out of their depth on stage, saying beautiful, grand things. There's always some suspicion that they really have no idea what they're talking about! I'm interested in that duality, how the mind can feel this sense of wonder and euphoria about the world, and also recognize that we don't know anything. That's in everything I write. There's a line in the play where one of the characters says, ‘Maybe we weren't meant to suffer or be happy, but to do both at the same time," and I think that kind of bitter-sweetness, the suffering where you're also happy is the same in terms of the imagination. We were meant, I think, to be in a state of wonder," he pauses, swallowed up by this thought. "Wonder, and a state of abject humility at the same time," he finishes, breaking into a big smile that is as affable as it is enigmatic.
Did Half Life happen on stage in the way he imagined during the writing of it? "The production is better than I imagined it, as it always is when I work with Daniel Brooks," Mighton replies fervently. "He's able to lift the play, make it deeper than I thought. He's a fantastic dramaturge. The actors also make great suggestions. When I write something, I rarely imagine how it will be staged - so it's always a nice surprise seeing it up there."
As we finish our conversation, I inquire about the writers, scientists, or artists who have influenced him in his different fields. Mighton's choices are elegant and inventive, much like his own work. "Chekhov, and Beckett definitely, and Wittgenstein's Investigations has influenced me more than any other book I've ever read. I just learned a way of thinking from it that helped me in my math and in my writing."
Walking down the spiraling staircase of the Fields Institute, I feel like I've gotten a pretty distinctive view of something myself - not just John Mighton's stunning play, but also insight into the mosaic of thought and experience that are at the foundation of it.
The diverse future projects on John Mighton's agenda include creating a new theatrical project with Daniel Brooks, working on developing JUMP further, and writing a book about education called The End of Ignorance.
Half Life continues its run at the Bluma Appel Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre until February 3, 2007. Every Monday, Canstage offers pay-what-you-can ticket prices, which is great for students. For more information about John Mighton, visit www.jumpmath.org, and for Half Life, www.necessaryangel.com and www.canstage.com.
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December 28, 2009.