I have been lucky enough to call Stephen Unwin my friend for the last few years. Since we met we’ve worked together in numerous contexts: professional and academic theatre, large workshops and intimate rehearsals, we’ve even sat alone together in cafés clacking away at our laptops, sharing ideas and provocations—but we’ve never done anything quite like All Our Children. Over the years I’ve become close to the Unwin children too, sometimes I even feel like a member of the extended family. The play is dedicated to Stephen’s son Joey, who has learning disabilities not unlike those discussed in the play, and I have lately witnessed the intersection of two sides of Stephen’s world: theatre and disability rights.
Everyone knows that a playwright is a creative artist and a director is an interpretive artist, but what about when they are one in the same? While Henrik Ibsen was writing Ghosts, one of his most personal and intimate plays, he famously described the process in a letter to a friend: “To live is to war with trolls in heart and soul. To write is to sit in judgement of oneself.” The sentiment makes for a rosy soundbite, but the reality of dragging one’s subconscious out of the guts and onto the page isn’t quite so romantic. The flurry of transatlantic emails that Stephen and I exchanged while he was writing the final drafts of All Our Children never included anything as nearly as poetic as that—after all every problem in the theatre is a practical one. Our correspondence, and my observations during the first week of rehearsal, have led me to reformulate Ibsen’s dictum: To write is to wrestle with the trolls inside, but to direct one’s own writing is to truly sit in judgement of oneself.
The grim subject of All Our Children is T4, the Nazi program of exterminating the disabled, but the play isn’t really about that, any more than Ghosts is about sexually transmitted disease. As a young student of the humanities, I found the great question of Twentieth Century history impossible to answer: how one of the most progressive societies in the world managed to commit such atrocities. It was only an academic consideration anyway, wasn’t it? In recent years, that question doesn’t seem so hypothetical. After all, I come from the nation which brought you the iPhone and the Tomahawk Missile, the smallpox vaccine and crack cocaine, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Contradictions everywhere.
It is this kind of cognitive dissonance which takes center stage in All Our Children. The play is a study of the emotional toll that such transgressions take on the perpetrators. It is not so much a history piece as a personal drama which asks us to consider our own complicity in the sins of our society. Nearly every day in rehearsal there is a moment when I wonder, “What would I have done?” A question which inevitably leads me to ask, “What am I doing now?”
In order to write a play, the author must face his own “trolls in heart and soul,” without self-consciousness, and in All Our Children, Stephen Unwin has certainly done so. As rehearsals progress, I see him “sit in judgement,” each day learning more about himself—the true pursuit of an artist. All Our Children is not only a play, it is also a love letter from the author to his son, Joey, and indeed to all our children.