Note from Playwright Ian Michael James

"There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant you want to feel like a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive…”

- Neil DeGrasse Tyson

When I first started writing BURN three years ago, it was a different play. And I was a different person. We were all different people three years ago. We gained things. We’ve lost things. We’ve had failures and successes and hopes and doubts.  We’ve changed. Or maybe the things around us have. The apartments and houses we live in, the music we like, the perception of whether or not you’re a “mustache guy” or a "hat guy” (I tried both. Conclusion: I’m neither and no one is both). All those things change. And so do the people around us. They get new jobs, they move, they seem different, they die.

When I started BURN, no one in my family had ever died. Three years later, I’ve lost an uncle, a grandmother on both sides of my family, and a professor that was very influential in my education. This play has always been--in some part--about how people cope with death. When I wrote it three years ago, I think I was exploring that fear of death. I didn’t know what it was to lose someone. But now, three years later, it’s clear to me what that does to a person, what it does to a group of people. There’s always a sense of regret, a sense of “what could I have done to stop this?”. So now, for me, the question of the play isn’t "what happens”—now it’s “this is what happens. This is what always happens. So what do we do?"

But in the end, there’s nothing we can do. Everyone dies, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. A lot of people find the impermanence—the idea that we have so little time—scary. Artist Candy Chang noticed this fear in her New Orleans community just after Hurricane Katrina hit. After losing someone she loved, Chang channeled her grief and depression into a public art project on an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood to restore perspective and find consolation with her neighbors.  The project was called “Before I Die.” She took chalkboard paint and covered one side of the abandoned house with the repeating phrase, "Before I die, I want to" followed by a blank space. Chalk was left out for anyone to pick up and fill out a line on the board. They wrote all kinds of things.

"Before I die I want to… sing for millions, see my daughter graduate, straddle the International Date Line, see the leaves change many times, be someone’s cavalry, live off the grid, build a school, hold her one more time, abandon all insecurities, be completely myself…" 

 Candy made templates for the project available online to make it something everyone can engage with in any community. While I would love to do something like this in the Chicago theater community––especially considering the losses to the community over the past few years––I don't have a space to offer for people to write out what they want to do. But I do have the wonders of the internet. I've made a Google Form, available here, for anyone to fill out the question however they want. It's completely anonymous and the answers are visible to everyone who fills it out. Consider it a place online where, like the theater itself, we can understand each other in new and enlightening ways, restore perspective, and remember, above all else, that we are not alone. 

The characters of BURN certainly don’t start the play with that perspective. But maybe, over time, they’ll change. 

-Ian