James McAvoy on using art as therapy for The Children's Monologues

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On screen, James McAvoy helps confused, endangered mutant children as Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men franchise — but he’s doing his part to help the children of the world off screen as well.

The Scottish actor is one of many A-list names to take part in Dramatic Need and Carnegie’s Hall one-night-only charity event The Children’s Monologues. Directed by Danny Boyle, the production blends musical performances, dance, and dramatic interpretations of monologues by the likes of McAvoy, Daveed Diggs, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald, Susan Sarandon, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Taking place Nov. 13 at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, The Children’s Monologues presents performances based on the stories of children growing up in Rammulotsi, a small rural township in the Free State province of South Africa. Children there were invited to describe a day they would never forget, which a staggering list of award-winning writers including Tom Stoppard, Neil LaBute, and Jack Thorne then adapted for the stage. The proceeds from the evening will directly benefit Dramatic Need and Carnegie Hall.

Boyle devised the event in conjunction with Dramatic Need and used his unique blend of performance, visual artistry, music, and dance (as on display at the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony) to bring the stories to the stage. Boyle previously directed two iterations of the evening in London at the Old Vic Theater in 2010 and at the Royal Court Theater in 2015. This is the first time the event be staged in the United States.

As has been done previously, the monologues will also be presented in Africa on Nov. 13. Previously performed in Rammulotsi, this time they will be presented at the Market Theater in Johannesburg with an all-female cast from across Africa, as well as by children in their local township in rural South Africa.

Dramatic Need is a charity dedicated to using the creative arts to help children address trauma and development issues. Working in South Africa and Rwanda, volunteers use drama, art, and film-making to encourage children to open up about difficult subjects like HIV awareness, ethnic violence, and more. Through the program, young people are encouraged to tell the story of “a day they will never forget,” which then becomes the monologues in The Children’s Monologues.

McAvoy, who previously participated in the evening of monologues at the Royal Court in 2015, chatted with EW about why he wanted to be a part of the event, what his monologue is about, and why he came back for more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, how did you get involved?
James McAvoy: It’s just sort of a boring answer really. Amber Sainsbury, who runs the charity, she just got in touch with my agent out of the blue. I knew a couple of actors who had done it previously, Benedict Cumberbatch and a few others, and they told me about it. When Amber got in touch and actually explained what the charity does, it sounded not only like a great thing, but a great thing that really chimes with what I do for a living. It seems like a no-brainer really, supporting a charity that uses acting, drama, performance, to not only tell stories and entertain but to actually have a cathartic or therapeutic effect on someone who’s suffered incredible trauma.

What is your monologue (adapted by Amy Jephta and inspired by writing by Nonsa Ledusa) about?
It’s a beautiful, kind of charming, affecting and disarming piece about someone recalling their brother and how much they needed and loved this pair of cool trainers. It’s called “Shoes.” It kind of details how they saved up all their money for those trainers and how they felt like a million dollars when they were wearing those trainers — or sneakers, as you guys call them — and how they sort of became an uplifting event in the family’s life when they finally bought the trainers. Then, how those trainers ultimately, as status symbol led to his demise as well. It is quite an affecting and sad story in the end. What’s really incredible about it is the person that wrote it did such a wry eye on the story that she’s telling that it comes across so strong, so clearly — the love and the joys that they had for their brother, but at the same time this anger at the world for shattering his dreams and for killing him for having a dream, when that dream is really nothing more than a pair of sneakers.

Danny Boyle is directing this entire event. What is it like working with him again and witnessing him oversee all these moving parts?
The thing is, Danny loves doing what he does. Danny loves directing. He’s not only good at it, but he invests in it. If he had more time with us he’d be directing us a ton more. The fact is, he’s got to get through I don’t know how many performers really in a day. So you don’t get that much time with Danny, to be honest with you. … He gets like 10 or 15 minutes with you, but 10 or 15 minutes with Danny Boyle can be like having a week with another director. He’s a special, special talent and he’s just got a lot in his toolkit, as well as his instinctual abilities and his innate talents. He’s got a lot in his toolkit as a theatre director, as a television director, and as a film director, but he’s just a storyteller. His compassion really shines through throughout a performance, specifically [one] like this one where compassion is so important.

What about your experience performing in 2015 made you want to come back this time around?
Regardless of the experience, even if it had been a hellish experience, which it wasn’t, it would still be a good idea to do it. It’s a great charity that needs to be supported and because of what they do it makes us the ideal people to support it. You know, I get it, you always ask famous people or celebrities or actors to support any charity and that is the right thing to do. Use your film celebrity to do something good — of course, that’s a good thing. This particular charity, what we do as a living, what we do to make money, it uses that to actually help people. So it feels like even more of a no-brainer to lend our time and a small amount of effort.

These are some of the most profound, moving, and funny pieces of writing I’ve ever had the honor to perform or listen to and watch by some of the most incredible actors that you’d ever get to share a stage with. So aside from the fact that it’s a no-brainer in terms of the amount of time you have to give up and the amount of good that it does, it’s also an incredible artistic event. Artistically speaking, to be involved in or to be a member of the audience at, I won’t say once-in-a-lifetime, it’s clearly not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but it’s not every day that you get that level of talent, both on the page or on the stage.

Why do you think it’s important for these children to tell their stories and for the audience to hear them?
In broad terms, it’s important for any of us to feel heard. It’s important for us to vent and to relay and relate the bad things that have happened to us in our lives. That’s just always the case, but when it comes to some of the tragedies and traumas and the bad things that happen to us in our lives, it becomes even more important to be heard. And of course, you’re talking about people for whom it’s very hard to be heard. It’s very hard to articulate, first of all, and then when you do have the ability to articulate, it’s hard to find a platform to be heard. An organization like Dramatic Need helps people find that platform in their own neighborhood, in their own country. By doing events like this we can take that platform and we can broaden that horizon. We can make that platform larger and we can reach a different kind of audience.

Why is it important that we’re heard? Because it’s part of the healing process. When you relate your tragedies and your traumas, you’re human. And you can’t do that if you don’t have the ability to articulate and that’s why art is important, isn’t it? Because it helps us articulate how we feel. That’s why I think it’s important anyway. Why is it important for audiences to sit and listen to these amazing pieces of writing? Because it’s part of the human experience to share and empathize. Plus they’ve got a lot of money so they can help people less fortunate hopefully make their lives a bit better.

The Children’s Monologues will be performed one night only at Carnegie Hall on Monday, Nov. 13. Tickets start at $100.

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