Nothing ‘Normal’ about this family portrait

AACI’s J-Town Playhouse brings Brian Yorkey’s hard-hitting rock musical to the Holy City

By ARIEL HENDELMAN
October 19, 2015 19:58
TAL SCHWERD (left), Evan Kent, Sandy Cash (center) and Coren Feldman in the J-Town Playhouse product

TAL SCHWERD (left), Evan Kent, Sandy Cash (center) and Coren Feldman in the J-Town Playhouse production of ‘Next To Normal.’. (photo credit: ITA ARBIT)

Next to Normal, the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning musical by Brian Yorkey, is coming to Jerusalem.

The contemporary rock opera will take the stage in Talpiot’s AACI theater from October 21 to November 7. The musical’s director, Layla Schwartz, discusses her role, as well as the trials and triumphs of addressing mental illness on stage.

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Can you describe ‘Next to Normal’?

It’s about a woman who struggles with bipolar [disorder] and depression, and how her family also copes. That’s the main subject, but it’s more generally about people overcoming obstacles and trying to be happy, which is a very universal struggle of human existence.

How do you make a musical from this subject matter? Almost every musical, if you dig a little bit, you find dark things. Like in Oklahoma, you have this sexual harassment, almost rape scene, but it’s seen as very happy and campy. But I think there is a special taboo with mental illness.

I’ve never seen it addressed largely before in a musical, and it’s rarely addressed in film or television. But it’s something that’s so universal.

Everyone knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone, who is affected by it.

The stigma comes from the fact that you can’t put a name on it, which is part of the struggle of the main character.

Everyone around her keeps trying to put a label on what she has and they keep changing it. Her therapist and her different doctors say that it’s just a guideline for what depression is, but she has a hard time coping with what defines depression because it’s not really definable.

The doctor even says something like, all we can do is put a label on a set of symptoms and hope that we get it right. So it’s not a very exact science, as opposed to someone who has a broken leg. You can see what that is.

We talked about this issue a lot in rehearsals: why is that when someone has manic phases or depressed phases, people think they have control over it? As opposed to having near-sightedness; no one would say to that person, why can’t you try harder so that you can see without glasses? No one would tell a cancer patient to just think positively and it will go away. That would be absurd. Thank goodness science has figured out that there are ways to deal with it, in terms of imbalanced chemicals in the brain. To an extent, it can be helped with nutrition, exercise and lifestyle, but some people are made differently than others. Just like some of us are short, tall, or skinny. We don’t have control over it, but it’s still scary because mental illness can’t be seen.

We want to believe that we have control over the way our minds think, and we don’t. The play deals with it in a wry, comic way. It’s something that humans do; if your mom is going through electric shock therapy, you have to have a sense of humor about it to get through.

So in that sense, the rock musical aspect helps keep the show upbeat and funny. It also validates the main character’s emotions.

There are two doctors in the show. The first one tries to just make her stable, which ends up making her very unhappy. She sings a song called “I Miss the Mountains,” which is about missing the ups and downs. So it validates her desire to feel normal, but not wanting to not feel anything.

This play asks, what is normal? The protagonist’s husband and child are not in therapy, but they have difficulties being normal as well.

Can you describe the casting process?

The show was supposed to go up this summer, but they couldn’t cast it fully. Then the selection team changed and the producer asked me to come on as director, but they had already cast three of the parts. So I met with them individually, and thought they were very suitable and talented. Then I had to round out the cast.

It’s hard to find talented, English-speaking actors in this city, especially men. So it was a little bit of a challenge, but I’m very happy with every single one of the actors. They’ve brought a lot of their own sense of humor and talent to the parts. They’ve also come a long way in developing the characters in rehearsals. No one is doing the same thing that they did on day one; they’re all flexible and creative people.

The challenge is making sure that it all looks consistent in the end. I’ve worked more as an actor than as a director. When you’re an actor, you focus much more on your own character’s needs and wants and fears. Part of being the director is looking at everybody and finding the balance; making sure that they’re all on the same wavelength in each scene. Sometimes, you watch a play, and it seems like one person is in a comedy, and the other is in a drama. The challenge for me with this play has been how to make it light when dealing with such heavy subject matter.

The actors are sensitive and really good people, so at times the challenge has been reminding them that we need to make light of it and be funny. A lot of my job has been finding the humor because otherwise it would be punishing for the audience as a two-hour drama. But it’s not that.

How have rehearsals been going?

The first stage of rehearsals was really all focused on music because there is so much music in this show. Our music director, Haim Tukachinsky, is fantastic and very punctilious.

There is so much music and it’s mostly a rock opera, which is what drives the momentum.

There are no long scenes that drop the energy; the music keeps it going. So they had to learn the music first. The next stage of rehearsals was figuring out where are the actors going, who are they talking to and why; it’s logic. Then we put another layer on, in terms of more nuanced thought and feeling. My focus as an actor and also as a director, is to always make sure that the objective is clear. Why are you doing this? Why are you in this scene? It’s not enough to play a general emotion.

Do you have a favorite song?

Oh... they’re all so good! I do like the end because it ends on a very positive note. But also, there’s a song called “I Am the One” in the middle of Act One and it’s a peak in emotion that really raises the stakes for the family. It’s the dramatic turning point of the play where you realize this is not a normal dysfunctional family; this is a doozy.

For tickets and more info on ‘Next to Normal’ call (02) 566-1181 or www.aaci.org.il.


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