The Department of Drama and Dance will premiere the play "Next to Normal" this weekend. Courtesy Ted Simpson

Tufts Drama and Dance’s production of ‘Next to Normal’ addresses stigma of mental illness

With book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, “Next to Normal” (2008) is a celebrated rock musical that tells the story of suburban mother Diana Goodman’s struggle with bipolar disorder. The production emphasizes that mental illness is rarely a solitary experience and explores its impact on families. The outstanding execution and weighty subject matter of “Next to Normal” led the New York Times’ Chief Theater Critic Ben Brantley to acclaim it as “something much more [than a feel-good musical]: a feel-everything musical.”

After a year spent off Broadway, “Next to Normal” opened on Broadway in 2009 and won a slew of awards during its run, not least of which were three Tonys and a Pulitzer. Noe Montez, assistant professor in the Department of Drama and Dance at Tufts, proposed that “Next to Normal” be a part of the department’s 2015-2016 season. Montez suggested “Next to Normal” not only because of the show’s pedigree, but also to bring breath and balance to the season while affording students the chance to work on a large project. It has also been years since the department has staged a musical. Additionally, given that roughly one in four Americans experience serious mental illness in a given year, the universality of the central theme of “Next to Normal” aided in its selection.

According to Montez, who is directing “Next to Normal,” the production process for staging a student show is quite different from that of staging a professional production. A professional production, Montez said, usually begins rehearsing approximately “three forty-hour workweeks” before opening night out of commercial necessity. Given the limited rehearsal time, a professional show will “finds its voice” during the beginning of a typically weeks or months long run. Student productions, by contrast, start rehearsing months in advance because students can not reasonably commit to rehearsing full-time. Student productions also typically have a much shorter run than their professional counterparts (“Next to Normal” is running for two weekends at Tufts) and, hence, must be a cohesive whole before the curtain goes up.

The less compressed rehearsal timeline of a student production is not only deferential to student cast and crew’s commitments beyond the theater but also has artistic benefits. In Montez’s view, the chance to spend months inhabiting a character is better for younger actors as “it allows them more time to wrap their brains and bodies around a role.” Rehearsal, which began in late 2015, has gone unusually smoothly, which Montez attributes to a cast and crew primarily composed of seniors and other theater veterans and an absence of heavy, rehearsal-canceling snow.

Beyond the logistics of learning lines, creating sets and learning music, Montez points out that the cast and crew of “Next to Normal” have taken great care to stay “true and respectful” in their treatment of the show’s central theme: mental illness. In Montez’s view, the dramaturg of “Next to Normal,” Tufts senior Sarah Vandewalle, has been invaluable in keeping the production grounded in the reality of mental illness. As the dramaturg, Vandewalle serves as the “intellectual touchstone of a production” who works to ensure the cast and crew are informed about the issues the show confronts and the context in which the piece takes place. Vandewalle’s work will hopefully arm the cast and crew with enough knowledge of mental illness in order to enable them to make their portrayal of the very real issues explored throughout the show both truthful and respectful, Montez said.

Furthermore, Tufts drama and dance’s production of “Next to Normal” has wider social and public health goals. Mental illness has long been stigmatized, particularly when compared with popular perceptions of physical illness. Although the tone of the conversation has arguably become less condemnatory recently, one would not admit to battling bipolar disorder as readily as one would admit to battling the flu. Montez hopes that “Next to Normal” will spark a “cross-campus conversation” about mental illness that will go some way towards reducing the stigma associated with mental illness.

Considering that “Next to Normal” deals with the struggles of a white, nuclear American family of means and is not necessarily representative of all experiences with mental illness, Montez hopes to address this limitation of the show with a series of “post-show talk backs,” dialogues between the audience and a mental health professional. These talk backs will hopefully provide the audience with a more rounded understanding of how mental illness impacts people from different backgrounds. On a more practical level, Montez also hopes that these talk backs will inform Tufts students and area residents about how to access mental health resources.

With clear artistic and social goals as well as a veteran cast and crew, “Next to Normal” is shaping up to be a powerful middle to the Department of Drama and Dance’s 2015–2016 Season.

IF YOU GO…

“Next to Normal” opens on Feb. 18 at 8 p.m. at the Balch Arena Theater. The show will also run on the 19th, the 20th, the 25th, the 26th and the 27th at the same time and location, with an additional matinee performance on the 27th at 2 p.m. Tickets are available from the Tufts box office and are $10 for those with a Tufts ID or $15 for members of the public.

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