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I Will Direct *THAT* Show – On Directing Next to Normal (Part 1)

April 18, 2014

This is the first entry in a series I am doing on my work directing Porch Light Productions Next to Normal. The show opens June 20th at Porch Light Theater in Glen Rock, New Jersey. 

I first saw Next to Normal in 2011 with my best friend Anna on Halloween night . I had heard it was “a must see” and “something I would like”, so when I got the free ticket offer through American Theatre Wing’s Springboard Program Alumni list, I jumped at it. Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley had just taken over the roles of Diana and Dan. I have loved their work for as long as I can remember and was thrilled to see them onstage together.

Notes, Set design sketch, Director's Binder

Notes, Set design sketch, Director’s Binder

To say I was undone by the show is an understatement. Next to Normal was the first time I had ever seen the issue of mental health, illness, loss and a family grappling with these things honestly portrayed on the commercial stage. I knew the show had a cult following and arrived a bit late to it. Anna recently reminded me that the first (and only) thing I said to her following curtain call was “I will direct that show one day.” When the opportunity to direct this piece presented itself (3 years from when I first saw it), I jumped at it.

We have just finished preproduction and casting. My vision of Next to Normal differs from the Broadway show (one of the beauties of directing – creating the world as you understand it through the text and music). I have no interest in recreating someone else’s vision. One of the reasons I am drawn to directing is for the opportunity to be at the artistic helm of a project and create new worlds.

We are working on an all white set – utilizing some color at various moments but again, staying true to how Diana explains her world, as “white and grey and black”.We will work with projection and video. I envision the use to projection and video in this show as a way to express to the audience what Diana is seeing and experiencing in her head. The video will transport us into her world so we can see what she sees.



 Dramaturgy – information on bipolar 1, 2 and mental health. 

My assistant director, Quentin (who happens to also be one of my students at Pace) has been a master at collecting dramaturgy and research for the cast. We are looking at the specifics of mental illness and treatments, dealing with loss and trauma in addition to the history of the show and personal connection that audiences have to it.

One of the most interesting experiences has been learning about the very personal connections that fans of the show feel towards Next to Normal. I have about three pages worth of testimony. This gives actors and the creative team the chance to recognize its personal impact and be accountable to telling the story to the best of their ability.

Some experiences:

I saw (Next to Normal) for the first time in its early stages back in 2005 when it was still called Feeling Electric. It was just about three hours long then, a totally different cast – the character of Henry didn’t exist and Natalie was a totally different person. I was *instantly* hooked, it changed my whole perception of musical theatre – what it was, what kind of stories could be told. I followed it when it was off-Broadway at Second Stage, and then when it finally went to Broadway I saw it three times I think? I just feel like even in its flaws, which of course exist, it achieves something you don’t find in a lot of Broadway musicals anymore – a feeling of intimacy with the audience. Everyone left the theater FEELING something, different things. It brings up a lot of things for everyone who sees it. It’s just powerful stuff. I MISS IT EVERY DAY.

I actually knew nothing about it going in and I rode the emotional roller coaster for the entire show. I had chills, tears and laughs. I think it has one of the most fascinating scores I’ve heard. And it is certainly not like anything else I’ve seen. I can listen to the album today and it still brings tears to my eyes. It’s the kind of art that makes you feel intense things, that are unexpected. And also beautiful. I’ve felt that way about only a few plays/musicals. Violet, Long Day’s Journey… And Next to Normal.

Having played the role of Diana and seeing people’s reactions to the show who knew nothing about it, it is truly a touching, heartbreaking show. It reaches audience members who have struggled with mental illness, whose loved ones have struggled with mental illness, and those who have no connection to mental illness. I found that parents had a particularly strong reaction to it because who is to say how any of us would react to the loss of a child. It’s a brilliant show and it will always be one of my favorites.

unnamed-4Blocking notes in the margin. 

Until next time…

Ashley Signature

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