BWW Interviews: Artistic Director and Goodman Family in 4th Wall's NEXT TO NORMAL

4th Wall Theatre will present NEXT TO NORMAL, the story of a mother, Diana Goodman, who struggles with bipolar disorder, and the effect that her illness has on her family. This contemporary musical, with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, is an emotional powerhouse that addresses such issues as grieving a loss, ethics in modern psychiatry, and suburban life. With provocative lyrics and a thrilling score, this musical shows how far two parents will go to keep themselves sane and their family’s world intact.

BWW is thrilled to talk to Kate Swan, Artistic Director at 4th Wall Theatre and the person behind the reins of the company's 16th season opener NEXT TO NORMAL, as well as the actors portraying the family in this drama. Welcome to all of you!

Kate: Thank you for having us!

BWW: NEXT TO NORMAL seems to be the hot ticket show around the country right now. Tell us what drew you to the show.

Kate: 4th Wall has a history of doing shows with challenging subject matter (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Bat Boy: The Musical, March of the Falsettos, LaChiusa's The Wild Party, Parade), and when Next To Normal was running on Broadway, many people in the company knew it was perfect 4th Wall material. I heard the cast recording and then read the script when it became available, and I was immediately intrigued by it and wanted to direct it. This is fascinating, great writing!

BWW: Many times people attempt to copy what has come before, but it seems 4th Wall is all about fresh perspectives on shows. What makes your approach to the piece different?

Kate: I am almost more interested in the family dynamics than in the mental health issues of the characters. We are not by any means playing down the challenges of living with bipolar disorder and other medical issues, but I do want to focus on the effects of the disorder on all of the family's relationships and the ripples that extend beyond the walls of this family's house.

BWW: The show has such powerful themes of mental disease, suicide, loss - what research did you and your cast go through to prepare for this?

Kate: My own research has included books, blogs, and online videos of people who struggle with bipolar disorder and other forms of depression. As soon as the show was cast and long before rehearsals began, we all started sharing what books we were reading on all applicable subjects as well as making sure that we all knew what all the specific references in the play are (such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, various writers, lots of different pharmaceuticals). Two of the primary books we passed around were Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher and On Grief and Grieving by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler.

BWW: The role of Diana (which won Alice Ripley the Tony) can be played in such different ways. We'd love for Nancy Feldman (4th Wall's Diana) to give us a some insight into who she believes the character to be.

Nancy: Diana is haunted by the past, and tries to mask this by creating a "normal", idealized world as a way to escape the reality in her life. But the truth is that her mania and depression govern her life, and as a consequence, her illness shatters her family's life as well as her own. It's a long and difficult journey for her to eventually realize she needs to face her demons in order to be free of them. I think one of her most poignant lyrics is "You don't have to be happy at all, to be happy you're alive."

BWW: Kate, with this being such a rock musical - the core is still a Pulitzer Prize winning play. It's not your average 'boy-meets-girl' musical. You have a Broadway background in Beauty and the Beast and yet as a director it seems like you are drawn to musical pieces with strong, powerful stories. Do you find you approach these pieces from a different standpoint?

Kate: I tend to do different kinds of shows for different theatre companies - 4th Wall is definitely where I have done some of the darkest shows of my career! The truth is that every show worth doing has heart in it, every good story is about the changes that the characters go through, and all plays and musicals should take the audience on a journey of discovery. My job as the director is to make sure that the actors are specific and consistent about their choices so that the audience can truly understand what it is like to be in their shoes.

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