Interview by Ryan Quinn
RQ: So, I’m here with Heather Braaten, who is directing Next To Normal, running from Thursday August 29th to Sunday September 29th at The Lower Ossington Theatre. Would you like to tell me a bit about the show?
HB: Sure, it’s a completely sung-through rock musical that addresses mental health issues and the families struggling with them. It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning piece. It’s not your typical musical at all. Small cast, very intimate. This is my first time working with the Lower Ossington Theatre, and it’s really interesting, what they’re doing. We’ve got a team of super-talented, professional, upcoming artists that are so fantastic and so ready to explode onto the scene. For me, as a director, I get to see all the amazing work that’s happening in this space at the LOT, and it’s an incredible opportunity for everyone involved. I mean, these huge shows, only a select few will get to do them on a Broadway scale, you don’t often see them happening on an independent level.
RQ: I mean, the logistics of putting up a show like this must be intense.
HB: Exactly! I mean, the rights for the show alone are expensive. I’ve been directing independent theatre for ten to fifteen years now, and I don’t normally get to tackle material like this.
RQ: You mentioned earlier how this was a Pulitzer Prize-winning show that’s won Tony Awards as well. What do you think makes it such a remarkable show?
HB: Well, I think that musicals just don’t approach material like this. Generally, a topic like mental illness isn’t addressed on such a massive scale. I mean, we see films, television shows, and of course books about mental illness, but theatre has a different way of reaching people. The live experience is so different than any other artistic medium. I think one of the reasons this show is so successful is that people are blown away by the honesty of it. This is family life. This is real. I think that’s the main thing about it. It’s very honest and very poignant. It really doesn’t let you off the hook, in terms of material. It doesn’t have a classic Broadway happy ending. It doesn’t resolve everything for everyone. I feel like people took notice because it’s not afraid to tackle this issue, which everyone in some way has been touched by. Before directing this piece, I had never seen it as a production, I had read it and heard it, but I had never seen it in performance. That’s why it’s been amazing to work on, because as it comes together, I start to get hit harder and harder with what it’s trying to do and how honestly it’s doing it. And we’re not going to cut it, we’re going to put the whole thing onstage for a large audience to see and have an experience together. I guess that’s what I’m trying to get at, when people go to see a show, they have a collective experience, and with this piece, that means having a massive dialogue about mental illness all at once.
RQ: So, this show requires a lot of vulnerability. It’s an emotionally, physically, and mentally violent show. How do you approach something like that as a director?
HB: I have done material like this before, but not that often. I relate it to another piece I did about the Dionne quintuplets and their struggle. It’s all about struggle, and understanding the specifics of it. In both cases, of having your family rocked by a bipolar, delusional mother who is trying to live in a separate world. So it’s interesting to approach it for a second time. I think the most important thing is creating a safe place for the actors to work in, and to indulge and experiment with where that lives in their own minds and bodies. They need to be able to experience it, then work back from there. We can’t literally have people breaking down onstage, it has to be a controlled scenario. But it has been really interesting to see these actors experience extreme emotion for what it really is, then pull it back from there to tell the story. I mean, they have a huge vocal task in this piece. You can’t perform this piece without having full control over your instrument, but at the same time, it has to be fully emotionally connected to the material. As a director, how do you make that happen? I’ve learned that early in the process, you allow it to happen in a way where it’s just let go, then you bring it back to the storytelling and the technique. This cast has been amazing to see connect to the material and to each other. It’s one of those pieces that gets more meaningful every time you see or listen to it, and I think that’s why it’s kind of developed a following. Every time you listen to it, it hits you somewhere deeper. There are a lot of layers to it.
RQ: And the LOT is working with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Heath on this piece, correct?
HB: Yes, part of the proceeds are going to CAMH, and they’re helping us get the word out that we’re doing the piece.
RQ: That’s fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, and break a leg on your run!
Next to Normal
At the LOT in support of CAMH
Pulitzer-Prize winning rock musical, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, explores how one suburban household copes with crisis and mental illness.
Where: Lower Ossington Theatre, 100A Ossington Avenue
When: August 29th – September 29th, 2013
For more information, check out the Lower Ossington Website: http://lowerossingtontheatre.com/
Read out more about the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) on their website: http://www.camh.ca/en/hospital/Pages/home.aspx