What Are You Doing in My Electricity?

As I've written here before, I'm taking a somewhat different approach to staging Next to Normal. Not radically different, but different. I'm aiming for a more dreamlike atmosphere rather than fairly naturalistic scenes alternating with rock concert style numbers.

We've already staged all of Act I, but I was really stuck on Act II. I kept putting off working on it, and I know that's always a sign that I'm lost. In the off Broadway production, in a song (later cut) that's called "Feeling Electric," they did a trick with a hospital gurney up on its end and Alice Ripley standing up against it, so it seemed like we're were looking down on her from above. That's a cool effect that I've also seen in Into the Woods, The Capeman, and Hairspray, but it works, it's clear, and it's always a fun bit of stage trickery.

On Broadway -- using the new song "Wish I Were Here" in that spot -- they brought out a Diana double on a gurney while the real Diana sang from another part of the stage. And that worked too, but it didn't feel exactly right to me, at least, not in the context of the production we're putting together.

Then it finally hit me why I was stuck.

The gurney was getting in my way. That's how they had showed the audience that Diana is in the hospital. Except the opening of Act II doesn't really take place in the hospital; it takes place inside Diana's anesthetized mind, in a hallucinatory dreamscape. Though Diana is on the table and Natalie is at a club, the two meet here in Diana's dreamscape, and Diana says to her daughter, "Sweetheart! What are you doing in my electricity?" Even Diana has the self-awareness to know that she's inside her own head as it's being zapped.

So if we're inside Diana's head, do we really need a gurney? I don't think so. And that realization totally freed me.

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, the Next to Normal team realized during the development process that they had been writing a musical about an idea (ECT) and a musical should be about people. The original Act II opener "Feeling Electric" was a song about ECT, and as they developed the show they realized the Act II opener had to be about Diana, not her treatment. So they wrote "Wish I Were Here" to replace the earlier song, and this new song isn't about the hospital, it's about the chaos in Diana's mind, as it's under assault by the shock treatment, as her memories are being annihilated, as the electricity blasts away at her past and her very identity. After all, our sense of self comes from the accumulated experiences and understanding we've picked up along the Road of Life, so destroying memories -- whether temporarily or permanently -- means the destruction of self as well.

From that perspective, the whole show becomes about Diana's struggle to save her own life.

This is a song about an existential threat to Diana's very existence. It's about Diana's consciousness and the violence done to it, represented by the throbbing rock beat in the music -- Diana's heartbeat, her lifeforce, in the voice of electric guitar. It's a powerful and subtle use of music as storytelling, something of which Tom Kitt is a master -- just listen to High Fidelity.

So the gurney is gone in our production.  But then the question becomes, how do we make it really clear to the audience how this dreamscape works? Or do we need to...?

When I staged this number with the actors earlier this week, I saw on some of their faces that same mix of bewilderment and skepticism that I often see on actors' faces when we're doing weirder shows. And I did something that some actors love and other actors hate. It goes like this, more or less -- "So we're in Diana's dreamscape, but we're also at the hospital where she's getting the ECT, but it's also a little bit musical comedy since you're singing backup, but not too musical comedy -- it shouldn't look choreographed or tightly staged -- it should feel fluid and dreamlike and abstract, just moving around the stage, like Diana's life and memories and sense of self are all swirling around her, her family and the hospital staff melding together, but it's also sort of Brechtian and presentational... So just fuck around and see what happens organically... Just let yourselves play and see where that takes us..."

I've tried this approach before in a number of shows, and it always works. In a show like this, some moments need precise staging, and other moments would be sucked dry by that. Some things need to be carefully worked out in detail, while other things will be far cooler and more interesting if we allow them to develop organically. We have the luxury of a somewhat leisurely rehearsal process.

We don't open for a month yet, and playing and exploring can yield really wonderful results, if you have the time. Some actors love time to play, but some actors don't like not having The Answer. I subscribe to the Jim Lapine school of directing -- get a "first draft" up on stage pretty quickly, and then tweak and shape it over time, as the actors create their performances. I compare it to creating comic books -- first you do the pencil drawings, then you ink it, then you color it.

My job is to give the actors a pencil drawing and then let them ink and color it.

Twenty years ago, that would have terrified me to be so casual and free with staging, but I've learned over time, working on shows like The Wild Party, Hair, Cry-Baby, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Passing Strange, that sometimes a musical should not look too stagey or too controlled, that it should look more organic, more loose, more like an indie rock concert. After we ran "Wish I Were Here" a couple times, I suggested a few, slightly more specific ideas to the actors, but I was still careful to keep my comments largely abstract and nebulous...

I know our designers are happiest when I talk about our shows in abstract terms, in terms of emotion, feel, impact, themes, etc., and then allow them to translate those abstract ideas into concrete sets, costumes, sound, and lighting. But that same process works with actors too -- if you're working with really great actors, which I am.

The whole show is dreamlike to some degree, but a few moments in the show are very dreamlike, disorienting, disturbing, and revealing in ways that more naturalistic writing or staging would not be. I realize as we work on the show that one of the reasons the show has such resonance for audiences is that Diana sort of stands in for America at this moment in our history -- confused by competing versions of reality, unable to rely on authority figures or long-established institutions (government, education, religion, capitalism, etc.).

We like Hero Myth stories like Diana's because the Hero's Journey is just a metaphor for a human life. But it's also a metaphor for collective journeys, like the evolution of a society. "Wish I Were Here" represents the part of the Hero Myth in which the Hero must journey to the Underworld and do battle with the Evil Wizard. Here the underworld is the fractured personal reality of Diana's electrified mind, and the ECT is the Evil Wizard's magic spell. I'm still trying to figure out if Gabe is her magic amulet (i.e., light saber, ruby slippers) or if he's the antagonist. Or both.

But Diana's Underworld easily stands in for America's current darkness, in which competing parties can't even agree on what is factually true anymore, in which opponents compare each other to Hitler, in which one side rewrites school textbooks to comport with their belief system (and, let's be honest, in order to indoctrinate the next generation), in which so many of the rules of "polite society" have been tossed aside. How do we navigate this new, altered, dangerous landscape?

As we watch Diana navigate her own Underworld, perhaps we gain a little understanding of our own personal and collective Underworlds. And that brings me back to our staging. Instead of making the opening of Act II about this damaged woman undergoing a scary medical procedure, this scene in our production will be about Finding Your Way in the Dark.

Which is kind of the point of the whole show. How do we find our way when we have no map to guide us?

We use art.

Long Live the Musical!


Anonymous | February 1, 2013 at 3:45 AM

Gabe is both. That's both the beauty AND the tragedy.

Rob Winn Anderson | February 1, 2013 at 11:34 AM

I love this! And this is the first time I have read anything that describes the way I work (Jim Lapine school of directing). Thanks for the confidence boost!

Rob Winn Anderson