Next to Normal in Montreal: Interview with Director Calli Armstrong and Actor Kevin Raymond

Kevin Raymond (Gabe) and Tara Bissett (Diane) Photo by Tam Lan Truong Kevin Raymond (Gabe) and Tara Bissett (Diane) Photo by Tam Lan Truong

Born out of a shared desire to have a meaningful process of creation, Beautiful City Theatre‘s (BCT) mandate is to produce theatre with a focus on the process of learning, creating and building community. They carefully hand pick projects that allow participants to grow in their understanding of themselves, of relationships and humanity. I just think that’s a lovely focus and was very excited to learn about how they work and their upcoming production of Next to Normal. I met with BCT co-founder, artistic director and the director of this production, Calli Armstrong, and Kevin Raymond, who plays the role of Gabe.

Next to Normal is a Tony Award winning Broadway musical about a family trying to normalize a not-so-normal life. The mother, Diana, has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and experiences delusions. She is trying to keep her family together as they face their rocky past and an uncertain future. In collaboration with contemporary dance company, Virtu’O, this production will bring a multidimensional emotional experience to the stage.

Next to Normal poster by Dale Coulombe

Next to Normal poster by Dale Coulombe

Calli, Kevin and I discussed the story, the issues tackled in the show and their experience of this emotive dramatic undertaking. It bears mentioning that Calli is also a drama therapist.

Stephanie Weiner (SW): Calli, as artistic director, tell me about the decision making process, why Next to Normal? And Kevin, what drew you to this piece?

Calli Armstrong (CA): We have a list of shows that have certain qualities that make them BCT appropriate. An ensemble focus, where we can see how everyone is important in the way the story is unfolding. Where we think we can do something interesting in the process, and where we’re tackling some contemporary issue, where hopefully we’ll help the audience think critically about the issue, maybe start some sort of dialogue and maybe form a different opinion.

Next to Normal has come up amongst the team multiple times. There’s still a lot of stigma around mental illness, and it’s something that does need to be talked about and put front and center because it is a silent killer in many cases. This show allows us to think about it and the effects we have on one another, and that the system we presently have for looking at these issues is imperfect. We’re learning more and hopefully there is a brighter future ahead. I hope that this show will get people talking about that a little more.

Kevin Raymond-Jean (KR): To me, it was about two great things: BCT and Next to Normal. Knowing Next to Normal from Broadway, and having seen the amazing work of BCT on Godspell. The best combination with this amazing piece of art…the role I’m playing, Gabe, there’s just so many layers, so many ways to approach it. I know that working alongside with BCT, I will be supported and I will be totally comfortable, that it will be all about the process of getting there, to the stage. This was the reason I tried out.

SW: How did the collaboration with Virtu’O come about?

CA: Ghislaine Dote is the founder of Virtu’O. She had worked with Natalie Gershtein (co-founder of BCT and Artistic Producer) before, and we approached her to do the choreography on Godspell. She did an amazing job on that, I love the ideas she has and the vision she had. She fits very well with the values of our company, and is very process oriented.

I only wanted to do Next to Normal if we could add a new element to it. The script and music are fine on their own, of course, and emotions are very complex. What I would hope is that the audience can resonate with what they are seeing on stage. For me, contemporary dance can give us a different expression of the complexity of the emotion. So we will have 6 dancers who are commenting on the action through movement, but are also a reflection of the characters on stage.

KR: It’s the physical representation of the words and the meaning behind it.

SW: Next to Normal tackles some heavy issues in mental health, substance abuse and yet is also described as hopeful. How would you say it walks that line?

CA: I think the authors are fair, and I think they attempt to shed light on what it can be like to live with mental illness and the struggles of accessing care, receiving help that is a good fit. We see Diana go through several forms of treatment, and it ends with her finding one that’s a good fit.

I’ve said before that I didn’t want to do a show without any hope in it, but I also am not interested as an artist, as a performer, as a director, in shows where it promises a happy ending. To me, that’s not…

KR: …real life. For me, the hope is that it happens, it actually happens out there. So people who are dealing with those issues can actually relate to these characters and see this portrayal of not just Diana suffering with her illness, but the entire family going through it.

SW: Sometimes you hear about an artist connecting so strongly with a story, or the theme that it has an impact on their own well being. What do you do to take care of your own well being and mental health in this process?

KR: I’m sensitive and sometimes it was hard not to bring that stuff home after rehearsal. Calli has been amazing, we find ways to kind of physically let everything go and leave it in the rehearsal space. It’s heavy, but it’s so rewarding at the end. You find your own ways to separate yourself from the character. For me, it was about leaving it in the space, keeping the character, the part, for that space. I would take a really nice walk back home after rehearsal and really indulge what I’ve been through at rehearsal, and move on for the next day.

CA: We could sense it in the very first read through, it’s very heavy material. And we know that everyone is impacted by mental illness. Even if it’s not something we experience ourselves, it’s our friends, our relatives… So we know that it’s there and that these stories are in the room whenever we’re working. What we’ve attempted to do is create a space to talk about it. Not necessarily disclosing our own personal stories, but during the rehearsals I ran, we would check in at the beginning then have warm ups, then engage with the material, pause if we need to, and at the end of rehearsal was an active check-out, or de-roling. An active separation from the character.

Cast members at rehearsal: (left to right) Mathilde Gesseaume-Rioux, Jenny Brizard, Mohamed N'Diaye, Genevieve Lauzon, Marie-Denise Bettez. Photo by Tam Lan Truong

Cast members at rehearsal: (left to right) Mathilde Gesseaume-Rioux, Jenny Brizard, Mohamed N’Diaye, Genevieve Lauzon, Marie-Denise Bettez. Photo by Tam Lan Truong

SW: If you could say one thing to your audience about Next to Normal, what would it be?

KR: I would love for them to get to know the people and sympathize with them at some point. To also realize that this is happening right now, and that we should all be aware, and that it could happen to anybody. There are different worlds, just let yourself be open to them.

CA: It’s about self care and being able to express yourself – I would like people to be able to have compassion for others and themselves at the same time.

For tickets, click here.

Next to Normal at Centaur Theatre (453 rue St. François-Xavier) May 15-17 and May 21-23, 7:30 p.m., matinees at 1:30 p.m. on May 17 and 23 only. $40 adults, $30 QDF & Equity members, $25 seniors, $20 students.