Backstage at Tisch’s ‘Next to Normal’

Tisch New Theatre students performing "Next to Normal."

When people think of student-run theater productions, their minds may jump to small-scale shows with minimalist set designs. However, for Tisch New Theatre’s student-run production of “Next to Normal,” this description couldn’t be further from the truth. Over the past couple of months, the cast and crew of “Next to Normal” have worked tirelessly on every detail of the production, and to create a show with nuance and depth.

The 2008 rock musical deals with difficult issues that many other shows wouldn’t dare to touch, including depression, addiction and suicide. Yet these uncomfortable topics are precisely the reason that the director, Tisch senior Danica Jensen, was drawn to the show. 

“For me [‘Next to Normal’] was really the first time I understood that musical theater could deal with serious and nuanced topics in a way I had only thought plays could,” Jensen said.

The selection process for the show is mainly controlled by the students and the executive board of Tisch New Theater, who partnered with Jensen to choose a musical that fit her directorial style. “Next to Normal” may be an award-winning Broadway show, but this year it’s being reinterpreted and staged through an NYU lens.

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Tisch junior Tim Sebastian is the president of Tisch New Theater and a producer of the show. He has many of the same responsibilites a professional producer would have, including venue selection and production costs. Every aspect of the show must be dealt with directly by him.

“If we don’t do it, it’s not getting done,” he said.

Lighting and sound, costume design and set design are just a few of the departments that come together to create this two-and-a-half hour show. It may seem like a lot of work to be thrust upon college students, but the process provides a glimpse into what the world of professional theater is like. 

“Once you work professionally, you discover very quickly that it’s not that much different from what you’ve been doing all along in college,” said Gallatin junior Basil Apostolo, the vice president of Tisch New Theater and production manager for the show. “Sure, budgets are often bigger and the theaters sometimes have more seats, but at the end of the day, it’s still theater.”

While the cast and crew take their roles very seriously, that doesn’t mean the rehearsal process is all work and no play. Given the difficult and emotional nature of the show, the cast members try to release tension when they can.

Tisch junior Samantha Tullie plays Diana Goodman, a mother who is battling bipolar disorder and depression. During one rehearsal, in the midst of a particularly intense scene, Tullie broke character and smiled at something offstage. Making eye contact with Tullie, the producers and stage managers who were watching the rehearsal starting laughing as well.

But not a minute later, Tullie snapped back into character, belting out a beautiful and moving ballad. Her graceful transition in and out of character is representative of the way the cast and crew are able to maintain a friendly, laid-back environment while also staying on track in rehearsals and getting the job done. 

The students running this show are peers and classmates, and their camaraderie shows behind the scenes. 

“The material we are dealing with is very personal and vulnerable, we have all gotten very close very fast” Tullie told WSN. “Even though we are playing a family, outside of rehearsals we’ve turned into one big cast family as well.”

Cast member and Steinhardt junior Kyle Brenn echoed this sentiment.

“Since the cast is so small, we’ve become very close over the course of the rehearsal process,” Brenn said.

Viewers who go to see “Next to Normal” may forget that they are watching an entirely student-run show. This is understandable, as everything from the acting to the show’s marketing campaign lends itself more to an off-Broadway production. But at its core, “Next to Normal” is a show put on by students, for students and serves as a great example of what classmates can achieve when they work together. 

 “Next to Normal” runs at the SoHo Playhouse (15 Vandam Street) from Oct. 23 through Nov. 4. Tickets are available at www.NYUTischNewTheatre.com.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 22 print edition. Email Lily Dolin at [email protected]

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