Arts Alliance aims to spark dialogue on mental health with “Next to Normal”


Benjamin Bomier/The Daily Northwestern

Actors rehearse in “Next to Normal.” The musical, which follows a woman struggling with bipolar disorder and trauma, opens this Thursday.

Wilson Chapman, Assistant Arts and Entertainment Editor

When Communication sophomore Lily Feinberg was selecting shows for Arts Alliance’s annual Garden Party, she didn’t want a “big, bubbly musical,” but something with themes people can “sink their teeth into.” As the first full-scale student production this year, Feinberg said, “Next to Normal” hopes to spark a dialogue on mental health that can resonate with Northwestern students.

“Next to Normal” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that ran on Broadway from 2009 to 2011. The show explores how Diana, a woman struggling with bipolar disorder, navigates her relationship with her family. The play also tackles heavy topics such as drug abuse and the death of a family member. Art’s Alliance’s “Next to Normal” opens Oct. 10 in Shanley Pavilion, and closes Oct. 12 after five performances.

Feinberg said the Arts Alliance team was aware of the conversations regarding mental health culture on campus and wanted to be responsible when tackling the subject. She said Arts Alliance collaborated with NU Active Minds for an open dialogue event, and the team included resources and information on mental health in the show’s program.

“It was something we felt our campus could use discussion and a dialogue on, and theater is such a beautiful way to do that,” Feinberg said. “We’ve been very actively making sure we’re doing this in as safe as possible way for the campus.”

Communication senior and the musical’s director Grace Dolezal-Ng said “Next to Normal” shows the importance of healthy relationships as a means of support. Dolezal-Ng said the juxtaposition between the small-scale intimate moments and the more heightened scenes in the production aims to capture part of the experiences of those living through bipolar disorder.

“Next to Normal” is not a blanket statement on what every person dealing with mental illness goes through, Dolezal-Ng added. While the character of Diana makes choices regarding mental health and treatment some may disagree with, the show does not aim to provide a “correct” way to handle mental health issues.

“In telling the story through the specific choices that the characters make and the specific circumstances they are in, it’s honoring people with mental illness more than if it was trying to do what’s ‘right’ for everyone,” Dolezal-Ng said. “Because mental illness treatment looks different for everyone, and different things work for different people, we need more stories. This is just one story about a family grappling with this. It can’t be the only story on it.”

Communication junior Maddie Burton, who plays Diana, said it’s important to portray the character in an authentic and respectful manner, as people with diagnosed mental disorders often face negative stereotypes. Burton said she’s worked to play Diana as a person who grapples with, but is not defined by, her mental illness.

Although Burton does not have bipolar disorder, she said she struggles with other forms of mental illness, and being able to explore these topics through the show has helped her develop a stronger sense of herself.

Burton said she hopes “Next to Normal” will help destigmatize mental health conversations on campus and encourage new students to have these discussions early on at Northwestern. Although the musical deals with heavy topics, Burton added, it delivers an inspiring message about perseverance, which is important for students to hear.

“The show ends with a song called ‘Light,’ and I think my favorite line in that is, ‘You don’t have to be happy at all to be happy you’re alive,’” Burton said. “I think there’s something really poignant in saying even in these really dark times, just existing is something special.”

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