Have you ever wondered how actors learn all their lines? Well, people ask them that all the time, so you’re not alone. But the words they say on stage are usually just a small part of what actors learn as they rehearse a show. A lot of their time goes into research – about the play’s subject matter, the time period, and anything else that will help them understand their characters and the story.
Last fall, on the first day of rehearsal for Next to Normal at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre (Geva’s co-producer on the show – for more information, see this earlier post), each cast member received a copy of the script and two large binders: one held the show’s score, the other held a collection of reference materials assembled by dramaturgs Celise Kalke and Vessela Warner. Those materials included statistics, case studies, lists of symptoms and medications, and personal stories about families dealing with mental illness and devastating loss. Also available in the rehearsal room was the most recent edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
During the first week of rehearsals, the cast and creative team spent their mornings on research. They discussed the information in that binder, shared personal stories that helped them relate to the characters in the play, and met with experts, including a pediatrician who advised composer Tom Kitt and librettist/lyricist Brian Yorkey when they were writing Next to Normal. In the afternoons, they found some time for reading and singing through the play.
Of course, no two experiences of mental illness are exactly alike, so no article or expert can tell the cast the “right way” to play their parts. Still, Jordan Craig, who plays Henry, wanted to learn as much as he could about the issues facing the Goodman family in Next to Normal because he felt invested in their story – and because it’s what his character would do. In the play, Henry doesn’t know very much about Diana’s illness because he’s not part of the family. But, according to Jordan, “Henry is much smarter than I am, and he’s in love with Natalie. When he found out her mom was bipolar, he would’ve gotten online and Googled that immediately. He would’ve found out all this stuff.”
Don’t let his modesty fool you – Jordan’s quite smart himself, and he’s as anxious to learn as Henry. He was eager to immerse himself in that binder, both during rehearsals an on his own time. Then, like any researcher, he had to decide what information was important and how to use it – he focused on the stories and facts that stood out to him and might help him bring his character to life. Months later, he’s still excited to share everything he learned. But how does he incorporate that data into his performance?
“When you invest in the information,” Jordan says, “it’s a more palpable experience for the audience, and it’s transformative for the actors.” The research gave him a deeper sympathy for the characters in the play. When he’s on stage, all the information that’s stuck with him helps him have genuine reactions to the story, which makes it easier for the audience to relate to it, too. “They see that you care about something, so then they care about something.”