First live local theater since COVID is a new-normal ‘Next to Normal’

An exclusive pictorial logbook of Encore Theater Company's innaugural production.

By Steve Quintilian and Julie Lloyd,
Encore Theater Company Co-founders

As artistic directors and theater managers all over the DMV wrestle with how and when to stage live theater indoors, the brand-new Encore Theater Company went ahead and presented two live performances outdoors, in a backyard in Takoma Park. In lieu of a review the show—the musical Next to Normal by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt—DC Metro Theater Arts invited Director Steve Quintilian and Musical Director Julie Lloyd to take readers on a “you are there” tour. 

PJ Freebourn (Dan), Michael McGovern (Dr. Madden), Zach Rakotomaniraka (Gabe), Nick Brogan (Henry), Carla Crawford (Diana), and Leah Reineck (Natalie) in ‘Next to Normal’ at Encore Theater Company. Photo by Tony Richards Photography.

We chose Next to Normal to be our inaugural production back in January, and had no idea at the time how prescient a choice that would turn out to be. As a brand-new theater company with limited resources, we wanted a piece that could be told with minimal sets, props, costumes, and choreography. We had originally planned to produce the show in-the-round, indoors, but this striking moment from the finale of the show (“Light”) illustrates just how perfect the backdrop of a suburban house turned out to be. It had built-in levels that approximated the original Broadway set in a way that we never would have been able to accomplish inside. And, more important, being set outside an actual house added a unique layer to the storytelling. It deepened the feeling of shining a light on what’s usually sanitized and hidden behind closed doors—the typical family arguments, but more important, issues of mental health (including bipolar disorder, anxiety, and substance abuse), which are stigmatized and often hidden away.

PJ Freebourn (Dan), Zach Rakotomaniraka (Gabe), Nick Brogan (Henry), and Leah Reineck (Natalie) in ‘Next to Normal’ at Encore Theater Company. Photo by Tony Richards Photography.

Tackling Next to Normal’s score is a beast even under normal circumstances for actors—especially the complicated ensemble numbers like “It’s Gonna Be Good,” seen here. Much of our music rehearsal process had to be virtual so that we could make the most of our limited in-person time. This meant that the cast had to learn their music without the benefit of having their notes plunked out on the piano or without even getting to hear each other’s voices. Julie, our music director, recorded rehearsal tracks for every song in the show. For ensemble numbers, in addition to the piano accompaniment she made individual recordings of every voice part. She also made separate rehearsal mixes for each actor that had every voice part except their own that they could sing along with. It was a painstaking process, but the result was that all the actors came in confident of their parts in the complex and beautiful harmonies in this show despite never having sung together before.

Nick Brogan (Henry), Zach Rakotomaniraka (Gabe), Leah Reineck (Natalie), Michael McGovern (Dr. Madden), Carla Crawford (Diana) in ‘Next to Normal’ at Encore Theater Company. Photo by Tony Richards Photography.

Complex sequences like “Wish I Were Here,” at the top of Act Two, when multiple scenes are happening simultaneously, are typically a challenge for the director and actors to put on their feet. Since our rehearsal process started online, early blocking rehearsals were entirely conceptual. When the actors eventually got into the space, those early rehearsals proved valuable in laying the groundwork, which we could refine as the actors made sense of the levels and quirks of the “stage.” 

Zach Rakotomaniraka (Gabe) and Carla Crawford (Diana) in ‘Next to Normal’ at Encore Theater Company. Photo by Tony Richards Photography.

The lack of physical contact was limiting, certainly, but we chose to look at it as an opportunity to reinforce and heighten the themes of Next to Normal. Any time that Gabe (played so beautifully by 15-year-old Zach Rakotomaniraka) was on stage—for example, during “I Dreamed a Dance” as seen here—Diana’s inability to reach out and touch him was even more poignant because, as we know, he’s not really there. We felt the full magnitude of her desire to connect with him, because the actors themselves were feeling it.

Zach Rakotomaniraka (Gabe) and Carla Crawford (Diana) in ‘Next to Normal’ at Encore Theater Company. Photo by Tony Richards Photography.

One of the most difficult parts of this process was constantly adjusting to the evolving state of the pandemic and layering in additional health and safety protocols when it became clear in July that coronavirus numbers weren’t getting better. For us, this meant making the decision to have our actors masked—not only in rehearsals, which was always the plan, but also during performances. We opted to embrace the masks. Rather than ignore that they’re there, the actors acknowledged them and made them part of their preparation and motivations. During performances, they all wore the same style of mask, for several reasons: 1) Practically speaking, this style of mask least impeded the clarity of actors’ voices. 2) Their identical nature actually helped to pull some of the focus away from the masks. It enabled them to fade into the background and be less of a distraction. And 3) We thought the message of a uniform mask was strong, given the themes of Next to Normal. We are all struggling right now to survive, to communicate, and to connect, but there are forces outside of our control that get in the way.

Michael McGovern (Dr. Madden) and Carla Crawford (Diana) in ‘Next to Normal’ at Encore Theater Company. Photo by Tony Richards Photography.

Next to Normal deals with difficult and timely topics including bipolar disorder, attempted suicide, and opioid abuse. This moment highlights the relationship developed between Dr. Madden and Diana—one of the central ways the show originally defined its perspective on the mental health industry and various treatment options. From the beginning of our process, we wanted to have resources available for our cast and audience to help navigate this challenging territory. We worked with a local therapist to provide some context for the actors during the online phase of our rehearsals, and for our audience we compiled and shared resources related to mental health support and suicide prevention.

Nick Brogan (Henry) and Leah Reineck (Natalie) in ‘Next to Normal’ at Encore Theater Company. Photo by Tony Richards Photography.

In this moment from one of our rare in-person rehearsals, Natalie meets Henry at the school dance in “Hey 3.” Our in-person rehearsals were very limited, partly by design and partly due to inclement weather. Admittedly, we had spent so much energy focusing on making accommodations for the pandemic that any concerns about weather were on the backburner. Hurricane Isaias blew through at the beginning of our (already limited) tech week, along with more storms to follow. Our first tech rehearsal was rained out halfway through, and we only had one full run-through the week of the show—our dress rehearsal. Amazingly, the weather cooperated for dress rehearsal and both performances.

Audience members sit in socially-distanced pods; Michael McGovern (Dr. Madden) and Carla Crawford (Diana) on stage in ‘Next to Normal’ at Encore Theater Company. Photo by Tony Richards Photography.

We put a lot of energy into creating a safe environment for both the actors and the audience. This photo highlights some of our logistical considerations (in addition to the peculiarity of having a fully produced musical in your backyard). Prior to performances, we mapped out a detailed seating grid that separated the audience into pods that were at least six feet apart. The audience was assigned staggered arrival times so that they could enter the space without needing to pass too close to other pods. Additionally, we provided digital programs and took only a short stretch break in between acts to limit the total runtime of the show, among other modifications.

Zach Rakotomaniraka (Gabe) and PJ Freebourn (Dan) in ‘Next to Normal’ at Encore Theater Company. Photo by Tony Richards Photography.

This moment at the end of the show—when Dan finally acknowledges Gabe for the first time—was one of many that illustrated how deep connection is possible despite masks and physical barriers. Our actors leaned on physicality and other tools to compensate for the fact that 50 percent of their faces were essentially cut off. All art is a reflection of its time, and this production—outside, socially distanced, and masked—was certainly that. Our production of Next to Normal was about both where we are right now, and what’s possible for theater in the not-so-distant (and certainly not-so-normal) future. We think it’s really promising that even with these physical limitations the show still resonated with audiences.

Carla Crawford (Diana) and PJ Freebourn (Dan) in ‘Next to Normal’ at Encore Theater Company. Photo by Tony Richards Photography.

We recognize that when we first announced that we would be producing a professional musical in our backyard, it probably conjured up images that were a lot less “produced” than what it ended up being. This being our company’s first show, we wanted to do something of theatrical scale, or nothing at all. We rented professional lighting equipment and brought in professional sound reinforcement (including lav mics for the actors and a PA system). We did this despite deciding not to charge for tickets—which meant cutting corners elsewhere in the production budget and taking on a lot of the jobs ourselves that we had originally planned to pay others to do, like lighting design, front-of-house support, and props and costumes. Ultimately, this also meant that all of the money we were able to fundraise went directly to paying our actors and musicians, and for covering equipment rental and licensing fees.

After the show, audience members shared wonderful feedback with us:

I’m humbled that you could do such a professional production with masks on and outdoors on a humid August night. The friend I was with has seen Next to Normal twice on Broadway and thought your production and cast was as good as anything he saw there.

Absolutely knocked out by @encoretheaterco’s stunning, socially distanced, masked live production of next to normal. It was so creative, raw, beautiful, thoughtful, and resilient.

Highlight of the pandemic? The chance this past weekend to see this extraordinary cast from #EncoreTheaterCompany perform the thought-provoking #NextToNormal in nearby #TakomaParkMD, outdoors, masked, and at a very safe social distance. Outstanding performances, beautiful music, and the first opportunity in 5 months for most audience members to see a live performance.  It bodes so well for the future of this classy and upstart troupe.

I had not seen this musical before and was struck by the candor of addressing mental illness in a sensitive way. I know this is not how Encore Theatrer intended to launch its season but inspired by their resolve to challenge the “norm.”

Congrats to @encoretheaterco for a lovely and safe production of Next to Normal this past weekend. Other companies take note: theatre is possible in this environment, just takes some creativity and planning.

Production photos by Tony Richards Photography

The ‘Next to Normal’ cast unmasked: (top) Carla Crawford (Diana), Leah Reineck (Natalie), Zach Rakotomaniraka (Gabe); (bottom) PJ Freebourn (Dan), Nick Brogan (Henry), Michael McGovern (Dr. Madden).

Donations to Encore Theater Company can be made online here.

RELATED: “A challenge to theaters to reopen now—outdoors

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