"Next to Normal" tackles subject of mental health

Conversations about mental health can be hard to have. But in "Next to Normal," the conversation is not only brought up, it's sung.

The new musical from The Starling Company tackles the subject of mental health head-on by following the story of the Goodman family as they try to deal with tragedy, trauma, and managing mental illness.

"They seem like a regular family at first, but you start to figure out pretty quickly that something's off," Director Kenny Starling explained.

The musical won multiple Tony Awards in 2009, as well as a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for the visibility and representation it gave for those struggling with their mental health, according to Starling.

"This was really one of the first pieces of theater that was super honest about the human experience with mental illness," they explained.

A personal production

For Starling, who is directing a major musical without also starring in it for the first time, putting on this production was personal.

"I've wanted to do the show for a long time," they said. "I have my own struggles with mental illness, as do a lot of the individuals in the cast."

Having honest conversations about mental illness is especially important to Starling since they grew up with a mom and nana who are both bipolar but didn't share this fact for a long time. Starling also struggled with their own mental health but didn't get anything diagnosed until last year.

"It was a game changer just to have the name on the issues that I was having, because then I could be kinder to myself, first of all, and then figure out the best course of action for me," they explained.

Starling is also aware that many people struggle without getting help, especially in small towns like Rock Springs and Green River.

"When it comes down to it, we really don't have great resources here," they said. "We don't have great communication on it even being a thing. And I think that our community really struggles because of that."

Starting the conversation is an important first step, which is one of Starling and the cast's goals for the musical, especially since the subject hits so close to home for so many of them.

A dream role

Another member of the production for whom the story is deeply personal in multiple ways is Erika Hunsaker, who plays the lead character and mom of the family, Diana Goodman.

"She's mentioned that this is a dream role for her, that it has been for a long time," Starling explained of Hunsaker. "And this is really her first time stepping back into the acting game. And what a way to do it - a really heavy way to do it."

For Hunsaker, who owns Upstage Theater Company, this role has felt like a chance to both prove herself and to be vulnerable.

While she has performed for years, Hunsaker hasn't had a lead role since high school, and stepping back into acting and playing a lead as an adult has been very hard but also rewarding.

"It humbled me and it helped me grow as an actor," she said. "That's helping me share that and teach that as well."

Hunsaker admitted she's had moments of feeling intimidated and discouraged, both when looking at the great and young talent around her and wondering about her credentials to teach and ability to lead others through her own company. But getting back into the spotlight and leading a difficult musical has helped her have the chance to prove what she's good at, both to the community and to herself.

Even more difficult than acting again, however, has been the process of being vulnerable while presenting such a heavy topic through the story.

"The most challenging [part] is being triggered because of mental health," Hunsaker explained.

While she's similar to her character in positive ways, like being a wife and mother and a driven leader, Hunsaker also realized she relates to her character's mental health struggles. While Hunsaker has worked to be open and transparent about her mental health and gone through therapy, she still struggled with the play triggering her personal emotions and her sense of self. Working to differentiate herself from the character while still presenting the real emotions of the story has been a tricky balance to find.

"Telling her story is too relatable," Hunsaker said. "So I think that was hard, but also very cleansing... Because I use theater as a sense of therapy...and healing that was difficult, but again, refreshing, because it's doing its job."

A safe space

Dealing with the heavy emotions of the story in healthy ways has been an important part of the production for Starling, Hunsaker, and the entire cast.

"We established from day one that we needed to be there for each other and we needed to be there to support each other," Starling said.

They explained that throughout the rehearsal process they have been sure to take time at the beginning or end of rehearsals to do something positive and fun and light, giving chances for the cast to bond but also for them to feel grounded and not take the strong emotions of the show with them when they go back into the world.

For Hunsaker, a major part of staying grounded and not letting the story take over her life has been keeping her family involved in the process. She's especially thankful to have a family that also loves and is involved in the arts and that is supportive of her.

Hunsaker has also found extra support in her fellow cast and crew, especially Starling, who she's close to and has worked with many times before, and Devin Manfull, who plays her husband on stage and is her best friend in real life.

"This is a safe space and a safe place to tell this kind of story," Hunsaker said.

An important message

As they share such an emotionally heavy story, the cast and crew of "Next to Normal" also hope to share the importance of addressing mental health.

"Mental health is serious," Starling said, thinking of the musical's main messages. "And we all deal with it, whether you legitimately have a mental illness or not. It's something that is part of our daily lives."

For Hunsaker, the main message of the story is "that everybody's got problems and it's okay. It's very okay. And I think people need to talk about it more. And don't judge people. Don't judge their marriages, their relationships or preferences, their choices, what goes on within a home. Show grace, show mercy."

Starling also added that a main theme of the play is that "no one is inherently a villain. Everyone is always doing the best that they can with the given circumstances that they have."

"Everybody has a story to tell," Hunsaker added. "Just be graceful and kind to other people, because you don't know. Mental health isn't something you can see. A lot of the time you don't know what people are going through."

"Next to Normal" opens Friday, June 21 at the Broadway Theater in Rock Springs and will have three performances June 21-23, with shows at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and a show at 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for seniors and students and are available online or at the door. Because the show deals in a number of sensitive, potentially triggering subjects and contains adult language, viewer discretion is advised.


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