Thirty to forty hour work weeks. No pay for the students. One month to put on a Tony award-winning musical. Sounds crazy, right? Not to Rory Pelsue. He dove headfirst into Quinnipiac University’s production of Next to Normal.
Next to Normal is a family musical. By family musical I mean, it’s a musical about a family, definitely not the type of show to bring your kids to. The mother, Diana, is bipolar depressive. She is constantly seeing delusions of her dead eight-month-old son, Gabe, as a near 18-year-old. Gabe is trying to not be forgotten by Diana and his father, Dan. In his attempts to not get forgotten and to be a part of his mother’s life, he ends up coercing her into attempting suicide. Diana then goes through ECT, via her psychiatrist Dr. Madden, to try and get her to stop seeing delusions of her son. It works for a couple of weeks, but Gabe eventually finds his way back. Dan is trying to make everything fine and wants Diana to “…take more pills and do more ECT” so that she’s able to recover and stop seeing Gabe. All the while, the daughter, Natalie, is having her own struggles by playing second fiddle to Gabe. She’s the living child and Dan and Diana have been more focused on Gabe. This ends up turning her to drugs and she has to fight her own addictions, while her boyfriend, Henry, tries to help her through it.
Putting on a musical in a month is already a tough situation to be in, but putting one on of Next to Normal’s caliber was a near impossible feat. For a show like Next to Normal, you’d want to have a cast in mind, especially the part of Diana (a very vocally and emotionally draining role). “I was very nervous about not knowing who Diana was going to be and what the vocal talent was at Quinnipiac,” Rory said about the audition process. Rory had no experience with the Quinnipiac theater department until this past semester. Not knowing who he had to work with was a very nerve-racking experience, especially with the genre of Next to Normal (rock musical). “I’ve never done a rock show before and I honestly struggle with the genre, because I don’t listen to that music.”
Despite his nerves about the heavy-hitting show, he took the challenge head-on and the final product was amazing. “There is a sense of irony that a team came together to put on such a great performance focusing on another group of people who were anything but united” Alexis Guerra of the Quinnipiac Chronicle said. The show was a resounding success, selling out every night and receiving multiple standing ovations.
What’s interesting about all of the success surrounding Next to Normal was that Rory was not the initial choice to direct the show. The director of the past few musicals, James Noble, was supposed to direct it. It wasn’t until over winter break when everyone found out that James wasn’t directing the show. We don’t know why James did not direct the show, but I do know that he was thinking of taking a break from directing. I just didn’t realize it would be so soon.
So then how did Rory get the directing job? Well, when it was discovered that James would not be directing the musical in the spring, the head of the theater department, Kevin Daly, was tasked with finding a new director. He reached out to one of his friends from a playwriting company for help. She put him into contact with Rory since his thesis for his masters was a musical. Everything just seemed too had fallen into place like a game of Tetris.
It’s not like this was one of Rory’s first rodeo. His directing accolades are numerous. He graduated from St. Lawrence College in 2011. He graduated from the Yale School of Drama’s directing program in 2018 (which is one of the best programs for directing in the country). Between his undergraduate and his graduate programs he ran a small opera company that focused on English language/light opera/ and small operatic work. Along with working at a small opera company, he directed a couple of shows at Fordham, as well as the University of Pennsylvania.
With all this directing experience in his back pocket, I decided to ask him how Quinnipiac compared to other places he’s directed at. I was actually very surprised with his answers, as all of the actors (myself included) always seemed to be goofing around (not during actual rehearsal). Rory said, “I was surprised by the work ethic of everyone involved at Quinnipiac. This group of students worked harder than all of the other schools I’ve worked at.” He even added that “There was such a culture of kindness at Quinnipiac. I had never done ‘circle’ before and it was very heartwarming.”
Circle is a Quinnipiac theater tradition where, before every show, everyone involved in the show stands in a circle holding hands. During circle the leader of it will send a pulse around the circle (a squeeze of the hand) and wait until it returns back to them. Once that’s finished, all the seniors involved in the show pick a word from the script that describes their experience with the show and explains it. After the word is explained everyone puts their left hand in (it’s closest to their heart) and shouts the word. Then you have to hug everyone in the room before we leave. It’s considered bad luck if you don’t.
With this culture of kindness, Rory felt right at home at Quinnipiac. He said that all of the students were all very sweet and kind and that we were all very funny (I guess he liked us goofing around). “Everyone seemed like they wanted to be there. As soon as I feel people don’t want to be there I get so anxious.” Despite the 30-40 hours week, everyone did want to be there. That’s just a testament to how good Rory is as a director.
His directing style is something that I’ve never worked with before. Since I started performing (16 years ago), I’ve never worked with a director like Rory Pelsue. His directing style is so unique that it’s not even next to normal, it’s abnormal. Most of the directors that I’ve worked with are a more “stand here and then walk over here and sing” director. Rory had the actors dive deep into their scripts. We all spent countless hours and rehearsals reading and combing through the script to find the underlying meaning of each particular line (spoken and sung). The actors even participated in an arts and crafts project:
- Each character was on a piece of poster board. (there are six characters)
- The script was read out loud
- We would then write down anything describing the character
- By the end of it, each character had nearly two pages of descriptions
This type of directing had never even crossed my mind before. All of the actors agreed that Rory was one of the best directors we ever had.
The amount of time and effort that Rory put into his craft was very noticeable. You could tell that he spent countless hours outside of rehearsal scouring the script for underlying meanings, as well as important words/ quotes that the actors needed to know. He made an entire pamphlet on medical terms that are discussed in the show, as well as a second pamphlet on words that not everyone will know. I’ve never seen a director go this above and beyond for his actors before. He even went so far as to get a Quinnipiac Psychology professor to come to rehearsal and explain everything about the mental health aspects of the show (there are a lot).
Every show has its challenges, but Next to Normal’s challenges were numerous. A big challenge that is caused by the show itself is the emotional content in it. It’s incredibly difficult to get the audience to believe that these college students are all going through this emotional distress (at varying levels). It is one thing to cry (which happened a lot), but it’s another thing to show that distress without the use of crying. The actors took to Rory’s directions wonderfully and because of that, throughout the entire show you could hear sniffles and could see people crying.
Another challenge that was had was the budget. The family in Next to Normal is supposed to be pretty well-off. Both parents are architects. Incorporating all the intricate designs that architects would have in their home was incredibly difficult since the Arts at Quinnipiac don’t have the budget that Rory was used to. Despite that, the set was amazing, and it was the first time Quinnipiac ever built a two-story set.
The biggest challenge, however, that Rory had to face during Next to Normal was one of the actresses, unfortunately, contracted laryngitis a week before opening night. All of the actors/ actresses were incredibly nervous as to how the show would work if the role of Natalie could barely speak, let alone sing. Rory handled that challenge better than how most people would have. It didn’t even seem to faze him at all. He just had the musical director speak and sing Natalie’s lines during rehearsal. Fortunately, by opening night Natalie was able to speak all her lines and sing most of her songs (the musical director had to sing the tougher songs). Once Opening night was finished the show went on without a hitch (Natalie sang and spoke all of her lines in the following shows).
Enough talk about challenges and how hard it was to put on Next to Normal. When asked about his favorite part of the show, he took a long pause. “That’s a really tough question, I loved every part of it,” said Rory. I decided to make it a little easier for him and ask him what his favorite scene was in the show. Another pause, but he eventually came to an answer. “My favorite scene was probably ‘Catch me I’m Falling’. It was so much fun to stage. There were so many moving parts during it. It was a challenge to fit all those pieces into one number. The music is also very pretty.”
Unfortunately, Next to Normal’s run at Quinnipiac is now over so those reading this will be unable to watch it. Fortunately, for the readers (as well as the members of Quinnipiac), Rory Pelsue will be returning next year to direct the musical again. He was originally set to take over as the director of the musical in 2020, but due to circumstances (mentioned earlier), he started this year.
It is a bit early, but every year at theater formal, the shows for the next year are announced. This year the musical will be announced on April 27th. I decided to ask him if he had thought about any shows to do for next year. He thought about them a lot. “I love classic musicals, so I’d like to do a rarely revised classic piece that could work young people,” he said. It’s kind of tough to pick certain shows because the theater is small and more like a black box theater. So, doing shows with large ensembles, or even small ensembles for that matter, are tough to put on at Quinnipiac.
This requires the theater department to put on smaller musicals. With that in mind, Rory gave me a few of his ideas for the upcoming 2020 musical. He mentioned The Fantasticks, which is a perfect show for a black box theater. He also mentioned Babes in the Arms (a stripped-down version of it), Evening Primrose (which is a Stephen Sondheim TV musical), and Falsettos (which seemed to be the favorite of the four, when I talked to other students).
Unfortunately for me, this was my first and last chance to be able to work with Rory as my director. I am so fortunate to be able to have worked with him. I learned so much more about acting and getting into character from him than any other director I’ve worked with in the past. Despite being unable to act at Quinnipiac again, I’m so excited to see what Rory and the rest of the theater department accomplish in the coming years.
“And in the end, I will be most proud to say I was one of us” – Anonymous.