From May 20th through the 22nd, The Opera House Players in Enfield, CT will be presenting special performances of the Tony Award-winning musical, Next to Normal 

Next to Normal is a shadowed production which fully incorporates a dual cast of hearing and speaking performers and American Sign Language performers.  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with the show’s director, Sharon Fitzhenry, to learn more about the production and the importance of inclusivity in the creative arts. 

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: From May 20th through the 22nd, the Opera House Players in Enfield, Connecticut, will be presenting special performances of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Next to Normal.”

This show is described as a shadowed production, which fully incorporates a dual cast of hearing and speaking performers and American Sign Language performers.

I spoke with the show’s director, Sharon FitzHenry, to learn more about the production and the importance of inclusivity in the creative arts.

Sharon FitzHenry, Next to Normal Director: For us, we have created an entirely dual cast. So, we have a cast entirely of singing, speaking actors, and then we have a cast that are performing entirely in American Sign Language, in ASL.

So, normally when people think about a signed performance, the interpreter is off to the side and they’re not actively involved in the production. For us, every character has two performers, so you might have two Dianas that are next to each other. Maybe they’re in opposite and frame the stage. They interact. Sometimes they share signs, they share activity. So the two casts are entirely integrated and they shadow each other, you know, in motion and in emotion. We — we consider it to be different nuances of the same character.

And it was, you know, at one point somebody asked me, “Is it hard to figure out who’s the dominant performer?”

And we don’t really think about it as a dominant performer because the two, the signing and the speaking are working so closely with each other, that you’re really getting a more well-rounded, really, really interesting version of who a character is.

Zydalis Bauer: The Opera House Players has been Enfield’s community-based theater for over 50 years now. This is a first of its kind production.

So, what made you want to present this musical and this dual language way?

Sharon FitzHenry: Many years ago, I had directed a play named “Beckett” that we did with an ASL cast, and I found it to be so intriguing. And it was really wonderful from the presenter-production side to be in the rehearsal process, but to watch the reactions in the audience of both hearing and Deaf audiences…it was it was electric. And I had been wanting for 20 years to do it again.

And so, it just happened that the stars aligned, the Opera House Players were brave, because it’s very hard for people to imagine there’s two of you on stage. But it’s been a — it’s been a wonderful experience.

Zydalis Bauer: Well, I was going to mention that being bilingual myself, I understand the challenges of trying to accurately translate something and stay true to the original material.

So, what have you learned as a production about putting together a presentation in this shadowed style?

Sharon FitzHenry: Oh, I’ve learned a lot. And — and I can guarantee you that there is so much more I need to learn.

We’ve tried very, very hard to be authentic to the Deaf performers and to Deaf culture to make sure that we are honoring that in it’s — in its essence and not trying to make it just a gimmick. You know, it’s not that. These are really talented actors, really talented performers.

And so, I challenge folks to come see this performance for their work. It doesn’t matter what language they’re using, they’re telling the story so richly and emotively, it’s been wonderful.

But I have to give huge credit to our Director of Artistic Sign Language, Niki Mallach. She glossed the script, which is translating it into American Sign Language, making sure that both companies were using the signs that were appropriate to the moment.

I mean, there’s a lot that I’ve learned about sign language! Sign language has regional translation. Like we think of accents, you know, phrasings, phrasings that were current right now that maybe weren’t necessarily in use ten years or 20 or 30 years ago.

So, she’s done an enormous amount of work and done a beautiful job bringing this forward in ASL.

Zydalis Bauer: Next to normal is a Tony Award-winning musical and it has been chosen as one of the year’s ten shows that you must see from critics from the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone, so much more.

Why did you decide to produce this play for the Connecticut audience? Why did it make sense for Next to normal to happen this year?

Sharon FitzHenry: Well, for one, you want to choose a show that has a really amazing story and has gorgeous music. And that may seem like a funny thing to say when you’re looking at translating a musical into sign language, but the lyricism of it, the — the way that characters move and interact.

And then at the basis of it, this is a play about miscommunication. This is a play about not recognizing each other. Relationship is really story-forward. And so, all of that could come together in order to bring the ASL to a point of focus that was appropriate. And it worked really well.

You know, for a character to say, “You don’t hear me.” Well, is that because the speaking actor is talking to the ASL actor?

So, there’s lots of little things that we played on in nuance.

Zydalis Bauer: Well, in another component of this play, after one of the shows, you’re going to have a panel, a discussion panel.

Sharon FitzHenry: Yes.

Zydalis Bauer: Talking about Deaf inclusion in the arts. Why was this important for you all to incorporate into one of the shows?

Sharon FitzHenry: I thought it was important because this is not something that — that happens often. You know, you just — you don’t see performances using ASL often, whether it’s a musical or straight play.

And frankly, there’s a really large Deaf and Hard of Hearing community in this area because of American School for the Deaf, Willie Ross School, and so many others. And so, there is a community that is underserved.

And not that we’re doing it necessarily to say “Here!” You know, “Come see.” But how wonderful it is to say, “Come!” You know, to try and include and offer this opportunity.

And we’re very much hoping that that — that will start a ball rolling. Maybe in another company, they’ll look at how exciting this was. Maybe at another company, they’ll say, “This is a great script that will work for giving opportunity to Deaf performers.”

Our performers are coming from three different states because there is so little opportunity to perform. And so, I know that these folks are — are worthwhile to put on stage.

The performances, I cannot tell you how just really awe-inspiring some of these performances are. I think you’re — I think that the audiences will be just engaged.

Zydalis Bauer: Like you said, this is such a great opportunity to give to — to Deaf actors, right? Because I think — I saw some clips and it was just so amazing how collaboratively the actors work together onstage, using both languages.

How does inclusion add to the artistic value of these creative productions?

Sharon FitzHenry: Well, by the very nature, theater is a very collaborative form. You know, you have your actors and designers and technicians and everybody is in a rehearsal room, hopefully bringing their A-game to make everybody else better.

And any time you talk about inclusion, whether it’s in gender, whether it’s in ethnicity, whether it’s in language, you make yourself stronger when you work with each other and you make yourself stronger when you offer that opportunity to bring other influences and ideas into the room. And I think that’s what we have tried to do.

And I think that’s one of the reasons that we thought this panel was important, because it should not end on the closing day of “Next to Normal.”There is a group that’s new in Connecticut called Connecticut Deaf Theater that is an offshoot of National Theater of the Deaf, and they are working to bring programing forward. There are companies in Boston that offer dance and music opportunities for Deaf performers.

So, I think that as all of us in — in the greater umbrella of — of performance look forward, I think it’s important that we think about inclusion. It really does make the performance better.

Zydalis Bauer: The last nights of the show are coming up this week and it’s been a long month of great shows.

What will you miss the most and what are you most proud of with this production?

Sharon FitzHenry: I will miss the company. I mean, it’s been 12 actors that have just poured their hearts out.

I’m proud of us taking a chance. You know, regardless of how it lands, regardless of what an audience thinks when they walk out, I think it was important that we took the chance.

I directed “Next to Normal” many years ago, and it was really kind of about the mental health issues of the story. This time it’s been about relationship. And I think it’s that relationship that I built with Nikki, our dazzle, the relationship that the actors have made within the partners, the two Natalies, the two Henrys. I’d like to think that we’re all a little richer for it.