BY CARY GINELL
One of the most acclaimed musicals in recent years comes to Ventura County when the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse presents Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s searing comic-drama rock musical Next to Normal. The show not only won three Tony Awards, including Best Score and Best Actress (Alice Ripley) in 2009, but also the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Tabitha Ellis will be playing the role of Natalie in the show and we had a chance to sit down and chat with Tabitha about the show and her life in the theater. This is the first of a two-part story that will continue later this month.
VCOS: So are you excited to be in this groundbreaking show?
TABITHA: Oh, yeah! It’s actually my dream role.
VCOS: You mentioned to me that you saw the show during its initial run in New York. Tell me about that.
TABITHA: I was in New York because I was at school at AMDA. When it first came out, I said to myself, “What’s that?” There wasn’t very much advertising for it, so I really wasn’t aware of what it was about until one of my friends saw it. And she came back and just raved about it. And so, being on a college budget, I had to play the lottery, and everyone was picked until it came down to the last person and I got it. So I sat pretty close up… and bawled. I was almost hyperventilating, bawling, I was almost embarrassed when I left because everyone was staring at me. But I just fell in love with the show. And from then on it was, “I want to play Natalie.”
VCOS: And how many times did you see the show?
TABITHA: Four or five, mostly with the original cast, but there was one where Alice Ripley’s voice was going so she sang the first half of the show, and then in Act II, her understudy went on. So I got to see two different people in one whole show play that character. But you could tell; her voice was just really gone in that performance.
VCOS: Why do you think the show had that kind of an effect on you?
TABITHA: It was really different, but I think that the main thing was that it was really honest. At the end, it wasn’t like “It’s going to end perfectly.” It kind of leaves you hanging to figure out how everything is going to fall together, but it’s very realistic in the way things happen, how people talk to each other and attitudes, and even cussing. I really like it because it wasn’t flowered.
VCOS: Without giving away any of the plot, once you realize the secret of the story, it kind of makes you want to come back and look at it from another angle.
TABITHA: Yeah. The first time I saw it and realized that, the first thing I thought was, I have to come back and see it again. And I realized the interaction between the characters and thought, “Ohhh, I totally missed all of that! I see it now!” So it was really cool to go back and rediscover new things every time I went.
VCOS: Tell me about your background. Where are you from?
TABITHA: My parents were in the military, so at the time, we were living in New Hampshire, which is where I spent a chunk of my life. I went to Keene State College in New Hampshire but then decided to leave to go to AMDA because I wanted to act, which I discovered much later in my life. I wasn’t one of those kids who did it growing up. I started during my last semester of high school. My drama teacher from freshman year on literally asked me every day to do a play. And I’m not exaggerating. The amount of effort he put into trying to get me to do a play was amazing. But fortunately, I ended up doing it. It was The Sound of Music. He wanted me to audition for both Maria and Liesl but I said no to Maria and said that I just wanted Liesl. That’s what I focused on and that’s what I ended up getting.
VCOS: Did you take singing lessons?
TABITHA: Not singing lessons, but I did grow up singing country music, pop, and doing talent shows. I got to sing for the mayor of Misawa, Japan, because my parents were in the military and they were stationed there. So I did a lot of that growing up, for thousands of people at a time. During high school I got cancerous nodules on the sides of my vocal cords. They had to be taken out when I was seventeen. I did the play about a year after that.
VCOS: Did the operation affect your singing?
TABITHA: If anything, it made it better quality, but it also made it harder because I had to redo all the muscles. Everything was still there, but I had to really work and practice the songs to make them sound better. Now, it’s normal again and I don’t have to put so much effort into it.
VCOS: Did they get all of it out?
TABITHA: Yes, but the hardest part was that I couldn’t talk for three weeks, which was the worst three weeks of my entire life. But everything’s good now.
VCOS: What brought you to California?
TABITHA: I wanted to get more into film and TV, which I’ve done, and I love it, but I still have this nag for musical theater and live theater, so every now and then I’ll audition for shows I really love and want to be a part of.
VCOS: What do you do for your day job?
TABITHA: I do background work as an extra but for the most part, I’m just waiting for auditions, saving my money up. And then I’ll get gigs that I book myself. I got to be part of a feature film that’s airing in May, so that brings in money along with little gigs here and there. My parents are awesome; they’re very supportive and they help out. They’re now at Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento, but everyone else in my family is still in New England.
VCOS: What’s the film you’re going to be in?
TABITHA: It’s called Trigger and it has Scott Glenn in it. It’s pretty much about how things trigger people to do what they do, and it concerns a serial killer and a person who is trying to investigate how he mentally works and what makes him the way he is, but there’s a twist.
VCOS: So you’re just doing kind of a walk-on in that movie?
VCOS: Tell me about your audition for Next to Normal. How was that?
TABITHA: On the form it asks if you would accept another role and I checked “yes” and said, “I guess I’ll take Gabe,” which is a man’s role, so that got them laughing. But I definitely put NATALIE in capital letters! They wanted me to sing two different songs; sometimes they ask you to sing and sometimes they don’t so you just have to be prepared. So I picked two songs to sing and was nervous all the way there. I did “Campbell’s Audition” from Bring It On and then I sang an excerpt from American Idiot as Heather. In the very beginning, she comes out and sings when she finds out she’s pregnant, so I sang that part.
VCOS: Had you prepared any songs from Next to Normal?
TABITHA: They asked us not to, but originally, yes, I was ready to do that if they wanted me to. But they said not to, that was for callback, so I said, “Ohhhh-kay…”
VCOS: How did you think you did?
TABITHA: I think I could have done better but I didn’t leave with a bad feeling. So I guess that was positive!
VCOS: How did you find out you got the part?
TABITHA: I was on a set and got a call from Jolyn Johnson on a number I didn’t recognize so I ignored it because I was on set. Then I got an email from her that said, “Hey, Tab, this is Jolyn, I need to speak with you, if you’ll just call me back whenever you can.” So they gave me a break and I yanked my phone out and called her. But they started shooting again right in the middle of me talking to her, so it was me yelling, “Oh, my gosh!” and then “I have to call you back, I’m filming!” Totally not what you’re supposed to do, but I was NOT missing this phone call!
When we conclude our interview, Tabitha talks about the rehearsal process for Next to Normal. The show plays from June 6 to July 13 at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse. Next to Normal stars Aileen-Marie Scott, Nick Newkirk, Nicholas Herbst, Tabitha Ellis, Julian Comeau, and Michael Worden. For dates and show times, see the VC On Stage Calendar.