Actress Mazie Rudolph, who we call “Amazing Mazie,” plays the central character in the emotion-packed musical drama Next to Normal, currently playing at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. We call her “amazing” because of her multi-faceted abilities in the theater as a singer, actress, and musical director, but with this show, she has topped herself by appearing in a role that is uncomfortably close to home. Like her character, Diana Goodman, Mazie has struggled with mental illness for most of her life, yet when the opportunity arose for her to play Diana in Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, there was never a hesitation. The result is one of the more remarkable performances you will see in the theater. (see our Acorn review: https://www.simivalleyacorn.com/articles/drama-is-an-emotional-roller-coaster/) Mazie was itching to get back on the stage for this weekend’s performances when we sat down with her and director Fred Helsel for a chat about the show.
VCOS: I’m going to hit you with a hard question right off the bat. What does clinical depression feel like?
MAZIE: Whoa… To me, it feels like you’re suffocating. I’ve struggled with it for fifteen years, and every time I get hit with a wave of depression I might describe each one differently, but for the most part, a lot of it is in the song “You Don’t Know.” It feels like you can’t get out of bed in the morning. It feels like you have to make a gargantuan effort to get your head up off the pillow. Sometimes it feels like I’m drowning in my own thoughts and emotions. Sometimes it feels like being dead would be easier than being as sad as I feel. I don’t know if any of that makes sense, but…
VCOS: The play stresses the causes of Diana’s depression as being either a chemical imbalance or a traumatic event. Which do you think it was for Diana?
MAZIE: I think both.
VCOS: Does one exacerbate the other?
MAZIE: Absolutely. Absolutely. As the doctor says, Diana could have had a predisposition for mental illness because she insinuates that about her mother. But I think it’s absolutely triggered by the trauma she experienced earlier in her life. I don’t think she would have been nearly as sick if that hadn’t happened.
VCOS: Could it still have happened?
MAZIE: That’s really hard to say.
VCOS: So it kind of works like a gene that you have that could be triggered at any time.
MAZIE: I think that’s true in Diana’s case. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case with every person who is mentally ill.
VCOS: What do you think it was in your case?
MAZIE: For me? I think it is chemical for me, because it started when I was fifteen and there was no trauma in my life. I was a very, very, happy teenager, living in a super-happy home, but I would just come home from school and cry every day. And I thought that was normal. I really did. I didn’t know any different. I didn’t have any older siblings, they were all younger, so I just said to myself, “Well, I guess I’m just a teenager and that’s what we do!” But I would come home and cry for two or three hours and then go and do my homework. I didn’t see a therapist until I was nineteen.
VCOS: Did you have friends?
MAZIE: I had a lot of friends. I had really GREAT friends. And I would have great days at school. I was so happy at school and I was happy at home, too. So it was just one of those things and it didn’t make any sense. And it took me a couple of years to realize, “This doesn’t make any sense, I should probably go see someone.” So first I went to my mom and asked to go see a therapist. So there was nothing traumatic in my life that did this, I think it was chemical.
VCOS: Do you recognize any of the things that happen to Diana that happened to you?
MAZIE: I have a disorder called PMDD, which stands for premenstrual dysphoric disorder. It basically has bipolar symptoms that are based around my cycle. So I’ve had episodes similar to those that Diana has in the play where I kind of lose my sense of reality. Although I’ve never made sandwiches on the floor, I’ve been known to throw things. So when she throws the napkins and the forks, my husband told me, “Oh, I’ve seen THAT! I’ve definitely seen that!” Not forks. I usually throw laundry (laughs). But I would lose my sense of reality and then forget what happened afterwards, so I kind of have to go through it with John Paul, my husband, and have him tell me what I did. The whole song “You Don’t Know” really resonates with me. It’s where she describes what it feels like:
Do you wake up in the morning and try to lift your head?
Do you read obituaries and feel jealous of the dead?
It’s like living on a cliff side, not knowing when you’ll dive
Do you know what it’s like to die alive?
So I’ve definitely had moments like Diana has – very much so.
VCOS: Next to Normal balances cause vs. effect. We spend the first act looking at the effect and in Act II, we’re starting to examine the cause. There is a marked difference in the feeling for each act. Fred, does this affect how you direct the show and Mazie, does it change the way you approach your character in each act?
FRED: I don’t know if had a major effect on how I directed it because it’s so well written and structured, that, really, if you’re being true to the score and the dialog and the arc of the show that it kind of comes through naturally. I don’t think I ever had to make a conscious choice to work differently in either act.
MAZIE: For me, what’s interesting about Act II is examining what grief is and why it’s important, and how much of Diana’s illness is actual illness and how much is grief that hasn’t been dealt with. That’s been a really interesting exploration for me. I told Fred very early on in the process that mental illness is like a beast that feeds on itself and grows and grows and grows. You realize you’re sick and then you start beating yourself up for your own symptoms, and then you get angry at yourself, and then you get more depressed that you’re angry at yourself, and then you get angry at yourself for being more depressed. The doctor says that in the script. Depression feeds anxiety and anxiety results in depression. So I think it’s an interesting thing to look into as far as what part of that is the human experience of grief.
VCOS: And the pharmacological part of that is removing the ability one has to heal yourself using grief.
MAZIE: Yes, and she says that. Diana says, “My first psychiatrist told me that grief past four months is pathological and should be medicated.”And where is the grace for yourself? I think part of Diana’s growth through the show and through Act II is allowing herself grace to be sad, and I think there’s power in that. I had a moment like that in my life where my therapist said, “Can’t you just embrace this as part of who you are?” That had never occurred to me, to say, “OK, this is part of who I am and that’s beautiful too.” And I try to make that part of Diana’s story: embracing the sadness. This is what makes her beautiful.
VCOS: That’s the whole thrust of “I Miss the Mountains.”
VCOS: The show has a slow, downward spiral that ends ambiguously. What does that tell you and what does it tell the audience about the show and do you think it would have a different effect if there was an obvious resolution to the story?
FRED: We talked about what we thought was happening to Diana at the end. Does she see another therapist? Does she go on without medication? Because it is very ambiguous. But I think that given the last song, “Light,” they’re trying to shed a little bit of hope that you can get through this; there are ways to live with mental illness, there are ways for families to survive this type of situation. Personally, we decided together that Diana does move on to possibly seeing another therapist, but also that she chose to not go with medication for a while to see how that works for her. I kind of love that they leave it open-ended and ambiguous so that you can make your own interpretation as to what happens next. Natalie and Henry are probably going to be pretty happy together, but then they also show Natalie freaking out about possibly ending up mentally ill like her mother. And there’s a fair chance that that’s going to happen, if there is a genetic cause to Diana’s illness. But I think the authors wanted to give hope at the end of the show. They showed the illness, they showed how treatment can sometimes make things worse. Then they give this ray of hope at the end. I love the ending.
VCOS: For me, the ultimate sadness about this show isn’t the trauma, it’s the loss of memory that occurs because of Diana’s treatment. The scene where Dan is showing her their old photographs is the hardest hitting one in the whole show for me. Not the electroshock therapy or the realization of the trauma, it was that quiet little moment with the music box playing where she says “I don’t know what I don’t know” that is just heartbreakingly sad. Fred, how do the set design, the lighting, and the sound all contribute to the effectiveness of the show?
FRED: Seth Kamenow, the set designer, has been wanting to do this show for years. So he was thrilled when we finally determined that the timing was right for us to do this. Mazie and I have been wanting to do this show together for years as well, knowing Mazie’s history and her personal involvement in the issue. When he created the set, Seth wanted no platform on the set to be the same size. He wanted to specifically make it non-uniform. We also had a new lighting designer, Michael Rathbun, that came in who was very passionate about the show, and we kind of let him go with his design until we could see it. He wanted to do super-saturation with colors and make it non-traditional musical theater. Michael had very little experience in musical theater; his experience is geared more toward rock concerts and straight plays. So when he brought in all these saturations of colors, I made some adjustments because the first time we did it, you couldn’t see the actors’ faces hardly at all, so all their work was being lost up there. But then I specifically chose not to wash out a lot of his color work or make him change the idea of two different colors hitting from different sides to create that duality and that confrontation. Our sound designer, Kevin Kahm, really embraced the idea of choosing a non-traditional approach and just pushing the edge of some of Gabe’s vocal work and some other effects.
VCOS: The look of the show is very unsettling. You’re supposed to get hit from all sides with this show, between the music, the set, the lighting, the sound, the blocking, everything is off-kilter.
FRED: And that was one of Seth’s comments from the beginning. He said, “I just want people to NOT feel comfortable the entire time, even if they’re just looking at the stage.”
VCOS: Mazie, did you ever get to the point where you had to use ECT (electro-convulsive therapy)?
VCOS: Is it still used?
VCOS: Is it effective?
MAZIE: I think for some people it is. We did some research on it and it’s definitely still used. There’s a really powerful video by a young woman who has a vlog – a video log – on YouTube about what it’s like being on ECT. She has a little notepad with two pages completely written out and she says, “This is my life. This is all I remember. If it’s not on these pages, I don’t remember it.” So she’s basically saying, I can’t tell you what to do or what not to do, but it’s my biggest regret. I wish I had never done it and stopped my treatments. So watching that was powerful. But for some people, I think ECT can be effective, otherwise I don’t know why they would still be doing it. I’ve read a lot of comments about the treatment and there a lot of people who say that ECT saved their lives.
VCOS: How much of Diana is in you?
MAZIE: I always joke that the line between Mazie and Diana is very thin (laughs). There’s a lot of Diana in me. I am blessed, however, with an incredible family and I think Diana is very isolated. I don’t think she has friends or relationships with her family. Her parents are talked about at the very end. So I think that’s the biggest difference between Diana and me – my relationships with my husband, my son, my parents, my siblings, and my friends. But as for the personalities? The edginess, the sass that Diana has is definitely in me. I understand her highs and her lows. All of that is in me.
VCOS: Do you like playing characters that have a little bit of you in them or do you like just putting on a mask?
MAZIE: I love when I have something in common with my character. And I can usually find something, but I’m drawn to characters where I can say, “Oh, that’s me. What part of my story can I bring to her to make her more unique?”
VCOS: You told me on opening night that you were excited to play this role. Did you have any trepidations about it?
MAZIE: Oh, I was trepidatious. For sure! I was scared. It’s a scary thing to dive into all this. It’s scary to talk about and I was afraid of what it might do to me. I’ve been stable for many years and I’m super grateful. I’m on really great medication, I have a great therapist, and I’ve been doing really well. But it was scary because I was asking myself, “Is this going to trigger something? Is this show going to send me into a downward spiral?” But I felt really safe doing it with Fred. Fred is one of my dearest friends and such a trusted colleague that I knew I would be safe. I knew I wouldn’t be judged for anything, I knew that if it triggered something that Fred would catch me. And my husband has been so supportive. He said to me, “It’s time to tell your story. Let’s do it.” I was also super blessed with what a great cast we have. They are so talented but also so kind and warm and loving, and they’ve known my story since Day One of rehearsal. And anytime that I’ve even come close to feeling like I might be having an anxiety attack or a panic attack or whatever, they’d be there for me. There were days where my son would just lie on the ground with me and just kind of pat my head, and that was enough for me to go, “Okay, I’m fine.” I’m loved and I feel really blessed for that. It’s been scary, but it’s been wonderful.
VCOS: What do you tell a person who loves musical theater and likes to go to a show to be entertained. How do you get them in to see this show?
MAZIE: Ooh. Well, if you want to be entertained, the music is FANTASTIC and it sounds great. So there’s that. But if you love musical theater, this is a great story. It’s incredibly cathartic. I think it’s relatable on many levels, whether somebody’s had an experience with mental illness or not.
VCOS: This could be anybody’s family.
FRED: Dysfunction exists in every family.
VCOS: And this isn’t Aladdin or Shrek or Camelot where you’re escaping from everyday life. This IS everyday life.
MAZIE: Very real. Raw. Honest.
FRED: And it’s also not a gimmick show where you’re going to see a giant chandelier fall down. It’s all about the story and watching life up on stage. And I think the fact that it won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, to see that turned into a musical is incredible.
VCOS: I would only add to bring Kleenex.
MAZIE: Yes. Lots of tears!
Next to Normal plays at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center through May 27. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.