Some Not So “Normal” Theatre

This weekend, The MeX Theater in The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts will rock. That’s where Acting Against Cancer, a local nonprofit theatre company that donates all profits to the treatment of pediatric cancer, is currently producing the Tony Award – and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Next to Normal.”

The show is entering its second weekend of a two week run, after having sold out every show last weekend. Electric and cathartic, “Next to Normal” opens with a seemingly typical American family getting ready for their busy day. As the show unfolds, all is not as normal as it seems, for the mother in the family has been battling severe bipolar disorder for 16 years, complete with vivid hallucinations. The show has an unparalleled rock score that mirrors Diana’s bipolar mind in its alternating highs and lows. Possibly the most engaging show produced by the company to date, “Next to Normal” is impacting audiences more than they could ever expect.

IMG_9026At this point in describing the show, I should reveal my connection to the company and show. My name is Remy Sisk, and I am the Artistic Director for Acting Against Cancer. Conceived in 1999 by a nine year-old girl and her sister in an effort to help their mother who was suffering from lymphoma, the company strives to encourage the arts as an approach to pediatric cancer treatment by producing dynamic theatre in Louisville.

Over the course of its 15-year history, Acting Against Cancer has raised over $350,000 that has been disseminated over a host of worthy pediatric cancer-fighting recipients. Over the last year, I have worked closely with Charlie Meredith and original founder Whitten Montgomery to redirect the company’s mission toward supporting art therapy. Currently, we are in the midst of fulfilling a $100,000 pledge to the art therapy program of the Addison Jo Blair Cancer Care Center at Kosair Children’s Hospital.

Remy Sisk and Sydney Magers.

Remy Sisk and Sydney Magers.

We could not be happier to be getting more specific with who we help. While it’s always been rewarding to donate, we believe that supporting art therapy for cancer patients truly unites what we do with who we help; it’s almost as if art therapy is a bridge that connects our activity (i.e. theatre) with our beneficiaries (i.e. pediatric cancer patients). Furthermore, while the quality of life impact of art therapy is undeniable, there also are studies that demonstrate a direct correlation with art therapy and marked physical improvements in cancer patients. Thus, we are absolutely delighted that all profits from “Next to Normal” and all shows in seasons to come, will go toward supporting art therapy for cancer patients at Kosair Children’s Hospital.

Though for the company I am Artistic Director, in “Next to Normal” I am Gabe, the troubled son of Diana, the protagonist. Suffice it to say my role has been especially difficult in its charming yet haunting demands. And that’s just the acting; vocally, this is by far the most difficult role I have ever had the privilege to tackle. However, such a challenge is always easier when there’s a steadfast support network at rehearsal. For me, that’s been Kelsey Cox, a young actress who plays Natalie, Gabe’s sister. “This role has been more difficult than I ever imagined,” Cox told me recently. “But working with the nerves that are at the heart of Natalie’s character has helped me channel my occasional performance anxiety into something that can actually make me a stronger actress and singer.” I know what she means; with all the feelings these characters have, it would be nearly impossible to not infuse our performances with some real life emotions.

But “Next to Normal” as its own text, while emotional indeed, is doing something few shows ever have before. Although the show deals with bipolar disorder as opposed to cancer, I feel very strongly that the foundation of the show is widely applicable and accordingly aligns perfectly with who we are. In “Next to Normal” the definition of normal is questioned, and the text almost suggests that “normalcy” is a complete construct and a hapless pursuit. In its effort to erase stigmatization of those who are not “normal,” the show is a critical piece for us as a cancer-fighting company. Those with cancer diagnoses can often be seen as not normal, and with the essence of this show comes the encouragement that normal isn’t an actual reality; instead of trying to be normal, we should just try to be.

At our show, there is also a photography exhibit on display called “Redefining Normal” that illustrates one child’s cancer treatment journey. It fits right in with this erasure of normalcy that “Next to Normal” suggests, and really links the show to our cause. So while you’re watching a rock musical that questions normalcy, you can also rest easy knowing your ticket price is going to help those who deserve to feel just as normal – or not normal – as anyone. VT

“Next to Normal” runs through Feb. 9 in The MeX Theater of The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are available at actingagainstcancer.com.

By REMY SISK, Contributing Writer