PLEASANT GROVE — My opening question to Zack Elzey, producer of the Utah Valley Theatre Festival that is now entering its sixth year, was an echo from a show that the 22-year-old producer likely grew up with: “Aren’t you a little young to be producing a theatre festival?” Like Phineas (from Phineas and Ferb), Elzey laughed and responded “Yes. Yes I am.” Having shifted from a director role into a production one at the age of just 22, Elzey has produced a theatre festival that is worth watching out for in the future.  The festival began as a project which sought to provide opportunities in the summer for kids to engage with the arts rather than be alone and has blossomed into a theatre festival producing impactful and rarely seen in Utah shows. In June, the Utah Valley Theatre festival mounted several productions in honor of LGBTQ+ Pride month, and in August several plays centered around  mental health were produced. These include the Grassroots Shakespeare company’s Hamlet, Klouns Theatre Company’s devised An Act of Seven Ages, as well as Broadway musical hits You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Next to Normal. 

Cinephiles, perhaps more than theatre buffs, are drawn to shows because of the director. Theatre goers are more often drawn, in my experience, by show title, venue or particular actors. Last week, I was drawn to see the Utah Valley Players production of Next to Normal, however, for all of those reasons. Next to Normal is a personal favorite show, was done on a stage I have great respect for by known local actors, and was directed by someone who has been influential in my own directing: Shawnda Moss. She did, after all, teach one of my core undergraduate directing courses and has been a valuable resource to me in my projects since that time. I had the chance to interview Moss about her connection to Next to Normal and what the process of directing such an emotionally heavy show was like. 

Moss holds an MFA in Directing from Idaho State University as well as BA and MA degrees from BYU. She has taught theatre at the secondary and university level, worked for the state office of education and is currently the director of the alternate licensing program as well as the evaluation and licensing specialist in Canyons School District. She also has professional acting and directing credits that include BYU’s production of Charlotte’s Web and Hale Center Theater Orem’s A Christmas Carol for the last three years.

UTBA: Shawnda, how did you get connected with this project? 

Moss: Zack Elzey approached me to direct and I accepted! 

UTBA: Without giving away any spoilers, Next to Normal deals with some pretty heavy subject matter. How do you work with a cast to help them be vulnerable enough to convey these things to an audience, but still stay in a good place mentally?

Moss: This is especially important to me since some of the cast members have had some pretty severe trauma in their own personal lives. I was very conscious of every step of the rehearsal process to keep it professional to the theatre and not to allow it to become therapy.  We talked through points of the play objectively as much as possible before getting the scenes up and running so that I could always go back to that objective outside perspective if I felt it was needed.  I took care to never push the actors into their raw emotions and feelings and deliberately would work/run the heaviest moments only once or twice in a rehearsal.  Our rehearsals were often a little clunky because I specifically organized them to go back and forth between the heavy moments and lighter or more neutral moments so that we weren’t dwelling in the deepness for too long.

UTBA: Is that a change from the way your process directing other shows? 

Moss: It’s different in that I’ve not directed this heavy of a show with experienced mature actors before, but it’s not different in that my rehearsal process and care and concern are the same.

UTBA: Can you talk about a moment in the show you are particularly proud of how you’ve staged it?

Moss: I love the still moments when it’s just the character on stage grappling with whatever it is they are dealing with at the moment.  When everything else is stripped away and it’s just them working through things. 

UTBA: What do you feel are the main takeaways from this play about mental health, grief, emotional wellness, etc.?

Moss: That’s a loaded question. There is so much there.  It’s so important to get the proper professional support for your particular needs. Hence, I love the moment when Dan agrees to take the name of someone who he can speak to. It’s vital to be allowed to progress through grief and mental health at your own pace and to find the support of others in helping you do so.  I love that all of these characters fiercely love each other and want to support each other in the ways that they can, even as they are struggling in their own ways.

UTBA: Do you feel like your previous experiences directing help you tackle a project like this?

Moss: For sure. Without previous experience I would have been walking into a project that could have potentially been damaging to actors. Inexperience may have made me think I had to push things through in rehearsals and such instead of handling them with the proper care and delicate balance of helping actors bring themselves to the roles without traumatizing them.  Trust all the way around has been gigantic in this process. 

UTBA: Next to Normal isn’t frequently produced in Utah. Do you think it should be done more?

Moss: I don’t know that the show should be done more — just done enough.  I dislike didactic theatre so much. I would hate for it to become heavy-handed by being produced too much.  And if it can’t be produced with mature actors, it shouldn’t be done at all. 

UTBA: What makes you excited about a particular directing project? 

Moss: I need to connect with the script somehow: the characters, the story, the theme, etc. If I’m going to invest that much time, energy, and effort into a project that also takes me away from my family, I need to really be excited about it.

UTBA: Can you talk about the red blanket left on the back of the chair? 

Moss: Yes, the color is deliberate not only as a pop of color on the neutral stage, but as a stand-in for the blood from the suicide after that happens.  In the show, red represents the lifeblood and energy as the characters work through the trauma of the play.

UTBA: How important was it to you to make staging choices that showed parallels between the Henry/Natalie relationship and the Dan/Diana relationship?

Moss: I did those deliberately, but didn’t want to hit the audience over the head with them.  So I was selective about when those were highlighted.  I especially wanted to allow audiences to see Natalie’s fear that she could turn into her mother and she didn’t want to force Henry to become what her father had to be.

UTBA: How did you decide what moments to have the son on stage and where to place him? Is that in the text or is it up to you?

Moss: It’s a little of both the script and me.  He is often on the lift because that has more of an omnipresent feel (seeing the whole picture), but we played with the concept that he can be anywhere with any of the characters.   His influence may not be recognized by some of the characters, but it’s always there nonetheless.  I wanted him on stage to see/hear key moments of realization and decision-making in dealing with the trauma and effects.

One of the other elements that struck me was the costuming at key moments of the show. Shawnda and Zack deferred to costume designer Lisa Elzey about this, and her responses are below.

UTBA:  The costumes for Next to Normal were so modern, but at times felt like they told a deeper story. Can you talk about your process getting into the costumes for this show?

Elzey: Costuming Next to Normal has been an amazing project to be a part of. I began by meeting with the director of the show, Shawnda Moss, to get her overall concept for the piece as well as her perspective on each character. Then, taking her direction, I began my research into the show, including viewing videos of various iterations of the musical from Broadway to regional theaters to touring companies. I also read multiple articles, MFA theses, and reviews of design work already done, as well as articles regarding mental illnesses and their symptoms, treatments, statistics, etc. 

When costuming a show, it’s important to think about the overall concept of the show and how to best tell the story of each character’s journey through their clothing. Every color or pattern choice should have a purpose or an objective, just as the actor who portrays the character does. I always start with the director’s concept so that I will see the show through that lens when designing the costumes for it.

UTBA: Can you talk about how the arc of the characters through their costumes? Was there significance to how they started and how that changed?

Elzey: With Next to Normal, I gleaned some costume design ideas from my favorite bits from some of the best designers out there, as well as put my own ideas into play. Diana’s costumes throughout the show began to lose their “color.” She was in black and whites, grays, faded blues. She regained her “color” again, at the end, although altered. Gabe’s color choices often complimented Diana and reflected on her mood or needs at the time. Dan was stuck in a state of numbness, with a “beige,” warm, and comfortable palette within place of chaotic consistency. Henry reflected Dan’s color palette, although more youthful and hopeful. Natalie reflected her mother’s color palette although with more patterns and lines throughout her wardrobe giving a frantic sense of direction, however disjointed. And finally, Dr. Madden’s costumes were a combination of Diana’s projections and her own symptoms, combining colors and continuity throughout. 

I purposely kept the aesthetic clean, clear, and simple so the story and characters remained the focus and the stars. Costumes for this piece hopefully helped add layers of detail to each character’s journey and purposefully manifested the director’s concept for the piece. 

UTBA: I noticed at the end of the show that everyone had some variation of reddish tops and jeans, even Dr. Madden. Can you talk about what that meant for you as a designer?

Elzey: A lot of color choices made sense with the writing of the show, such as having Diana in her “signature red” in act one. Red signified a few things in this show, one of which was “life” or “living.” The use of red at the end of the show was inspired by the original Broadway ending, with all characters in some sort of red and Diana in a purple color. In our production, that is still the case, although Diana’s purple has more red in it to bring her a bit closer to the group and comment on the connectedness we all share with our mental health, whether in a family, a circle of friends, or a community. We all need help. We are all connected. We all have “life” to live.