For this segment of Unscripted Moments, we sat down with playwright Ray Nelson and director Alexander St. John to talk about the world premiere of the new play of Norma and the Maniac. The show is being produced by The Orchard, in association with Red Twist Theater’s guest company series.
A little about the show: it is about two featured characters Norma and Maniac. Caring for her terminally ill mother has left Norma, played by Amy Gorelow, burnt out and depressed. The Maniac, played by Noor Hamdi, is the lead singer of a Chicago death metal band with plans to kill himself on stage. Things get worse for Norma after the two meet and he decides to follow her. After The Maniac’s persistence to leave the city, and seeing no end to the care of her mother, Norma decides to go with The Maniac on a road-trip to see the ocean. Norma and The Maniac explores our struggle to break out of the situations in life that keep us from ever finding happiness. (Press release synopsis)
Leigh Yenrick: Tell me a little about the process this show has gone through, the inspiration to write the script, and so forth?
Ray Nelson: I grew up in Michigan and spent most of my late teens and early twenties playing in a metal band. As I spent more time in this metal scene, I realized we all had almost two different personae. One was our lives and day jobs in the real world. The other was our lives as metalhead[s]. It almost felt as if we could put on the band shirt or the denim vest and be a different person for a few hours. It felt like a small part of the world no one’s explored yet on stage.
Norma and The Maniac was first performed as part of the Waukegan Theatre Festival in late September 2014 with Three Brothers Theatre. Most of the rehearsal process for this was spent tearing the script apart and rewriting the moments that didn’t work. Eventually, I got the script into a shape that was ready for an audience, and we had the actors learn their lines and get up on their feet. Then, after each show, we held a talk-back where the audience had a chance to offer their thoughts about what worked well and what didn’t with the show. Each night, I found their feedback insightful, and it helped push me forward into writing the next draft.
Around this same time, the production was chosen by Redtwist Theatre to participate in their new Guest Company program. We were given the chance to run in rep with their main stage show in February 2015. For this process, like the workshop, we spent the first few rehearsals working through the script. And of course, this included a ton of rewriting the play. Eventually, the script was in a place where Alex and the actors really dug in and found the work you’ll see in the performance.
Alexander St.John: I met Ray in summer 2014 when he was seeking a director for a workshop of this play. It was all quite fast, I only read the play once before I met Ray, but knew this was a story I wanted to help tell. I agreed to direct the workshop at Three Brothers Theatre in Waukegan and we quickly cast the show and began rehearsals. The workshop helped us really question the logistics of this play from the journey to the actual characters and their intricacies. The actors and I helped Ray pinpoint the essence of the story and what these two people wanted and needed from each other. After the workshop, Ray rewrote the play and we discussed our next step: a world premiere production.
Soon after we applied for Redtwist’s new guest company program. Michael at Redtwist agreed Norma was a great project for their space and invited us to perform this winter in rep with their main stage show. Ray and I knew this was the perfect opportunity for the show and thus The Orchard, a new theatre company focused on play development, was birthed. Since then, we re-cast one role and re-assembled the rest of the team to further fine-tune and rehearse for the world premiere. Originally over a hundred pages and close to an hour and forty minutes long, the play is now less than eighty pages and runs approximately seventy-five-to-eighty minutes. It’s been an incredible journey and I must admit I now fucking love Frosted Flakes.
LY: The use of music seems to be a theme used throughout the show with the character of Manic being a Heavy Metal Performer and Norma picking up a banjo from time to time. Why did you decide to use this medium in the show? And Alex – was this a challenge for you?
RN: It seems as if music always creeps into my plays in one way or another. Of course, Norma and The Maniac is no different. I grew up listening to much of the music that is played or referenced in the show, so I’m sure that had something to do with it, too.
ASJ: Honestly, this was one of the first things that attracted me to the play. I grew up listening to all kinds of music, especially classic and hard rock paired with a lot of metal. My first concert was Black Sabbath – I’ve been so close to the stage that Ozzy has spit on me. I saw Pantera before Dimebag Darrell passed away, and still to this day some of my good friends are in metal bands touring the world. I’ll never be able to abandon these roots. As a sound designer, I was able to feature a lot of great songs from the metal repertoire that would rarely be placed in a play. It’s odd. The metal world has such a clear performativity [that] is heavily influenced by theatrical styles and elements, yet rarely do the two worlds collide.
I found that music helped bring these character to life as well. The Maniac struggles with a lot of pent up aggression that naturally draws guys his age to this music, just like it did to me. As for Norma, I found the banjo helped shed a little light on her life before her mother became ill. A life that she wishes she could go back to living.
LY: Ray you spoke about how the script being played out in a continuous motion, not really stopping. Can you tell me a little about that? And Alex, [what] was your vision for how the production would play out?
RN: With each play, I try to challenge myself to try something different than my other work. For Norma and The Maniac, I thought it would be fun to play with a storytelling structure that isn’t seen on stage very often.
The road-trip story is seen in movies all the time, and I couldn’t help but wonder how that would look on stage. I found the continuous motion typically seen in the road-trip story fit really well with these two characters searching for a way to escape their current situation in life.
ASJ: Yes, early on I explained to Ray that I didn’t want the transitions to break the momentum of this piece and wanted the actors to live through them. Ray agreed and was really happy I saw this as a necessity for the piece. The transitions aren’t just time to arrange furniture, they are a time for us to better observe and understand these two people and the development of their relationship.
LY: The relationship between the two characters is very odd, in the sense that they continue to have a relationship. What challenges did you find with this?
RN: The fact that these two people spend any amount of time together at all, let alone a few days on the road, is very odd. The biggest challenge as the playwright was to discover what keeps Norma from running away from The Maniac. She could easily just ditch him and move on with her life.
This was especially difficult with the first three scenes. The Maniac follows Norma around like a drunken idiot just to prove how serious he is about killing himself on stage. Of course, anyone in this situation would ditch this person. But then we see The Maniac persona start to crack, and the character shows his true vulnerability. That is when we see Norma’s caregiver tendencies won’t allow her to leave him alone.
LY: Because our segment is called Unscripted Moments, I’d like to ask what is your favorite moment in the piece? And Why?
RN: My favorite part of the script comes in scene four when they stop at a truck stop outside of Charleston, West Virginia. Norma works herself up over being away from her mother, and she decides to turn back for Chicago.
The Maniac tries to ease her worries by using The Super Space Brain Wave Helmet to blast her anxiety off into space never to be seen again – a technique The Maniac’s dad used on him when he was kid to calm him down.
I love this moment in the play because I think it’s the first moment of the show where the two characters finally let their guard down around each other. We see The Maniac start to shed his tough persona, and Norma relax for the first time in the play. Not to mention, the sound effects Noor (who plays The Maniac) makes for this moment makes me laugh every time.
ASJ: To go with the segment title of Unscripted Moments, I really love the transitions. These are some of our finest moments of collaboration as a creative team, as well as a testament to how well each of us understood and interpreted this play.
This production of Norman and the Maniac opens this weekend; the ticket information is below. I wanted to give a special thank you to Ray and Alex for taking the time to answer the questions . Please go out and support local Chicago theatre and find your favorite Unscripted Moment.
The show will run from February 21st until March 30th on Saturdays at 3PM and Sundays/Mondays at 8PM at the Redtwist Theater located at 1044 W Bryn Mawr Ave, Chicago, Illinois 60660.
Tickets are available here: https://www.artful.ly/store/events/4773