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Alice Ripley Returns To San Diego In ‘Next to Normal’

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Aired 1/20/11

Actress Alice Ripley returns to San Diego to reprise her Tony Award-winning role as a mother suffering from bipolar disorder in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "Next to Normal."

Former San Diego resident Alice Ripley stars with Aaron Tveit (left) and J. Robert Spencer in Broadway's "Next to Normal."
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Above: Former San Diego resident Alice Ripley stars with Aaron Tveit (left) and J. Robert Spencer in Broadway's "Next to Normal."

Actress Alice Ripley returns to San Diego to reprise her Tony Award-winning role as a mother suffering from bipolar disorder in the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "Next to Normal."

Guest:

Alice Ripley is a Tony Award-winning actress who lived and worked in San Diego for many years. She is reprising her Broadway role in the touring production of "Next to Normal."

"Next to Normal" is currently on stage at downtown's Balboa Theater through January 23rd.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. A musical that addresses the issue of serious mental illness is daring enough, but taking on the role of the lead character in this demanding play is really living on the edge. Alice Ripley's performance in the play, Next to Normal, won her a Tony award in 2009. Now she brings her portrayal of the tormented house wife, Diana good man, to San Diego's Balboa theatre. This is something of a homecoming for Ms. Ripley who starred in a number of theatre productions before heading to Broadway back in the 90s and she returns in this production directed by another San Diego alumni, Michael Greif, formerly of the La Jolla playhouse. It's a pleasure to welcome Alice Ripley to These Days. Good morning, Alice.

RIPLEY: Good morning, Maureen, thank you so much for having me here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's a pleasure. And one of the things that I was curious about when I heard about this touring production was that I know that -- at the time this touring production started, the show was still running on Broadway. And you deciding to become a member of the touring production while the Broadway run is still on, it's kind of different? The it?

RIPLEY: Some have been calling it old school. It did start with my boss suggesting that I go on the road.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.

RIPLEY: And we decided I would take a break. And I took about two seconds to say yes. Because with Diana, I feel like I really want to finish what I started.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How so?

RIPLEY: I grew up in Ohio, I was born in a suburb of Oakland, but I grew up in Ohio. And in Dayton we didn't have a lot of Broadway theatre come through or any at all. I didn't see any Broadway till I was in my late twenties. And so I feel like part of my purpose here with this role that I'm playing is to take it out to people like, you know, the kind of person that I was back there in high school or junior high looking if are something to inspire me. To take on the life of an actor.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, did you though think about this twice or maybe a third time because this is such an incredibly demanding role? And of course, not only are you now doing that, but you're on the road. I mean, you're touring with it. So it's doubling demanding, I would imagine.

RIPLEY: Well, my doubts would come in when I was in rehearsal, actually performing the role and having a -- having to go through what I have to any through as Diana on stage, and then I would think to myself, what was I thinking?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what were you thinking? I mean, did you seriously reconsider? Or was it just --

RIPLEY: No, no, never. I mean, when I encountered Diana for the first time in the raw material that I was given years ago, I knew that she had me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Introduce us to Diana for people who haven't seen the play.

RIPLEY: Diana is a mother of two, wife and mother of two who lives in a beautiful house that she and her husband built outside of Seattle across the bay. They have two nice cars in the garage, they're both architects, they're trying to make it work. The good mans, they're trying to put the fun back in functional. And it's not working too well. And the people who come to see the show see themselves on stage.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you're -- as I said, your role is very demanding. And part of that, the fact that it's so demanding is that you portray, each time, having a mental break down. And you're on stage most of the time, and you are singing a lot of that time. How is it that you maintain the stamina for that?

RIPLEY: I have a flexible structure of activity that I now -- I have built now because I've been doing Diana for a while.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In the internal part of the play? You give yourself breaks and you know what marks to hit?

RIPLEY: Well, yeah, that's definitely true. And also in my personal life outside of Diana, I have a system that I follow in order to be able to have enough energy and, you know, brain activity -- that's where it needs to be going -- to be my when I'm not her, and to be her when I'm here, and to have the energy to do all of that, what you described.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah, what I described is a marathon, actually for each performance. Let us hear some music from next to normal. We have a CD, and this is one of the songs that you sing. This is My Psychopharmacologist and I.

(Audio Recording Played)

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's from My Psychopharmacologist and I. It's one of the songs in next to normal, performed by my guest, Alice Ripley. What kind of research did you do for this role?

RIPLEY: The only way to start, really, is to dive off -- dive off the board. And it's a little messy, but then you kind of put the order in there. And what I mean by that is you go out -- as an actor, I take what's available, source wise, that's a fact and absorb as much as I can, especially about things that I don't know anything about at all, like pharmaceuticals, bipolar disorder. I do some fact checking. Then after a while, since I'm an actor, I'm allowed to just make stuff up. So I do.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sure.

RIPLEY: And that kind of feeds your imagination, you start making up this world. And you know, I did have to -- it took a while to saturate myself.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: With this entire world of what your illness is supposed to be, what medications what you're supposed to be on, what those side effects are supposed to be?

RIPLEY: Yeah, and the grieve that the good mans are not expressing and what happens when they do express it. And then all the details of what just makes up their household. Because our set is a black shiny jungle gym. I mean, it looks like a house, but it's not. When I'm on stage as Diana, my imagination has to fill in all those details in order to tell the story.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You make an important point here, that the focus is on Diana, and the struggles that she's going through with her illness. But the whole family, the whole dynamic of the good man family comes in, and they're touch bide your illness, and they're also affected -- they also affect your illness of it's sort of a give and a take all through the show.

RIPLEY: That's true. And last night, we had a talk back with the audience, and one of the people there said that the thing that really resonated with them about next to normal in watching it was that that person was telling me she is bipolar, she suffers from bipolar, and seeing Diana going through that on stage and seeing how that affects the family is what this woman was saying was really resonating with her. She could see how what she was going through was affecting everybody around her in a way that she hadn't been able to see it benefit. And that's why theatre exists, I think.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Wow. This must be a very important play for a lot of people. And you must hear a lot of feedback about how important it is to see part of their own struggles on stage handled this way.

RIPLEY: I do hear it every day because I have several sites that I host in order to keep in touch with the audience that I started them for this reason. Having said that, at the end of the day, I'm an actor.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes.

RIPLEY: And it's my job. And I try to do it the best I can. And the benefit of this job in particular is huge, and that is the audience. The audience for the show, I really have a connection with them in a way that I haven't with an audience before.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, technically, as you perform this musical, you have said that you almost don't realize anymore that it is a musical, that there are songs. And I wonder what you mean by that.

RIPLEY: I get lost in what the lyrics sound like coming out of me, and I get lost in the melody and how those two intertwine. And that is what the -- that's the character, because the character, which could just be seen as all the characters, that is a result of a magic trick. And so I get caught up in the magic trick that Tom kit and Brian Yorke created. And I begin to think I'm actually living out these scenes, and at that point, I do kind of forget that I'm singing. Because in the second act, especially, it's almost completely sung through. And the music, when there is no lyrics, when there are no lyrics, the music tells a story anyway, to me, anyway. And everything I do comes from that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see.

RIPLEY: So I get lost in that world.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, let's hear another little cut from one of the songs in next to normal. This is I Miss the Mountains, and it's performed by Alice Ripley.

(Audio Recording Played)

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's Alice Ripley, my guest, performing a tune from next to normal called I miss the mountains of it is a musical, it's currently playing here in San Diego at the Balboa theatre. And I mentioned that you got -- I don't know if it's fair to say you got your start in San Diego, but you certainly performed here when you were starting out. And this particular production is directed by Michael Greif who is really well known, well remembered, well loved in San Diego from his days at the La Jolla playhouse. I wonder if the two of you ever discuss San Diego at all.

RIPLEY: We definitely have that -- that common thread, that bond. Of and Michael is actually -- he knows my brother, Scott, who's an actor, and Scott and I were in Tommy together when it was at the playhouse before it went to New York on Broadway.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.

RIPLEY: I think that's fair to say that I cut my teeth here in professional theatre, I got my equity card here. And I was impressed, I came out of college, and I was impressed by this town's thriving theatrical community. I was relatively young starting out, but I had been doing theatre for a while because I started when I was a teenager. And I'm really grateful to San Diego. It really is America's finest city. I am so happy to be here and glad that I get to encounter the audience.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, in speaking with us, I can tell that you are -- you take this role, you take Next to Normal, the whole weight of the musical -- I don't want to say terribly seriously, but it is -- it is an obligation that you feel to do this well and to present it in a wonderful way. I'm wondering though, how much fun was it to win the Tony? I mean that has got to have been just fabulous.

RIPLEY: Well, and the show has a lot of funny moments in it, and whacked moments that are enjoyable. It's got dark comedy. So I want to make sure that people understand that too before they've seen it, that it's not just about grief, it's about -- you know, it's a feel everything musical. That's what it was called in New York.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.

RIPLEY: And I think that's --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Instead of I feel good musical, a feel everything musical.

RIPLEY: Exactly, yeah, and well, concerning the Tony, it's funny because I've been so toward this life that of course you're hoping something like this will eventually happen. You know. You know what I mean. And so when I actually won the Tony, part of me was thinking well, yeah! It's about time, is what I was thinking to myself. Because I had seen how much work I had done.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

RIPLEY: To myself I was thinking, wow, well, good job, you know? My own boss inside was going good job. But then the larger part of me was completely blown away, that dreams come true. Dreams come true.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sometimes it's true.

RIPLEY: And it was really emotional for me. Right now I was trying to be -- I was trying to redirect that because I didn't want to brick down and cry on the podium, because I cry in the show. Everybody's seen me y already.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have to wrap it up issue but I want to say thank you so much for being here. And I want to let everyone know that Next to Normal currently on stage at downtown's Balboa theatre. And it runs through January 3rd. Thank you again.

RIPLEY: Thank you Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Stay with us for hour two coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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