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Toby's Take: Next to Normal

Group photo of "Next to Normal" ensemble

November 29, 2022

Theater is great training for just about anything. Learning a part, learning the lines, walking out the blocking. Projecting so everyone can hear. You could do a lot worse if you planned to teach school, operate heavy machinery or care for a patient.

Tiffany Schweigert, RN, might have thought her theater days were over. It certainly felt that way 10 years ago when she directed a local production of a Tony-award-winning musical called “Next to Normal.” The subject matter itself is intriguing. The script centers around a suburban mother dealing with her worsening bipolar disorder and the effects it has on her family. It also examines the tough topics of suicide, drug abuse and depression.

Changing direction... but not completely

Schweigert grew up around the stage and thought this might be a lifelong career... but something told her she needed to do something else. As her family dynamic was taking twists and turns, something told her to pursue healthcare.

A decade later, she’s a behavioral health and psychiatric nurse at The University of Kansas Health System. Lo and behold, she found out the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center was putting on “Next to Normal.” She got the blessing from leadership and her colleagues in behavioral health and dove back in. A talented cast, under Schweigert’s direction, put on the musical in October in the center’s Black Box Theatre.

“It went great,” Schweigert said.

“The play was so powerful. I think I cried during most of it because I'm like, wow, this is, this is real. This is true.” - Heidi Boehm, MSN, RN, NPD-BC, CPPS

Program Manager, Behavioral Health

Rave reviews

Black Box is a small venue, and Schweigert readily admits she wishes more people had seen the show. Now a healthcare professional, she considered her venture back into showbiz a success because the star was mental health and a panel discussion capped off each performance.

“They all spoke eloquently about the production and how honest the portrayal of mental illnesses was done. The cast and audience members asked excellent questions. Overall, I think it was a great opportunity for the community.”

Many more colleagues attended to show their support. Schweigert warned them the story was pretty heavy and they might want to put a few tissues in their pocket.

“It was so powerful,” said Heidi Boehm, MSN, RN, NPD-BC, a program manager in behavioral health. “I think I cried during most of it because I'm like, wow, this is, this is real. This is true. I brought one of my friends along with me, who has bipolar disorder, and that happened to be the illness that the mom in the play was experiencing. And I was a little anxious about that. What would her response be to it? And she thought it was fabulous.”

After the curtain call, the nightly panel included a physician, a psychologist, a nurse and a therapist – all from the health system.

The power of accurate portrayals

Having done a few shows in my time, I know how fun it is to be a part of a cast. It’s comradery and then some. If the show is particularly meaningful, that only cements the bond. I was struck by something Boehm said when she recalled her friend’s reaction.

“I think she was so impressed with just the portrayal of it,” said Boehm, who recalled the actors being humbled, gratified and probably a little relieved they portrayed characters dealing with mental health issues so accurately.

I didn’t even bother to ask Schweigert if she plans to direct another show. I imagine she will, and I’m guessing the cast and crew, let alone her colleagues, would encourage her to do so. She did describe the experience as a marriage of her 2 loves, theater and mental health. She can now say without hesitation that one informs the other. And that she’s helped shine a light on an important issue.

A big, fat spotlight.


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