McCall talks about becoming part of Zach team
Since 1989, Meredith McCall has been gracing Austin's stages. She has hammed it up in comedies, tackled the challenges of serious dramas and belted out lyrical melodies in numerous musicals.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, McCall sipped a decaf skim latte sweetened with Splenda at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf during a brief break between her day job at the Texas Department of Public Safety and an evening rehearsal for "Next to Normal," the new musical she's starring in at Zach Theatre.
In "Next to Normal," which opens Saturday, McCall plays Diana Goodman, a suburban housewife struggling with bipolar disorder. McCall was attracted to the role because "there's so much to sink your teeth into," she said.
With its emotional range and powerhouse rock score, "Next to Normal" garnered major honors after its Broadway debut in 2009.
The show won several Tony awards that year, including Best Original Score, and it received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama, a highly unusual honor for a musical.
As part of her research for the part, McCall and the cast met with a grief counselor to talk about the trauma that might have triggered Diana's disorder, and McCall sought the advice of a friend who is a mental health counselor on a college campus.
McCall described her character as "very changeable and unpredictable. She ranges from very energetic and happy to volatile and angry to the depths of despair."
She explained that because the term "bipolar disorder" covers a huge range of possible symptoms, "I think there are a million ways to interpret this role, which can make it very personal."
McCall is positive that audiences will be able to relate to the show. "I think it's a very realistic portrayal of a family in crisis, trying to cope with everyday living when one family member is constantly on the brink," she said.
"Next to Normal," with its wild swings between humor and heartbreak, is "almost balancing the same emotional roller coaster that Diana is," McCall said.
The show's bold, complicated music (by Tom Kitt, with lyrics by Brian Yorkey) has been a challenge. "It's complex music, not the easiest music I've ever gotten to learn," McCall said. "There are a lot of meter changes and unexpected rhythms."
It was not always obvious that McCall would devote herself to performance. The actress, who was born in Houston and lived in Waller as a teenager, started acting after deciding on a whim to audition for her high school's one-act play.
After attending Abilene Christian University and moving to Chicago to earn master's degree at Northwestern University, McCall moved back to Texas and soon found herself flourishing in the Austin theater world.
The vitality of Austin's theater community appeals to McCall, and she likes the fact that it includes Equity houses such as Zach as well as numerous small companies.
"You can be in a fully realized production or a shoestring production, and they are equally exciting and equally challenging," McCall said. "That's a big turn-on for both actors and designers in town."
But her creative home in Austin has always been at Zach Theatre, and in "Next to Normal," McCall will be working with some familiar faces. Dave Steakley directs the show, and Jamie Goodwin, who plays her husband, has performed with McCall in several Zach shows, most recently "The Drowsy Chaperone."
McCall's real-life husband plays guitar in the show's band. The couple tied the knot at the county clerk's office this October, and "Next to Normal" will be their first time working together as a married couple.
After 21 years of performing in Austin, McCall still marvels at how lucky she is to have a creative community at Zach Theatre. Of the "Next to Normal" cast, McCall said, "Working with them is like being in the honor society, or being in class with all the overachievers."
"It couldn't be any better."
"Next to Normal"