A conversation about “The Normal Heart”

During rehearsals, Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) talked with director Nick Bowling (NB) and actor David Cromer (DC) about The Normal Heart. An edited version of their conversation appears in The Normal Heart Backstory.

"The Normal Heart" actor David Cromer (from left), director Nick Bowling and TimeLine Artistic Director PJ Powers.
“The Normal Heart” actor David Cromer (from left), director Nick Bowling and TimeLine Artistic Director PJ Powers.

PJ Powers (PJP): Here I am sitting with Nick Bowling, TimeLine’s Associate Artistic Director and the director of our production of The Normal Heart, as well as actor David Cromer, who is playing Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart. Thanks guys for joining me. I know you have to dash off to rehearsal soon, so let’s just jump in. Do you remember how you first met?

David Cromer (DC): No.

Nick Bowling (NB): I do. We first met on And Neither Have I Wings to Fly.

DC: Yes, yes.

NB: I worked as your casting director on that.

PJP: And when was that?

DC: 2000.

NB: Right, 2000. And we had a great time in that audition room.

DC: It was a great cast.

NB: It was a great cast, and then it was a really lovely production that you directed.

PJP: So you worked with him as casting director. Wow, and now 13 years later here we are. So David do you remember what your first experience with The Normal Heart was?

DC: I saw the Next Theatre production when it had moved from the theatre in Evanston to the Ivanhoe.

PJP: Now the Binny’s wine superstore just down the block from TimeLine.

DC:  It was relatively soon after the New York production, and it’s one of the few occasions I legitimately without any doubt leaped to my feet at the end of it. Just the raw power of it was really shattering. And so, that was my first time.

PJP: Nick, was your first experience when we read it as a company about three years ago?

NB: Yes, and then first time seeing it was this Broadway revival that happened two years ago. I definitely knew of the play but I don’t think I’d ever read it before and I was taken by that production in New York. I was mostly taken by the contextualization of the play from today’s perspective, and in particular the idea of looking back at AIDS from the perspective that we have today. That AIDS had such an impact on the gay community, in of course terrible awful ways, but also the positive impact it had on bringing a community together and giving a community a point. And also realizing how strong Larry Kramer was, what an important voice he was in helping us shape that focus toward advancement as a community.

PJP: For both of you in revisiting this play, seeing it in New York and re-reading it and so on, did you go into those experiences thinking “Oh, I wonder if this thing is dated?”

DC:  I don’t think I did. I’m never a big fan of the word dated. I get weird about it because it’s not dated to the people who are going through it. What we’re watching is those people not have any idea what’s going on. It’s an entire city in an emergency and people don’t behave well in an emergency.

NB: That’s true.

What was striking to me was I had forgotten how little we knew. I’d forgotten what it was like to have no information and how terrifying that is and how in an emergency when something has happened, when an accident has happened it’s just chaos afterwards.

DC: There are like five lines in the play that are “This is … nothing good can be said for anybody involved.”

What was striking to me was I had forgotten how little we knew. I’d forgotten what it was like to have no information and how terrifying that is and how in an emergency when something has happened, when an accident has happened it’s just chaos afterwards. And watching people live through that is really immediate to me.

PJP: Nick, what was it that made you think “Oh, this is a TimeLine show?” You are more responsible than anyone for what TimeLine’s mission is, since you proposed it in 1997. So what made you think, “This is something we have to do here?”

Director Nick Bowling listens to the cast read-through of the script at first rehearsal of "The Normal Heart."
Director Nick Bowling listens to a cast read-through of the script at first rehearsal of “The Normal Heart.”

NB: It’s ultimately about how people deal with a plague—an awful thing that’s happening to a group of people. And this notion of a plague hits gay people in the 1980s with AIDS, but there’s no saying when that will happen to us again. Which is a terrifying thing to say, of course.

I’m struck by this macro idea of how people deal with a plague, but then on a more micro level I’m interested in how this community, how this gay community that I’m a part of, how we dealt with each other and how we dealt with this kind of perfect storm. We’d just been liberated in many ways—were beginning to be liberated—in the post-Stonewall era of gay liberation and gay sexual liberation. And then we were thrown back into fear and in some ways back into the closet.

How did that shape us as a community? In particular I’m interested in how it shapes where we are today with finding a point in the gay community again. Something different than sex and looks and money and these surface priorities that easily can take over our community in particular. I think the focus right now for our community is gay marriage and that’s why I think many people have connected this play to gay marriage, and some of the themes of this play to the fight over gay marriage.

So that’s a great reason why it needs to be seen today. You end up seeing this group of people fight their way through something awful. I guess the idea is that that can happen— it can be done and it may have to happen again someday.

DC: There’s a great Vonnegut quote, saying “make terrible things happen to your characters no matter how sweet and good-natured they are, that way you can see what they are made of,” or something like that. With these characters, this emergency took place so you could find out what these people are made of. We are seeing how people function in an emergency with their demons, their own internal demons, and then the demons in their own community.

NB: That’s right.

DC: I was just thinking when you were talking about something I hadn’t quite connected to, which is that the big conflicts in the play are not with forces outside the gay community. Hiram and Ben are a little bit, but ultimately the big monolithic conflicts of the play are within this group of guys who presumably three weeks before the play started were all on Fire Island together, you know?

PJP: Have there been interesting generational clash discussions in the rehearsal room? Because there are some members of this cast who weren’t alive when this play is set.

DC: They probably know way more than I do now. Here’s what I notice: This is a big history thing, which is when I was younger I thought if something took place in the 1940s or something, that everyone behaved one way. You know what I mean?

PJP: Yeah.

DC: There’s a very simple solution to things, and life just isn’t like that. So there were plenty of people who were out, there were plenty of people who were happy, there were plenty of people who were public, there were plenty of people who were safe from persecution even. We were talking about that in the beginning in rehearsal, about how we have our own sections of the city, we have our own island! (Laughs)

NB: There was one great example that happened in rehearsal one day. Alex Weisman, who’s in his 20s, said something to the effect of “Well, why wouldn’t he?” We’d been talking about who would you take to the hospital with you if you were going to get a test for this new unknown disease. And he made the point that you would send out an all points bulletin—and of course today that would be done on Facebook—and you’d say, “I’ve got to go to the hospital, who’d like to come?” So any random person might end up coming with you, a third-level friend might come with you. But actually when you think about that period, you have to actually call people—

DC: They have to be home.

NB:  Yeah that’s right, they would have to be home. And you’d make a very specific choice. You’d call your first-tier friends first and then you’d move down the list I guess. That sounds like a technical perspective but it gave us some insight into how much has changed. Telephones would have changed much about how the gay community responded to this plague, and think about how Facebook would have changed that. It would have changed it immensely, I think.

DC:  One the things which is all-powerful in the play is The New York Times, and it simply isn’t anymore.

NB: These guys are getting out information on hand-written pamphlets, on hand-typed and crossed-out, photo-copied pamphlets that they’re sticking around the city.

PJP: And Larry Kramer is still doing that. He was on the sidewalk two years ago after the Broadway show still shoving flyers in people’s faces.

DC: Yeah, old school.

PJ: Let’s change gears a little bit. I want to talk about how we all came to be here working on this production together.

Nick, ever since we started talking about this play at TimeLine three years ago you’ve been dying to direct it. Then about a year ago, sitting here in this very room, in my office, I said to you one of the hardest things I’ve ever said to you: “Hey, since you’re already planning to do the musical Juno this season, what if we give The Normal Heart to David Cromer? What if we asked David to direct this?”

NB: Womp, womp.


NB: This comes after me also talking for many years about trying to find a way to get Cromer here to direct a play.

PJP: Exactly. It’s true.

NB: We’ve both been fans for a long time and trying to find the right time and the right project and feeling like we could pull you back here for something.

PJP: So, for anyone reading this, Nick’s entire body deflated and he said, “You’re right, that is soul-crushing, but it’s a brilliant idea and let’s see if we can make it happen.”

DC: So we took a brilliant idea and we changed it into a terrible idea!


PJP:  Talk us through what happened next. You reached out to David …

NB: I called Cromer—

DC: It was an email, wasn’t it?

NB: Oh yeah, it might’ve started with an email. That’s right, and then you sent me an email back and said—

DC: I don’t … know.

PJP: I remember you were in town doing Sweet Bird of Youth at the time. It was in the middle of your tech when I’m sure you had nothing else on your mind.

DC: I’m still in tech for Sweet Bird of Youth.

PJP: (Laughs)

NB: What was exciting is that from the get-go you were very interested in the project. And at some point you said something to the effect of how much you had really thought for a long time about playing Ned. And how interested you were in that role.

DC: Yeah, yeah.

NB:  What was funny about it was that we hadn’t even begun thinking about our Ned, even though that should be priority number two, or maybe even number one. So when you said that it was like, oh wow, that’s amazing, that would be kind of the perfect answer for us, because I can’t think of a better Ned than you in town. That’s really true.

DC: I don’t remember ever really entertaining the idea of directing it. I think right away —this feels disingenuous now but it’s not I think—I just assumed that you would be directing it.

NB: Well, that’s nice. (Laughs)

DC: And it turned out to be the case. I just assumed.

PJP: So a day or two after I had this soul-crushing talk with Nick, he comes back in and says, “OK, David doesn’t want to direct it, he’s dying to play Ned Weeks.” And we both said “Oh yeah, that would be good, too!” So off we went.

Once you guys started talking about the play, before saying “Let’s do this,” you wanted to see if you had similar feelings about the play. Do you remember what some of those first things were where it was clear “we’re trying to tell the same story, we’re on the same page?”

I think from the beginning we both knew that “he’s passionate about this character and he’s passionate about this story.”

NB: It’s funny because I think both of us have a sense about each other from the people that we’ve mutually worked with, and from that experience where we worked together many years ago, that we would find a good way to work together. I think that was most important to us and I just believed that would somehow work out.

You had a different experience with that New York production than I did, there were some differences, but I think from the beginning we both knew that “he’s passionate about this character and he’s passionate about this story.” In fact, I don’t know that you and I are always in exactly the same line but I think that’s been helpful to us so far.

DC: Yeah. I feel very incredibly well taken care of. And people say, “How’s it going?” and I say, “I agree with everything he’s saying so he’s brilliant.” You know what I mean?


DC: That all sounds right to me. You know?

NB: That’s great.

DC: You know what I mean? That makes sense, that makes sense, that makes sense, and I just got some notes and it’s really my first list of notes, and there are one or two things, like “If you’re doing thing X at the beginning of this scene” and it just dawned on me it’s like the most basic thing, like, “Could you enter this scene with an intention please?”


DC: And I spent all this time, all these years throwing up my hands about actors, saying “Why can’t they just figure out basic shit when they come in,” and I can’t do any of it. I know my lines, some of them, and I don’t put my hands in my pockets …

PJP: What’s this shift like for you? You did Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Bob Falls 12 years ago and you did Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer about eight years ago. But other than that you haven’t been acting for other people or with other people.

DC: No, no.

PJP: So what’s this shift like?

DC: I still believe that I can play the role and there are things about it that I think I have easy access to and there are things about it that I don’t have access to at all yet. I worried a little bit—this is probably a dangerous thing to say—but you have to stick to it, you can’t drift in and out of it as an art form. I can probably play catch up a little bit and get away with it but I haven’t been exercising the muscles well enough, so it’s going to be a little bit of a crash course in getting back in. And I don’t just mean physical shape, I don’t mean like vocally or anything like that, I just mean like “Oh, right you have be.”

I have my work cut out for me just trying to do the things a halfway decent actor is supposed to be doing. So the transition for me is fine.

PJP: Do you find that your role in the rehearsal room is different than it is when you’re a director? As a director you have to be the leader in the room in one respect but now while it is very much an ensemble show, it’s Ned’s story. Ned is Larry Kramer, so you have to be a leader in a different respect. Does it feel different than how you’re a leader as a director?

DC: I expect my lead actors to be much more generous than I am being. (Laughs)

NB: It reminds me, you said something to me very early on in our conversations on the phone. You said something like “We need to be partners on this.” Not just because we’re both directors or whatever, but because anyone who’s playing Ned Weeks and the director need to be partners, and it’s felt that way and that’s exciting.

What’s great about you Cromer is that you’ve brought ideas into the room that are directorial ideas, but that’s what I want from every actor. And you’re doing it in the most gracious, smart and helpful way, so it’s actually been really a good relationship and process that way. I’d say you’re leading that for the cast and that’s a way I think you’re a natural leader like a director but you’re shifting that into your acting, which is cool.

DC: OK good, well, we’ll keep doing that.

NB: Yep, good job. Keep it up. Two weeks down.

DC: Yeah, two weeks down.

PJP: David, prior to starting this you got to meet and spend some time with Larry Kramer.

DC: I did. I hopefully will have another opportunity to do it. It’s one of those things where I’m always bad at meeting the famous person, having a conversation. I always have to go to meetings and things like those, I mean I have to sit down and have lunch with, you know, Person X.

NB: Drop. Drop it.

DC: Yeah, with whoever.

PJ: Let’s have some names, David.

DC: You know, like Larry Kramer. And it never goes well. I’m never interesting, I’m never clever, I never ask the right questions so it’s always a little bit of an “Oh, doh.”

So it’s a little bit trying to rewrite history and fix it after I’m done with it. We met at the opening night of Hit the Wall at the Barrow Street Theatre. And he said he was very excited that I was going to be doing it.

I went over to his house in the afternoon and he gave me a signed copy of Faggots and it’s the apartment that is the apartment in the thing and Ed Koch had just died.

PJP: Wow.

DC: I googled Larry’s address to get directions from the subway and it said, “Mayor Koch’s apartment”—they lived in the same building.

Larry said one or two things to me that really struck me. I said, “Had you ever been involved in anything politically before that?” and he said, “Never.” I don’t know if that’s fully accurate but in his assessment of it at this point in his life he was saying “I never had a mission before,” That’s what I took. And the other thing is that he said he’s actually very shy.

PJP: Wow.

DC: I didn’t get enough information about him and his brother. I didn’t know to ask. But what I did get was the idea that I think his behavior is … I won’t say fearless. I think that he is very brave. I think about how many conflicts, how many situations, how many arguments, I walk away from, that all of us do all the time, just because we’re not willing to be disliked.

Learning to be unpopular would be, for a shy and needy person, would be harrowing, you know?

NB: Yeah. That’s it, right.

DC: We’re just not willing to be disliked. You know? And he would always do that. He was shy, he didn’t like to talk to people he didn’t like and be confrontational with people. If he was shy, doing that would have taken a great deal of courage. Learning to be unpopular would be, for a shy and needy person, would be harrowing, you know? So I thought that was interesting.

NB: He takes that journey in this play. It has to start that he’s not inherently that person who doesn’t mind not being liked. In some way he hears that for the first time from Emma Brookner, the doctor in the play. She’s the one that points it out to him. And the fascinating thing is how much you end up liking Larry Kramer or Ned Weeks for not caring about not being liked.

DC: And it’s only part way through that Emma says it to Ned, in scene 8—

NB: The beginning of the second act.

DC: The beginning of the second act, which is when you realize retroactively that he has been worried about it, wanting to be liked.

NB: Yeah. That’s right.

DC: That Larry conversation also helped me with something very basic that I forget which is what we all know here as actors and/or directors—that you can’t play the end at the beginning, you know? And I was probably thinking about the first scene as if he was already Larry Kramer, as if he was already a pushy militant.

NB: Right.

DC: He just followed his nose to this doctor’s office, you know?

NB: Yeah.

DC: And so it’s about the birth of someone becoming …

NB: It is. Yeah, that’s right.

PJP: David, here we are sitting in our home on Wellington Avenue and the first play I ever saw in this building in 1998, a year before TimeLine unexpectedly took over the space and made it our home, was your production of Angels in America. In this building in 1998 you directed that play and also played Louis.

It’s interesting. The Normal Heart isn’t going to take place in this building—we’re doing it over at Stage 773—but the times that Angels in America and The Normal Heart are mentioned in the same sentence is often. I think there are some similarities between Louis and Ned as an agitator. What’s it like coming back into this building after 15 years and taking on the other great AIDS play, the other great agitator in an AIDS play?

DC:  First of all, there’s echoes in Angels in America that I can only imagine are aggressively an homage to The Normal Heart.

NB: Yeah. Feels that way.

DC: I’m taking this line from The Normal Heart because it’s a great line: “You can’t not know, how can you not know that?”

NB: Right.

DC: It’s something that Louis says to Joe about Joseph McCarthy and it’s something that Ned says to Hiram about the health crisis.

I’ve thought about that because they are New York Jews of a certain age with almost identical tracks. The difference is Louis is not strong enough to do what he knows he is supposed to do. And Larry, Ned, somehow is. So I don’t think it’s an issue of being made of sterner stuff necessarily. I think it’s about whether the thing you want is important enough to get over what you’re scared of.

I identify far more with Louis because I understand my own cowardice. I’m not flagellating, I’m simply saying: I’m very comfortable with the idea of seeing this person, Louis would like to have this conviction, he would like to say this, he would like to make this point, but he can’t really.

NB: Right.

DC: He’s just got to dither, he’s just got to go in the corner and dither. Where as Larry and Ned committed their lives to a fight.

PJP: And this just popped into my head. Didn’t Joe Mantello play Louis also?

DC: He played Louis, yeah.

PJP: Yeah, I think I saw him play Louis. Wow, that’s freakiness. And Nick, you’ve directed Angles in America, too.

NB: Yes I have. It was … (laughs) … challenging.

DC: You had the craziest schedule in the world, right? Like some stupid schedule.

NB: It was a challenging. It was a stupid schedule and, frankly, it was in the shadow of Cromer’s production.

PJP: Which was pretty good.

NB: Which was damned good and it was earth-shattering that you decided to go in the direction of incredibly simple, the complete stripped-down production of Angels in America. So then to follow that, right after that, out in DuPage at Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, I had a possibility to do something similar, which seemed wrong, just blatant stealing—or to try to go in a different direction, which is what we tried to do. In some ways I think your production of Angels screwed me up. I’m going to tell you that.


DC: It screwed me up, too. It screwed us all up. I’d never seen it, I didn’t have any context for it.

I was just thinking about how that play and this play have a power. They have the power of the word and they have the power of an event and the power of an idea that almost no other plays have. They’re really devastating and people tend to be devastated by productions of them, and then I get very nervous. We have to find our way to be devastating.

NB: Right, right.

PJP: Nick, just riffing on this space and now us doing The Normal Heart, not in our home but over in Stage 773. You probably more than any other director at TimeLine have exploited in great ways the versatility of our home. At Stage 773, we benefit from getting to play to a larger audience, but we do not have that versatility. How have you approached this play without as much of a blank canvas as you get in our home, but still with your inimitable innovation?

NB: Thank you.

DC: Fundamental Nick.

NB: One of the starting points in this space that we get to play around with is having the audience be a flexible thing. Normally, in almost every theatre experience you don’t get that. We can make a decision here to put something in the round or to make it a proscenium or to make it thrust or to make it runway, and that decision by itself is an enormous decision.

If you’re going in the round you’re not going to have walls, probably. So that already says it’s not going to be so realistic that you can have doors slamming and walls and all that.

That’s something that you take away over at Stage 773. But we actually get some things over there that we don’t have here. There’s some scale there that’s quite beautiful, there’s a canvas to play with that is not flexible but it’s bigger than the canvas that we get here.

During design presentations at first rehearsal, David Cromer looks at a photo of Larry Kramer at home. This photo served as an inspiration for the scenic design of "The Normal Heart."
During design presentations at first rehearsal, David Cromer looks at a photo of Larry Kramer at home. This photo served as an inspiration for the scenic design of “The Normal Heart.”

We’ve really tried to use as inspiration Larry Kramer’s apartment itself. There are some beautiful pictures of Larry in his house in front of his bookshelf that became very inspiring to us. That bookshelf has become a backdrop for us. And the play needs so many locations, from hospitals to offices to apartments, that there’s an inherent coldness that comes with that many space changes because of how spare you need to be. So we’ve tried to find the balance in this very heated play of not putting it in an incredibly cold world. This bookshelf is one way that we’ve found that brings this layer of personal and mess and human to the play.

DC: It’s where you keep all your stuff. I might be experiencing this wrong, but I got this impression it wasn’t only going to be books, right?

NB: It’s not. It’s going to be pictures and memories—it’s what would go on a bookshelf.

DC: Stuff. Yeah. It’s like all these people, all these lives, all these people we’ve lost.

NB: That’s right.

DC: I don’t mean to be reductive about the imagery here at all but it’s just the idea that that’s where you put your stuff. As you have a life you say, “I read this, I’m going to put this over here.”

NB: Yeah.

DC: “Here’s that tsotchke.”

NB: It’s these little bits, right.

DC: “Here’s some tsotchke here.”

PJP: My office is filled with shelves of tsotchkes.

NB: Right. These little bits of all these peoples’ lives and in some ways it stands as a memorial. We’re looking at this play from such distance now, looking back at it, and it’s not that this crisis of this plague is over, it surely isn’t, but in some ways there needs to be this sort of living memorial along with the actual play itself. That was the idea.

PJP: Just briefly shifting gears and then I’ll let you get off to rehearsal. David, so now you’ve caught the acting bug and you’re going to do A Raisin in the Sun—a play that we’re ironically also currently running— with this young upstart actor named Denzel Washington.

DC: Yes, I have high hopes for him.

PJP: Is this just a coincidence that you’re doing two acting things back to back?

DC:  That’s a good question. Yes, it is a coincidence. It just happened to land that way. Part of it was led by doing The Normal Heart, which is, I was pretty burned out. I just did six plays in 12 months in four cities, some ridiculous large number of plays. So I was a little tired and I was not taking other work. And I had no idea how I was going to make any money and so luckily I—

PJP: You said, “Come to TimeLine, that’s where the cash is!”

NB: Big bucks.

DC: I said, you know, “You want to make some money, come and act—

NB: In Chicago.

DC: —make some money in this business.” I just needed a break, but I don’t really take breaks that far away from my—

PJP: Yeah. You’re not a Sandals Resort kind of guy.

DC: Nah, I just take the job where I get to leave, where I get to be one of the first people out the door at the end of the day. (Laughs) “So long suckers!”

PJP: Are you going to enjoy today after the run—you don’t have to stay for the production meeting?

DC:  Oh my god. Do you guys watch shows now and watch a moment in a show and think, “Oh, I know what that production meeting was like.”


NB: Yes.

DC: “I’ve been to that meeting.”

PJP: Either that, or you watch a moment and you’re like, “How did no one question that in a production meeting, how did that not come up?”

Nick, up next for you here is something very different, your first musical at TimeLine in six years.

NB: Yeah, we’re doing the Chicago premiere of Joseph Stein and Marc Blitzstein’s Juno, which is based on Sean O’Casey’s classic Irish dark comedy Juno and the Paycock. It’s a gorgeous score and I think it helps answer that question of “Why make a play into a musical?” The music in this case feels so right with that lyrical Irish language and the music adds even a deeper level of despair and a higher level of comedy, so it pushes the boundaries of both those elements that make great Irish theatre.

PJP: Well, great.

DC: I’ll see that.

PJP: Thank you both for being so generous with your time before rehearsal. Keep up this great partnership!

NB: Thank you.

PJP: Thanks guys.

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