I’m a community theatre snob. See? I even spelled it “re” instead of “er”. Total snob. I have a Bachelor’s in Theatre Arts, don’t you know. I’m a past member of Actor’s Equity, SAG and AFTRA, the coveted theatre unions. Getting in requires, if not talent, at least skill at manipulating opportunity. I’ve spent 32 years acting, directing, stage managing, prop mistressing, running lights, sound and ushering (not in that order). I think I know something. And I confess I did not think Cuckoo’s Nest was going to be a hit.
First of all, community theatre should rarely attempt drama. Drama is difficult, and a failed attempt is miserable all the way around. Unconvincing drama is embarrassing to the audience and humiliating for the actors. Think bad opera in Italy. If the audience hates it and half of them don’t come back for the second act, well. I have been in those shows. Crushed egos abound and having to repeat the event night after night is an exercise in despair.
Second, half the cast has never been in a play before. And half the cast (not the exact same half) is speaking English as a second language. Anywhere else, this would definitely be a problem. Luckily, here, we are used to the accent. Here, it’s like The Full Monty: after the first 10 minutes, you don’t even notice it. In fact, we got one of the actors to speak most of his lines in Spanish. He gets some of the biggest laughs! And we call him Martinez instead of Martini. Fun!
If you haven’t seen the play, don’t read this paragraph. Come see the play – you will be sorry if you miss it! Third, we don’t have the budget, the wizardy or the equipment to carry off the dramatic technical aspects of the “Big Black Machine 18 stories down.” So Chief Bromden, instead of ripping out the power center of Nurse Ratched’s kingdom, symbolically killing the BBM once and for all, simply lifts a great big heavy box. Impressive and a moment to cheer, but not exactly what the play called for.
My angst was for naught. The audiences haven’t cared about any of those petty details. They fall in love with the characters and that’s all that matters. They hate Nurse Ratched. They love McMurphy, love Chief Bromden. They hate the Aides and Turkel, the night guard – they practically boo at them! They adore the loonies: Cheswick, Scanlon, Ruckley, Martinez, Billy Bibbit, Harding. They are sympathetic to Nurse Flinn and even Dr. Spivey. And everyone wants a few minutes alone with Candy and Sandra.
Working with the Little Theatre Group has been a real education for me as far as community theatre, what it offers a community and the players involved. It’s not all about massaging egos which is what a great deal of my 32 years boils down to: not just my ego, but my fellow thespians as well. Looking for love in all the wrong places. In my mind, if all the ingredients weren’t there for a Broadway-ready production, why would you bother? Cuckoo’s Nest taught me why. Not just because it’s a hit with audiences, but because of the actors: what they bring to it, what they’ve given to it, how they’ve listened to each other, and how they tell the story. Having it be so appreciated by the audience is icing on the cake. If you haven’t seen it, do. Two more weekends.
“The show must go on!”
Here’s a little excitement you only get with live theatre. The first Sunday of the play, Caroline, who plays Nurse Ratched, had a severe allergic reaction and couldn’t perform. An hour before showtime, we found out the doctor was keeping her in the hospital overnight. So I adopted my most severe persona (required extreme focus, of course) and went on all dressed in white, reading from a script on a clipboard. Nurses carry clipboards all the time anyway, right? The other actors moved me about as needed and whispered instruction in my ear backstage. And the play worked. The entire audience came back for the second half and clapped long and loud at the end.
Ok, I loved that. But I don’t want to do it again – my heart can’t take it! Caroline is fine and has sworn she will not miss another performance. Good. Now I can look forward to being with the loonies again this weekend. See you at the show. Only 3,000 colones to join in all that lovin’!