One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is Dale Wasserman’s powerful 1963 Broadway play based on Ken Kesey’s 1962 controversial novel. Based in a mental institution, the narrative includes the exploration of oppression, personal censorship, control, emasculation and mercy. Written at a time of the US Civil Rights Movement, as well as a time of deep changes involving mental health care, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is as relevant today as it was when first published.
Monster Media are excited to be staging the potent work at Southbank Theatre, The Lawler later this month. Read on as award-winning writer and director Carl J. Sorheim discusses the play, his genesis with the project, challenges and, of course, iconic character, Randle Patrick McMurphy.
When I was approached to direct Cuckoo’s Nest, I couldn’t say no. I was finally starting to get some okay paying work as a writer/director for screen, but I hadn’t worked in theatre since I directed my monologue It’s all the Rage, in 2009. I come from a theatre background and I love theatre, but as an independent artist it’s just so difficult. You can’t just direct or act, you also end up doing every bit of producing; from flyering to virtually begging your friends and family to please come see your show in the toilet of whatever pop-up living room theatre space you can afford, to front-of-house, to bump out. It’s exhausting. And then, at the end of the day, you’ve spent six months creating a show that 100 people reluctantly went to see, you’re broke and exhausted, and all you have to show for is debt, both fiscally and emotionally. So when someone comes to you and goes “hey, do you wanna do this incredible play at this incredible venue, and all you have to do is direct?” you have no choice. That’s brass tax, and I realise it’s not the poignant emotional response you might be looking for, but it’s the truth.
In terms of emotional significance, that only came along after I had already accepted the job and got a chance to read the harrowing, beautiful, extraordinary book that the play is based on. I had seen Milos Forman’s film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 20 years ago, and had vague memories of its greatness, but Ken Kesey’s novel is a gut punch of a book. It truly has to be one of the most significant and outstanding pieces of literature in American history, for so many reasons, and its unflinching, scathing take on mental health care at the time would have been nothing short of a shock to the system. In a way, Kesey did what so many artists hope to do: open peoples’ eyes and change minds. I can only imagine what a lyrical hand grenade the book must have been when it came out. So to get back to my own, selfish reasons for doing the play beyond “directing a classic on a great stage without having to flyer ”, it’s this: Cuckoo’s Nest is just so much fucking fun, with so much depth. It’s a manic rollercoaster of emotions and possibilities. And in a loftier sense, the characters – while multi-layered, surprising and incredible – are also grand Shakespearian archetypes of villainy and heroism. Basically you have the best of both worlds in this play: it’s clear as day on an open sea, but there’s incredible worlds under the surface, if you dare take a look.
And to do a piece that deals with mental illness… It’s a terrifying privilege. I’ve seen anxiety and depression up close and it never looks the way you ‘expect’. In 1999-2001 I was in the armed forces, and we had boys who’d finish their time, then go home, sit around for a few weeks, and kill themselves. Several of them. “But he was so funny and full of life”, people would say… The truth is these guys were so exhausted from wearing that fun mask every day. And our arts community is rife with masks and mental illness. I suppose the slightly romanticised idea is that creativity and ‘insanity’ go hand in hand, but we’re not talking about a fun, zany take on life, we’re talking about crippling fear of performance, of job security, of skill, of the future. The last few years, I’ve seen more and more great shows about dealing with mental illness, self harm, anxiety and fear, and many of these shows were on the comedy circuit. Luisa Omielan, Bo Burnham, home-grown talents like Kai Smythe and Tom Walker. It’s become more a norm these days to hear comedians talking about their self doubt and kunstlerschuld, which is such a tremendous step in the direction of allowing people to admit that they sometimes feel like frauds and fuckups, without having to bottle it up and wear that mask. Most of us feel that way from time to time, some more than others. And it’s healthy to hear eloquent, smart people who seem ‘successful’ say it, because it helps take the pressure off us. It reminds us that most of us have grim clouds and black dogs chasing us, even though you never see them on Instagram. It helps remind us that very few of us are normies after all.
The playwright, Dale Wasserman, draws heavily from the source material, Ken Kesey’s terrific novel, so it’s only fair to start there. The themes in the book are plentiful: mental health (of course), but more so alienation, racism, bullying, institutionalisation, misogyny… The list goes on. Anything that can and will go on in a small, locked space filled with people. But more than anything, the play explores fear. Fear of success, failure, people, war, government. Fear, fear, fear. And very much a fear of strong women, which is this absurd thing that we see MRA groups rallying around with their sad, fluttering bird hearts nowadays, because I guess they couldn’t quite commit to fascism. But the men on our ward don’t come from that horrible, hateful place where feminism is a swearword – they’ve simply been emasculated and neutered by society, and their fear of women is linked to their fear of failure. They see themselves in the light of the women they believe judge them: Billy and his doting mother; Harding and his attractive wife; Bromden and his domineering mother; everyone and nurse Ratched. They are men who claim no political reason for their troubles with women… They’re just scared guys who either haven’t been loved enough, or they’ve been loved too much.
Most of all, the men on the ward are terrified of the outside and what might happen to them there. The brunt of our patients have voluntarily recused themselves of society because they’re scared of what we – ‘the normal people’ – might do to them… Which is an eye-opener in itself, given how scared us normies are of mentally ill people. In Cuckoo’s Nest, the old adage about animals being more scared of us than we are of them, is very true. Dale Harding even says “A rabbit doesn’t challenge a wolf to combat”. That’s basically the underlying point in the play. That, and patient’s Ruckly’s anarchic catch phrase: “Fuck ‘em all!” If I had to pick a tagline for the play, it’d be one of those. Maybe. There’s too many good ones to choose from, what a luxury conundrum! But my very sidetracked point is this: fear is the main theme in the play, and I think we – as a society – are the most scared we’ve been since the cold war. We’re scared of terrorism, global warming, our government, the power of the internet, Russia, North Korea, China, the rise of fascism and in a new turn of events, we’re now also scared of the USA. And apparently we’re terrified of feminism and gay marriage. I think it’s a good time for Cuckoo’s Nest, given that we’re all sitting inside it already.
Everything about this play is a challenge, but rehearsing with 15 actors over two months, with only a few nights and weekends at your disposal, and 15 different schedules and lives… If it wasn’t for my producers stepping in for missing cast members every single rehearsal, I don’t know how we would have got through it. But you just have to be methodical and rehearse around the missing pieces.
The audition process was interesting. We had a few hopeful Bromdens that came through or door, but it was just… I don’t know what to say. It got to a stage where I seriously considered having a Caucasian Chief Bromden, and making his Native American background part of the character’s psychosis – that he believed he was a Columbia Falls Indian, but that his real problem was his stature: Bromden believes he’s tiny, because he’s been worn down. In retrospect I’m so thankful I didn’t have to try and justify that artistic choice because I know how much shit I would have copped for it. But when you can’t find the guy… What do you do? Pack in the whole show? Then, out of the blue, the show suddenly got canceled. This was last year (yes, I’ve been attached to this project for a year now) and at the time, it completely sucker punched me… But then the cancelation turned into a postponement, which again turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because in the interim we found the perfect Bromden. Sometimes the worst moments of your life hide the greatest surprises. Recently I read an interview with Michael Douglas, who produced the film adaptation of Cuckoo’s Nest back in 1975, and he revealed that the film was – like our production – delayed by six months. And just like us, it allowed them to find the right Chief. For the film it turned out to be a non-actor who was discovered by a used car salesman – and I’ve gotta say I think we’re way luckier than Michael Douglas in that respect. (And of course I’d say that. But just wait ’til you see him.) I should add that I didn’t watch the movie again until a couple of months ago, by which time I had casting, blocking and characterisation clearly in my head. I didn’t want the film to ‘pollute’ my choices or make me second guess or try to emulate it in any way. My cast is very different from the movie cast – but that’s all I’ll say about that. You’ll have to see the show…
Lastly, on the list of challenges… While I was in post-production on an ad I was working on, I landed another job, which immediately went into pre-production. I thought to my quiet self that between two jobs, Cuckoo’s Nest and a family life, that’s about all you can handle. And then, three weeks out from opening night, my father passed away. He was an old man, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a horrible surprise, and I found myself in a bind. Because I’m Norwegian, I had to fly home to Norway for the funeral, and doing that in the midst of rehearsals, now just two weeks out from opening night, is difficult to say the least. But I knew that if I didn’t go, I’d never get over it. And again: thanks to a great cast and great producers (not to mention digital cameras, Dropbox and international feedback sessions), there’s nothing you can’t do. But burying your father on the other side of the world two weeks before the opening night of the most challenging piece of work you’ve directed in your career, certainly puts things into perspective. Life goes on: Work hard, immerse yourself in art, love your family and friends, keep the memories alive, cry when you have to and laugh because you need to. But the show must go on.
I don’t want this to be something that solely revolves around McMurphy. He’s the lead, no doubt about it, but there are 15 lives on this stage, and every life is as important as the next one. I’ve tried very hard to ensure that all of the characters have back stories, relationships, and arcs that we can follow when we watch the show. I don’t want audience members’ eyes to wander off and find listless actors. Everyone is alive on our ward, and everyone is equal. But not to completely sidestep the question: the audition process is the same every time, no matter who you cast for. You let actors try their own choices, then you feed them some ideas and see what happens, and when you make the short list, you boil it down to the ones who excited, scared or impressed you the most, and hopefully you can find one that also fits the physical nature of the character. And you have to completely forget what anyone else has done before you. McMurphy is certainly an iconic role, but no one’s talking about Kirk Douglas or Gary Sinise’s portrayals of the loveable rascal, it’s always – and rightfully so, given the volume of distribution – Jack Nicholson. And don’t get me wrong, Nicholson’s work is great, but if I cast for “Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of McMurphy”, what would be the point of that? It has to suit your own ideas and your own production, not a completely different one from 40 years ago. It might be a hard act to follow, but then again, we’re not following an act. We’re presenting a different take on the same act.
And by the way – finding a McMurphy is a luxury problem, really. The theatre scene is absolutely awash with Caucasian men in their 30s who want to play a rogue hero: you’re absolutely spoiled for choice. And while she’s very much the antagonist, finding Ratched is also a walk in the park as far as choice goes: it’s a dream role. (If you want a challenge, however, try casting for a giant, Australia-based native American who can act…)
I had never worked with Monster Media before, but we found each other through mutual friends. It’s been a great process, and they’ve given me absolute artistic freedom (within reason – there’s still a budget!) and also a lot of very helpful feedback along the way. They’ve been patient with my annoying habit of just doing stuff without checking in… It took me a while to get used to not putting on the producer’s hat and just getting stuff done without consulting them, because when you’ve worked independently in the world of short film, web series, online content and the like for a while, you just get used to calling around and organising it. I’ve produced so much content over the years through our production company Cameralla, and I kind of forgot the hierarchy of production… But Kris and Noah (Monster Media) pulled me into line and that’s really a blessing. It freed me up to focus solely on the creative side of the show.
Look, I know: Stay at home and watch premium Netflix content or beat the crowds to go see theatre for fifty bucks? Here’s my pitch: You will forget 90% of the stuff you doze your way through on screen, but I don’t think you will ever forget this show. This is not just a night at the theatre where you hope to see someone from the telly up close, but instead end up in the nosebleed section wondering which one is Kat Stewart. And it’s not one of those shows that are so plagued by attempts to outwit its audience, and so dense that you walk out going “what the hell did I just watch?!” This is a production with Woody Guthrie’s quote firmly in the back of its mind: “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.” I’m not saying this production is a piece of genius, but I’m saying it’s far from unnecessarily complicated. The moment you walk into our show, you’re on the ward. I hesitate to call it “an immersive experience” because that’s not what I’m aiming for; this isn’t some hokey tourist jaunt that panders to the lowest common denominator with cheap tricks – but we are poking a little hole in the fourth wall for people to look or walk through. I want audiences to come to this play because it’s exhilarating, irreverent, fast-paced, heart-rending, clear, and most of all: fun. I want people to come to the theatre to experience something they can’t get with Netflix, something alive that can come apart any second; something fragile and wonderful and smart and ephemeral, but most of all: something wholeheartedly entertaining and heartbreakingly human that reminds us that we are all messed up, but that’s okay.
May 31 – June 11
BOOK TICKETS: https://tickets.mtc.com.au/production/13643