BWW Interview: Laura Nicholas of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST at Centre Stage
Probably most famous from the film version - which propelled Jack Nicholson into the limelight - this production stars Dave LaPage in the Nicholson role along with Tiffany Nave Stewart at Nurse Ratched.
We asked director Laura Nicholas to tell us a little about the show.
Just in case people aren't familiar with it, can you tell us briefly what the play is about?
In this stage adaptation of the novel by Ken Kesey, mental hospital patient and convicted felon, Randle P. McMurphy, leads a revolt against the cold and exacting Nurse Ratched, who is head of the ward. As is the case in the novel, the story is told from the perspective of another patient, "Chief" Bromden, a large Native American patient who is presumed to be deaf and dumb when the play begins. The other patients exhibit humorous eccentricities and comradery within the ward, but fail to successfully identify or stand up to the obvious inhumanities. Only a few pages into the play, McMurphy arrives on the ward and demonstrates an immediate disregard for the hierarchy in place. Although the other ward patients initially struggle to accept McMurphy's bucks against the system, change becomes more and more apparent until finally the conflict comes to a head...but I won't give away the ending!
What is your approach to the piece?
My approach in rehearsals is that of a true collaboration. Especially with a piece like this, actors have an opportunity to develop their characters organically and through experimentation. I see myself as an editor and guide for them as they work through what makes their characters unique while at the same time ensuring they fit into the overarching story. Of course I could map out everything in advance and prescribe in detail each movement, inflection, and interpretation, but, in my experience, I have found that approach short-changes the end result. It is my hope that at the end of the process for Cuckoo's Nest, we can look back at what we have accomplished and see not just one hand, but twenty at work. For me, that's the beauty of theater!
In concept, this project has been a fun challenge to me as both the director and set designer. The play is almost entirely realistic with moments of theatricality. So, my approach has been to utilize a mix of historical research with some abstracted, theatrical liberties to represent this in both direction and design. Of course, using the thrust space at Centre Stage presents its own challenges and opportunities and I felt this mixed approach would most effectively use our space.
How do you balance the strong central role of McMurphy with the rest of the ensemble characters?
I have such a talented cast and am so pleased with what they have done thus far. It really comes down to "watching the background" as I am constantly reminding myself to do. McMurphy is a very strong force in the play, yes, but even his character would be only two-dimensional without the other characters to flesh out the rest of each scene. As Dave LaPage, who plays McMurphy, has described in rehearsals: McMurphy is playing a game with the other characters on the ward and what fun is a game without response and countermoves? I take time in each rehearsal to watch and push all the actors in each scene to make sure those responses and countermoves are just as lively and developed. We also had two rehearsals at the beginning of the process dedicated just to the ward patients and ward life for this development before McMurphy was even part of the equation. I plan to also do this with the orderlies and extra nurse who would normally be thought of as tertiary characters, if that. It's very important to me to create a complete, dimensional story as the script certainly merits.
What do you hope audiences will take away with them?
This play is both entertaining and incredibly moving. It is ripe with humor, memorable characters, and a potent story of recognizing injustice and fighting against the odds. Beyond that, however, it is a call to action. We love characters like McMurphy because we wish we had his daring charm, gusto and strength, but McMurphy also inspires others to see their own potential to enact change. Why do we turn a blind eye to injustice when it is in our power to act? Maybe, like Chief, we need the McMurphys of the world to recognize our size. It is my hope that this production encourages those who see it to marinate on these thoughts and take a little piece of "McMurphy courage" with them in order to identify and stand up to the injustices present in our communities and inspire others to do the same.