Last Sunday I posted one of my oldest poems (not really but the oldest the public will see) on the basis of how humiliating it is for me now to read it. To be actually truthful, it’s not all that embarrassing. I still like a lot of things about that poem, which I entitled only at the last moment. (What do you think? Is it a good title for that bit of verse?) I have recently been allowed the opportunity to feel genuinely abashed as our recent Peace Pipe Players (Maquoketa’s community theater) production of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest reached performance and an end. in fact, a week ago today I was striking set along with some of the cast (but not our director—shame, shame). We were pleased to have achieved audiences larger than we had anticipated.
It was a good rehearsal period for the most part. I suffered my frustrations during December and January, but it was great to act with my fellow nutcases—working with old friends and making new companions. I confess, I disagreed about the interpretation of the major characters considerably—but that’s life in the theatre, and I just had to get over it; if I wanted my say in how Nurse Ratched should say “took it upon yourself to orient with the other patients” or how Billy Bibbit broke down, I should just direct a production myself. We patients felt a little lost about what to do, but that just prompted us to connive together and actually use our imaginations and coincidence to create good characters.
A Quick Acting Lesson from a rank amateur
I had a very small role, Scanlon, the bomb nut among the crazies in the asylum. I only had about forty lines, I think (unlike many of my former students, I have never been a line-counter—a problem for many of them who wanted to know exact proportional sizes of parts in the plays I wrote). And fewer than 200 words. (Memorization was infinitely easier than for playing Scrooge.)
Although we loonies didn’t have many lines, we were onstage a lot. Our continual presence made acting an interesting challenge. For instance, all I knew about myself directly from the script was that I was a bomb nut—or more precisely “human bomb act,” according to Cheswick—Bill Otteman. However, I noted that when the patients come out for morning medication as the play begins, Scanlon is the only one who does not speak with Nurse Ratched. Why not?
I decided I didn’t like her, which led me to determine that my bomb was for her (so I got some business “hiding” it from her, as if she were in any way unaware, or the rest of the staff). I took one of the black queens from the deck of cards we were using to play pinochle (and later, inspired by McMurphy, blackjack) as a prime ingredient in my bomb. I also wanted to use some screws and a Swiss-army knife (although I am pretty sure such a weapon would not have been allowed on the ward) to give me some business to perform while present onstage, especially right at the start before McMurphy’s arrival.
From that point, as we were rehearsing in the new PPP building—a less than perfectly sanitary location—I guessed that super-efficient Ratched wouldn’t like dirt or dust (after all she did have us nuts cleaning quite a lot), so I figured the bomb should be made out of dirt (actually it was a shoebox into which I placed what dirt and dust I could find on the floor). That activity gave Chief the idea of sweeping stuff right beside my chair at group meetings—the first hint he was able to or interested in interacting with his fellow patients; Bill Davidson figured that one out on his own. Somehow I then advanced to the notion that I had to examine each bit of dirt for appropriateness in my bomb (as in the first photo above and left), which over the length of the rehearsal period led me to test the director’s observations by extending that examination to tasting the bits of dirt and dust bunnies. Besides, I felt that these tiny details kept Scanlon’s attention absorbed and distracted—each fleck of dust, the color of a scrap of wastepaper, the sound of a match…
We also got told to develop some quirks and twitches, unique to each of us. I tried constantly rubbing my fingers, a twitch which lasted for weeks, but that evolved into a twitching arm or hand when stressed, surprised or worried. I also found a funny walk (one I hope which differed dramatically from my old-man-walk for Scrooge just a few months earlier). Dr. Bill had told us that medicated patients often shuffle-walk, and although his own shuffle was deemed distracting, my contrived movements got the pass, I guess.
My relationship with dirt led me to consider if Scanlon were somehow obsessive-compulsive, which he was (for me), including some compulsive touching behavior. I eventually started wearing gloves (yellow rubber ones finally, as suggested by Cheswick), indicating my fear-attraction for the dirt (it had to be bad somehow if I was planning to use it to blow up the Big Nurse—bad even if I did taste it). Nobody stopped me in any of this (and it got laughs from the assistant director and stage crew), so it kept up and kept growing; that’s theatre too.
The other issue was how to speak. I had experimented for several weeks in mid- through late December and into January with simply yelling everything. I figured Scanlon had problems relating with others, so his own words surprised him. However, simply screaming didn’t work so well in my final scene with Cheswick and Martini (Tom Lane) in which we all spoke more or less calmly and reasonably. So in the final rehearsals I shifted mostly to a childish wailing, which seemed to work pretty well, except I missed that element of surprise for Scanlon when he spoke (a bit of that leaked into his shock at his own hand raising itself to vote to watch the World Series).
All in all, talking with my fellow patients and sharing ideas or suggesting them to each other (Otteman was particularly good and bold about that—perhaps he should just suck it up and direct sometime soon), we had a good, fruitful rehearsal experience. Even McMurphy (Bruce Engel) would join in on our discussions (when he wasn’t constantly onstage), although my preoccupation with that character’s aggression—not the direction this show would take—wasn’t very helpful. Poor Nurse Ratched (Erica Barker) kind of got left out, but that rather fit the asylum’s situation, too. Once the audiences arrived and we got some real reactions, it all felt good. The crowds were positive (I even got praised on Thursday, while shopping at Fareway, by a young man who somehow recognized me), and Maquoketa responded well to a challenging play. Our director had pulled it off with prime success. Once the set was down, we could all spend some evenings at home, relax, and relegate the performances to the past.
So where’s the embarrassment?
Then last week the photos of the show started to appear on Facebook. That’s the humiliation. I didn’t know how badly I had let myself pork this winter until I saw those shots. (I know, you can’t really tell in the pictures I have chosen already: it’s my blog and I get to decide how humiliated I want to feel. However, I think you can check them out on Facebook here.) Thanks to Tom and Robyn Lane for preserving these moments of community-theater fame forever (and in public).
It’s one thing to look back on your childish self from the past, but it’s nearly impossible to swallow the flabby, bald lump of lard you are right now, this instant. (And those gray sweats and t-shirts are really quite becoming!)
Possibly I have spent too much time writing posts for the blog. It’s time I was running again…