Wednesday, January 18, 2006
The Morning Read: Rude Guerrillas
'Cuckoo's Nest' is the play; everyone has things to prove.
By KEITH SHARON
The Orange County Register
SANTA ANA They come out at night. The dreamers. The show-offs. The some- thing-to-proves. The almosts. The no shots. Someone told them once they could act, or told them they couldn't. And that's all they needed to hear. Motivation, baby. Life isn't what these actors do during the day.
They have to do the night work to feel alive. These poor souls, all addicted to the strangest thing - black box theater.
Don't you dare call it "community theater." That is a dirty phrase. Their noses wrinkle like the phrase has stink on it. Community theater is your weird uncle playing the cowardly lion in the (insert your city's name) production of "The Wizard of Oz." He's off-key, but he's got guts just to be up there. How cute is he in that lion suit?
This is Rude Guerrilla Theater. The company has been a resident of downtown Santa Ana for eight years. An eight-year scream for attention.
They call it "black box" because the theater, or "the space," as they call it, is all black. It's a long black rectangle. Black floors, black walls, black ceiling, dark themes.
The black walls are lined with 42 seats. There is no stage. If someone in the audience gets kicked, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
A Rude Guerrilla production is political. A statement. We're going to take this to the edge. Rude Guerrilla is the f-word and full-frontal nudity.
Characters spit and strip and die. Everyone, audience included, goes home sweating. If the actors are off-key, it's to annoy you. If anybody is cute, you might as well shoot them. They haven't done their job.
So why is Rude Guerrilla opening 2006 with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?"
In April 2005, Dave Barton, the Rude Guerrilla artistic director, who makes his living decoding infrared signals for remote controls, doesn't want to do it.
It's too old. Too tame. It's almost - Don't say it! - community theater, Barton worries.
But producer/director Gregory Cohen, who makes his living leading "ghost tours" on the Queen Mary, wants to do "Cuckoo's Nest." He believes in its rebellion. He reminds Barton that there is nudity. Lots of cussing. Blood. Sex. Suicide. Spitting. Torture. Screaming. Its politics are anti-government. Its heart is subversive.
And audiences (people remember the Oscar-winning movie with Jack Nicholson) might come. In one recent Rude Guerrilla play, the attendance could be recorded with a single digit: 3. That's three, as in ... three.
Three is not good.
Reluctantly, Barton agrees, meaning he commits Rude Guerrilla to spend about $1,500 to stage 12 performances of "Cuckoo's Nest" over four weekends beginning Jan. 6. Cohen's company Flea Bitten Productions agrees to pay $500 for the right to use the famous script.
Done deal. Just sign here and we'll open the first Friday in January.
Happy New Year.
If it were only that easy.
Of course it's not.
When you do black box theater, the drama behind the scenes can be greater than the drama in the play. And, in almost two months of following the insanity of "Cuckoo's Nest," I have learned that nothing is solid.
Not the actors. Not the props. Not the lighting. Not the schedule.
Not even the black box.
Thirty-five people show up on Nov. 6, the first day of "Cuckoo's Nest" auditions. There are 17 speaking parts, and two parts for "chronics," severely mentally ill characters who only grunt and scream.
The actors will be asked to rehearse like crazy, sometimes five nights per week, sometimes five hours per night. They will be asked to build sets.
Sweep floors. Paint the theater. Hang the lights. Move furniture. Usher the audience into the theater.
And they will be paid $15 for their efforts. That's $15, as in ... $15.
The most important audition is a young man named Tui Scanlan, a theater student at Chapman University. The reason I say this is that you can't do "Cuckoo's Nest," which, according to the script, is narrated by a 6-foot-8 American Indian named Chief Bromden, without a big guy.
When Tui walks in and says his first few lines, director Cohen throws up his hands and congratulates Scanlan on getting the part. Scanlan is 6-foot-5.
Brandon Kasper, whose job is doing criminal background checks, auditions for the pivotal role of doomed stutterer Billy Bibbit. Brandon once weighed 270 pounds until losing 60 in a recent workout binge. He's out to prove that he's no longer the fat kid who didn't get cast in his high school play.
"Do you have a problem with nudity?" Cohen asks.
Kasper rips off his shirt.
"I was so nervous my legs were numb," Kasper says later.
Cohen stops him from the full Monty. But Kasper's point is well taken. He gets the part.
The coveted role of R.P. McMurphy, the crazy-like-a-fox mental patient, who is faking illness so he doesn't have to go to a prison work farm, goes to Jay Michael Fraley, who is the Robert DeNiro of Orange County black box theater. Fraley has been voted best actor twice by the Orange County Weekly.
His television highlights include a small part in the series "Stingray" in1986, and a few seconds re-enacting the moves of a killer on "Unsolved Mysteries" in 1995. Ask him if he's ever, after about a decade of sending head shots and taking meetings in Hollywood, been close to being a star.
"Nope," he says. The pain is evident behind the smile.
Fraley is a photographer/graphic artist in Laguna Beach. Sometimes, he takes head shots of aspiring actors.
When Fraley enters for his reading with Scanlan, the big Chief is sitting on the floor. Small and thin, Fraley asks if they can do the scene standing up to emphasize how little he is by comparison.
Cohen likes that.
By the second week of rehearsals, two of the actors have quit. Cohen fills the night watchman role with his friend Paul Arnold, who is 86 and about to get married. The second vacant part is a lobotomized chronic.
Brian Prewitt, who works for a sign company, shows up for an audition.
Prewitt sits in a folding chair, lolling his head.
"Drool," Cohen tells him.
Prewitt drools like a baby.
"Good," Cohen says. "Everybody, this is Brian, our new drooler."
Brian smiles. He just wants to be part of a play. "No lines," he says later. "I'm comfortable with that."
On Dec. 18, the cast shows up for a regular rehearsal, and Cohen sits them down. The actors can tell something is wrong. Cohen is normally laughing and teasing, and he starts most rehearsals chomping on a Subway sandwich.
There is no sandwich this time.
"There's a problem," he says, his face glum.
The theater, their "space," has been rented to a clothing store. They have to have all their theater equipment moved out by the first week of January.
Coming Thursday: The cast of "Cuckoo's Nest" has a difficult decision to make.
|Thursday, January 19, 2006
Crazy in the Rude Guerrilla loony bin
The evicted cast of 'Cuckoo's Nest' finds an alternative venue, but drama offstage threatens to derail the show.
By KEITH SHARON
With a week to go before opening night, can "Cuckoo's Nest" find a home?
SANTA ANA Shut them down because they went too far.
Shut them down because they were offensive or inappropriate or revolutionary.
Shut them down because of their lefty politics.
But don't shut them down because of a clothing store.
It is Sunday evening - three weeks until opening night - and what's going on inside the cuckoo's nest is, for lack of a better word, insane. What else could it be?
The Rude Guerrilla Theater actors, who have been working hard only to be evicted from their theater because a clothing store wants the space, are in shock. They're heartbroken. They're crying. They're angry.
What unfolds next is really weird.
Remember the scene in the book, the movie, the play? McMurphy wants to watch the World Series. The actors in this doomed - possibly - production of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" have practiced it dozens of times.
Nurse Ratched tells McMurphy that he can't watch the World Series unless he gets enough votes from the rest of the men in the mental institution. After McMurphy wheedles and begs and gets a majority of the votes, Nurse Ratched reminds him that the vote must be unanimous. Well, McMurphy can't get the chronics to raise their hands, so he watches the Series anyway. He sits staring at the blank television screen maniacally announcing the game.
On Dec. 18, director Gregory Cohen informs his cast that they've been evicted from the theater. But they have an alternative. The landlord has agreed they can move into the open room next door. It's just a big, empty hole - no seats, no lighting, no back stage. No box office. But, the landlord will try to find a construction crew to build some walls. If they can get it in theater-shape in time, they can use it.
Should the actors go on? Or quit? Do they want to continue to practice knowing that their new home might either be unusable or only half ready?
In true "Cuckoo's Nest" style, Cohen suggests they vote. And the vote must be unanimous or the play is off.
But before they vote, several cast members want to speak - just like their characters in group therapy scenes.
David Cramer, the Anaheim Water Department customer service representative who plays sexually confused Harding, tells about the time he was in a play at the Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills. In the middle of rehearsals, the theater moved to a new site. And when the play opened, the theater wasn't quite ready. The actors decided to go ahead anyway.
"It was a nightmare," Cramer tells the cast. "I'm afraid our show will not have the same quality. I'm afraid we will end up with a show that nobody is proud of."
Tui Scanlan, who plays mostly mute Chief Bromden, can't hold in his anger. He has canceled trips to Hawaii (his home), New York and Lake Tahoe to be in this play.
"I gave up precious time with my family," Scanlan says. "This is my first job. We NEED to do this show. You know where I stand."
Tears stream down his face. He rushes out of the theater.
He's storming around the street in front of the theater. Lizvette Chavez, who plays the electro-shock nurse, comes out and gives him a hug. Scanlan begins walking toward his car.
Cohen rushes toward him.
"Tui, don't do this," Cohen says. "If you leave, we are done. We need you."
Cohen coaxes Scanlan inside. Then Cohen tells the cast to close their eyes and raise their hand if they want to continue the play.
It is unanimous.
The rehearsals will go on, theater or no theater.
During rehearsals, Cohen is the soul of the play, constantly reminding the actors what the characters feel as they say their lines. Early on, Jay Michael Fraley, who plays McMurphy, is having trouble. He's going "up" on his lines (he's forgetting them). He's not "off-book" yet (he's reading the script to say his lines).
In one sequence, he's calling Nurse Ratched a "nun" instead of a nurse. He gets a giggle from the other actors. When he does it twice, everybody is laughing. When he does it three times, he slams his script on the floor.
Kristin Elliott, who schedules appearances at Disneyland, plays the prim and evil Nurse Ratched. In the emotional crescendo of the play, McMurphy rips her bra off. But in the first few rehearsals, she's wearing an underwire bra, and Jay can't get his fingers underneath.
So she goes bra shopping.
"I'm holding up bras thinking, is Jay going to be able to rip this off me?" she says.
Dave Barton, Rude Guerrillas' reluctant artistic director, who didn't really want to do "Cuckoo's Nest" in the first place, comes to rehearsal on Dec. 22. It's his first visit. Barton tells the actors that the play will be delayed a week, to gain more time to get the new space ready. The new opening night is set for Jan. 13.
Then he takes his seat. He wants to see this play his company is funding with no guarantee that it will ever open.
The pressure is on. Is everybody ready?
Wait a second. Hold on. Um, well, there's a bit of a problem. David Cramer just called. His character, Harding, has several pivotal speeches. It's been a hellish day at the Anaheim Water Department, and he's got to work late. He can't make it.
Cohen's producing partner, Joe Hogan, will have to read Harding's lines. Cohen instructs the actors, playing hallucinating mental patients, to imagine Harding is there.
The actors do their best, but Harding's absence and Hogan's cold reading sap the energy from the scenes.
At the intermission, everybody looks at Barton.
"It's really good," he says. "Better than I expected."
What a relief.
Then Barton passes out the postcards.
In the world of small theater productions, the postcards are hugely important. These have an out-of-focus picture of McMurphy getting zapped by electricity. Barton reminds them to white-out the Jan. 6 and write in Jan. 13.
Several actors send the postcards to people who can discover them.
Michelle Trachtenberg, who plays party girl Candy Star, met a guy recently who works as a producer at NBC. He's getting a postcard.
Elliott (Nurse Ratched) is sending postcards to five potential agents. Fraley (McMurphy) is sending a card to the artistic director at South Coast Repertory.
"It's a little late in life for me to make it, but it's still possible," Fraley says.
The new year brings lots of scrambling. All the equipment in Rude Guerrilla's theater has to be broken down and moved to the room next door. Dozens of heavy lights are taken from the ceiling and moved. The seats are moved.
Then the phone rings.
Apparently the room next door isn't zoned for theater use. The proper permits have not been pulled.
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" will not open in the space next door.
|Friday, January 20, 2006
The Morning Read: Cue the lights
Eviction reversed, cast of 'Cuckoo's Nest' prepares for its hard-won opening night.
By KEITH SHARON
When: Through Jan. 29.
SANTA ANA The actors show up at the theater. It's strange that they're here during the day, like vampires at brunch. But this is not about acting. This is about moving.
They're going home.
They're picking up all the stuff - the lights, the seats, several platforms, speakers, other furniture - that had been moved to the empty room next door, and they're taking it back.
The show that couldn't go on ... is going on.
The momentarily homeless Rude Guerrilla Theater Company finds out the first week of January that the landlord - who evicted them, then tried to move them into an adjacent storefront, then neglected to pull the permits to allow them to move - isn't going to throw them out after all.
This maddening/persevering production of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" can move back to 200 N. Broadway, where the troupe has been for eight years. The clothing store that wants their space won't move in for another month.
"It's been a big, huge pain in the ass," says Dave Barton, Rude Guerrilla artistic director. "Now we have to move everything back."
If the actors weren't on meds before, they certainly have an excuse now.
All this shuffling leaves the director, Gregory Cohen, in an awkward spot. Remember, the opening was supposed to be Jan. 6. So Cohen planned a trip to New York for the weekend of Jan. 13, figuring he could miss the second weekend of "Cuckoo's Nest" shows. He bought Broadway tickets to see "Spamalot," the Monty Python musical.
You've heard of the nervous director pacing in the lobby, unable to watch opening night? In this case, the nervous director will be 3,000 miles away.
"They're ready," Cohen says. "They don't need me."
It is a Friday afternoon, one week to go before opening night, and the actors meet in their now-gutted theater to re-hang the lights, re-situate the seats and re-wire the sound system. They are also painting the floors "institutional yellow" and the walls "institutional green," Cohen says. Not that anyone has to be reminded, this play is about a mental institution.
Graffiti on the wall backstage: "Conflict is the origin of everything."
As the days tick closer to the opening - only a hack writer would point out that it is scheduled for Friday the 13th - the production is hemorrhaging drama.
Kristin Elliott (Nurse Ratched) is sick. She misses rehearsal.
The hospital attendant and security guard costumes don't arrive on schedule.
The speakers, which are supposed to amplify Chief Bromden's internal monologues, aren't working.
Jay Michael Fraley (R.P. McMurphy) is sick, too.
The air conditioner breaks.
Aside from a few tears and angry outbursts, here is the effect the behind-the-scenes drama has had on the cast: zero. They may be getting paid $15 for three months' work, but they're preparing as if this is Broadway (which, given their address, it is - but you get the idea).
For Elliott, this is her first paying gig. Elliott said she did her best acting for nine years when she "acted like I was in a happy marriage." After her divorce, she threw herself into small theater, but that obsession was cut short. She was seriously injured when her car was hit by a drunken driver. Now, she's fully recovered.
"If I didn't have theater to fall back on, I would have gone crazy," she said.
Elliott arrives first at the theater on opening night.
More than two hours before the show, she's sitting alone at the Gypsy Den, the arty restaurant across the street. She's got her script open and her headphones on. She's listening to the band XTC.
The music makes her think of Nurse Ratched.
By the time Elliott walks into the theater, Tui Scanlan (Chief Bromden) is already in his own world. He's dancing with his eyes closed, like he has done at virtually every rehearsal. Hector Chavez, who has a non-speaking role as a chronic, is shuffling and grunting around the stage in his pajamas.
Brandon Kasper (Billy Bibbit) takes his shirt off in the dressing room to reveal a shaved back. He's got a nude scene that back hair would not enhance.
Gilbert Martinez (Scanlon) shows up wearing a David Bowie T-shirt with a Marlon Brando hat. Elspeth Carden, who plays the student nurse, approaches.
"Who is that?" she says, pointing to Bowie.
Martinez breaks out laughing. Jara Jones (Martini) says, "It rhymes with David Bowie."
Producer Joe Hogan says he has just received a call from Cohen in New York who sends his best wishes.
"He says he's very excited for all of you," Hogan says.
"He's excited?" Kasper asks. "You should feel MY nipples."
When Fraley arrives, the cast presents him with a birthday cake. Fraley is 46 today. They place a tiara on his head and present him with a pack of nudie playing cards, similar to the ones his character has in the play. Only these cards have pictures of men.
The cast is so loud backstage that a woman in the box office comes back and tells them to quiet down.
They try, but they're too amped. Then, as if they needed it, Hogan reveals that the first two nights of the play are SOLD OUT. An even louder cheer goes up.
The women playing nurses and the men playing guards go outside to greet the audience. It was Cohen's idea to treat the audience as if they, too, were mental patients. The cast members, in character, are condescending to the "patients" as they "check them in" to their seats.
The nurses even guide the "patients" to the bathroom, where reality hits.
Minutes before the play is supposed to open, the women's toilet overflows.
Of course it does.
Members of the cast grit their teeth and get into positions.
All the drama behind them, the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company opens "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" before 42 audience members. It's a week late. It won't make much money, if any. It won't cause any traffic jams outside.
But they did it.
And you know what? McMurphy is more energized than he has been in rehearsal. Nurse Ratched is meaner. Somehow, the jokes are funnier than they were in November. The mental patients are crazier. There are gasps in the crowd as Billy Bibbit gets caught having sex with Candy Star. Gasps again as Chief Bromden places the pillow over McMurphy's face.
There is a long and loud cheer as the lights go dark.
But the actors (prompted by advice from Cohen) don't come out for a curtain call. In Rude Guerrilla theater, you don't take bows.
They want the final scene to be the lasting image.
This is not about them.