Ken Kesey, like other 1960s counterculture writers, wrote critically of mainstream uniformity and conformity. After a stint working at a state veterans' hospital and experimenting with mind-altering psychoactive drugs, he began to think that the patients weren't crazier than anyone else, but that the dehumanization of the mental institution was making them insane.
The treatment of people who deviate from dominant cultural norms is one of the themes Kesey explored in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, his novel about very real and very skewed ideas of acceptable behavior. And if the author once said, "He who walks out of step hears another drum," the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Deaf Theatre company knows better than most what he was getting at.
For their version of Cuckoo's Nest (which was adapted for the stage in 1963 by Dale Wasserman) this weekend at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, the RMDT has added a twist: The patients at the mental institution are deaf, while the nurses and medical professionals can hear. The conflict between the patients and those in authority is heightened by their different ways of communicating. Nicki Runge, RMDT artistic director and CEO, says she wanted to "show the audience that there's two different worlds and cultures."
As in the book, Mac's a criminal who becomes a patient at the mental institution to avoid hard labor at a work camp. But here, he's also a child of deaf adults (or CODA), who can act as a bridge between the hearing and the deaf. With his CODA status, he sees who is sane as well as the cruelty of the asylum.
Co-director Pat Payne says he's been impressed with the way the deaf actors relied on facial and body expressions to get their point across. As Runge, who is deaf, explains via a videophone and interpreter, "Deaf people are a lot more visual. We are dependent on seeing for our language, so it's a huge part of our culture."
Usually in theater, interpreters are located off to the side, Runge says. That means when a deaf person looks to the interpreter, "they miss something that's happening on the stage — so they have to decide what's more important, the action or the language." Not so here. When patients use ASL, onstage interpreters will speak what's being signed; when nurses speak, two of their fellow nurses will sign what's spoken.
RMDT became the first professional resident sign language theater on Colorado's Front Range when Runge founded the company two years ago, and this will be the company's seventh production. By creating theater that is accessible for both hearing and deaf audiences, Runge hopes "deaf people will enjoy seeing a play that is equivalent to what hearing people experience when they go to the theater."