Rocky Mountain Deaf Theatre does One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in sign language

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The concept is simple: Adapt Ken Kesey's novel about a fascist mental ward, and make half the patients deaf. The affect, though, is much more complex and dynamic. The Rocky Mountain Deaf Theatre's co-director, Nicki Runge, says she's always felt that "the way the patients were treated in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was reflective of some of my experiences as a person who is deaf." And with this production of Cuckoo's Nest (premiering at the Vintage Theatre on Friday, September 27), where half the dialogue is signed, the audience gets to experience the same moments of alienation and confusion that the hearing impaired deal with every day. Runge assures us, though, that those who don't understand sign language should have no problem following the story.

As with Kesey's original intention for his story, there is a larger metaphor here: This adaptation of Cuckoo's Nest takes a look at the ways society subjugates and patronizes the disabled, whether the disability is physical or mental. We recently chatted about these concepts with co-director Runge, discussing her co-mingling approach to presenting the deaf experience to a hearing audience while still allowing them to follow the story and feel the message.

See also: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest -- you'd be crazy to like this play.

Westword: For those unfamiliar with Rocky Mountain Deaf Theatre, could you help explain how your production differs from most forms of theater?

Nicki Runge: With most of our productions, the play is performed in American Sign Language and voice-interpreted for audience members who do not know ASL. Performing the show in ASL requires translating the script from written English. When the script calls for auditory elements such as a phone or doorbell, we are able to substitute those elements for the equivalent found in deaf culture. For example, a telephone is replaced with a video phone, and a doorbell becomes a blinking indicator light, like those used in the homes of deaf individuals. We have learned through trial and error that we still need to include some auditory aspects in our productions, such as music before the show and during intermission, to fill the awkward silence felt by those who have not spent much time in the deaf community.

For One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, we are not only using ASL; instead, we utilize a variety of communication strategies to highlight our directors' concept of two different worlds: the world of the hearing, and that of the deaf.

Do you feel this method ever alters the rhythm or inflection of the dialogue? Or is ever distracting from the visual aspects of the play?

The rhythm of ASL can be different from that of English because they are different languages; both have grown from the cultural experiences of their respective users. Nevertheless, when we translate a script into ASL, we focus on keeping the impact of the dialogue. The rhythm of the dialogue remains overall the same for the hearing members of the audience, because the voice interpreters follow the original English of the script.

The interpreters strive to match the affect of the deaf actors, so the experience should be equivalent for all members of the audience. In the two years that we have been in business, audience members have commented that watching the ASL and hearing the dialogue at the same time is a beautiful experience, because ASL is such an emotive and expressive language.

With Cuckoo's Nest, you have a sanitarium used as a metaphor for society manipulating the human spirit, as well as the literal narrative of the mentally ill being disrespected outcasts. Did your choice of this story have any relation to the feelings of alienation that the hearing impaired experience?

I did choose One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest because it offers the chance to highlight the alienation that deaf people sometimes experience in the mental health industry. My research shows that in the 1980s there was a trend of mental health institutions failing to provide interpreters to their deaf patients.

This lack of access to communication left the patients feeling alienated, and hindered their chance for recovery. Even now, there are medical institutions that do not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, and try to skirt the need for interpreters for their deaf patients. I also picked One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest because I found out that Louise Fletcher, who plays Nurse Ratched in the 1975 film, is herself a child of deaf adults, or CODA. This inspired me to portray the character of R.P. McMurphy as a CODA. In our production, McMurphy becomes the bridge between the deaf patients and the hearing staff.

What does a unique production like yours offer to non-hearing-impaired audience members who may be familiar with other Cuckoo's Nest productions, but not this one?

Our production offers audience members the chance to see diversity on stage because our play shows the variety of the deaf experience. We have a deaf character who is not allowed to sign and must voice for himself when Nurse Ratched is around, a group of deaf characters who only sign and never utter a word of English, and a hearing man, McMurphy, who chooses to sign when there are deaf people around because he wants them to have access to what's happening around them. Audience members will experience moments of confusion, where they aren't sure what a character is saying, and they'll have moments that seem more like their everyday experiences. We have tried to ensure that major plot points will be clear for everyone in the audience, whether they know sign language or not.

Did you feel that this story was particularly conducive to your style of theater?

I remember watching the film of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in college and thinking that the way the patients were treated was reflective of some of my experiences as a person who is deaf. Deaf people have what much of the world views as a disability or impairment, just like the patients in the institute in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Because I wanted to show both the deaf and hearing worlds for our production, I brought on a co-director, Pat Payne, who is hearing and has no prior exposure to deaf culture. Pat helped represent the hearing perspective, and I focused on presenting the deaf perspective. Rocky Mountain Deaf Theatre has not used this exact format before, because we wanted to use a unique mix of communication strategies to match our concept for the show. The Rocky Mountain Theatre's production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest runs from September 27 through October 6 at the Vintage Theatre, with performances following in Boulder and Colorado Springs. Tickets are $20 in advance and $30 at the door; for more information, visit www.rmdeaftheatre.com.

Follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.

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