Taking on a role that will be forever linked to a single performance can be a scary undertaking for many actors. However, for Studio 58 theatre students Erin Cassidy and Markian Tarasiuk, it is an opportunity to learn as they prepare to take on the central roles in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
… if I go onto the stage and try to recreate a performance it simply won’t ring true, unless it really does in that moment. Patrick has told us that if we see something in the movie and want to use it, we should go for it, but it needs to be honest. – Erin Cassidy
Based on Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, the play tells the story of R. P. McMurphy, the charming reprobate who contrives to serve a short sentence in a mental institution instead of in prison. What he doesn’t count on is Nurse Ratched, a rigid disciplinarian who rules patients by taking advantage of their weaknesses. McMurphy, an anti-authoritarian at heart, encourages his fellow inmates to revolt against the arbitrary rules and regulations, even arranging a rollicking midnight party with booze and girls. The inevitable showdown between the two leads to both tragedy and liberation.
The 1975 film version went on to win five Academy Awards, including best picture and acting awards for both Louise Fletcher and Jack Nicholson for their roles of Nurse Ratched and McMurphy. In 1977, the Film Institute of America voted it into its Top Ten of America’s Best Films, and the roles of McMurphy and Ratched have since become synonymous with Fletcher and Nicholson.
“I think it the actor’s challenge to rise above it,” says Cassidy of playing a role intrinsically linked to Fletcher’s Oscar-winning performance as Nurse Ratched. “Unless you’re doing an original piece, every time you approach a role you’re going to have some idea of what the character should be, or what people will think it should be. Making the role your own is just one more part of the process.”
Tarasiuk, who plays McMurphy, agrees, but with the added challenge of a father who is an avid Nicholson fan. “I grew up with his movies because my dad was such a fan. But Jack Nicholson is Jack Nicholson. He is so unique and I would never be able to recreate what he did. People are going to make the inevitable comparisons, and that is okay.”
In reading Kesey’s novel, Cassidy says there are enough differences between the book and stage play, let alone the movie, making it more accessible and more challenging for her to do her job.
“The book is told from the perspective of the Chief, so trying to get all the information I need about Nurse Ratched from his perspective is not easy, but it does help to inform me who she is and then I read the play to make my own decisions and motivations.”
As for Fletcher’s performance in the 1975 film adaptation, Cassidy sees the inevitable comparisons but pulls from her theatre training for help.
“I mean, the character of Nurse Ratched was named as one of the top five American film villains of all time. Those are some pretty big boots to fill,” she laughs. “But if I go onto the stage and try to recreate a performance it simply won’t ring true, unless it really does in that particular moment. Patrick [director Patrick McDonald] has told us that if we see something in the movie and want to use it, we should go for it, but it needs to be honest.”
Marksian is resigned to the inevitable movie comparisons, something he experienced in the Studio 58 production of Grease last year.
“The comparisons are going to be inevitable,” he says. “I played Danny Zuko last year and had to figure out how to bring such an iconic character to life. I’ve decided to throw the comparisons out the window and have come to realize that I can only bring what my version would be.”
Beyond the expected links to past performances, though, Marksian and Cassidy see enough differences between book, movie and play to make it an entirely new experience for audiences.
“For McMurphy, the play moves so quickly he has to be sharp,” says Marksian. “While it isn’t specific, in the book McMurphy is in the institution for about a year and in the play it all takes place over a month. The character journey is much quicker in the play.”
“In every meeting Ratched and McMurphy have there is something they both need to win because things are moving so quickly,” adds Cassidy.
Perhaps more surprising than the inevitable acceptance of playing such iconic characters is the solid understanding of what drives their two characters.
“I was surprised to find that in Nurse Ratched’s world everything runs like clockwork before McMurphy comes into the picture,” says Cassidy. “Perhaps she isn’t really the villain everyone makes her out to be. The terrible things that happen wouldn’t have happened if McMurphy hadn’t shown up because she wouldn’t have allowed them to.”
“McMurphy infiltrates and ruins what Ratched has created for these men,” interjects Marksian. “He sabatoges what is happening and it becomes this personal battle between the two of them. It is up to the viewer to decide which side to take.”
As for finding themselves in the two characters, they are to play on stage, both say they can relate, although, for Cassidy, it is not from Ratched’s darker side. “From the point she was voted as one of the top ten villains of all time, probably not,” she laughs. “But I can relate to how she is trying to help, and how she is very annoyed and upset that her way is not the way anymore.”
“The biggest thing is McMurphy is a hothead who lets his emotions and passions take over. If you got to know me you’d see that is how I react,” Marsian admits. “Not in a mean way, just in a passionate way getting into other guy’s skulls and being the top man in every situation. It is fun to play with that side of me and make the performance more full.”