Instant Karma Resolution Day 13 – Behind the Curtain

Here’s how my 2010 Instant Karma Resolution works. Each day, I will randomly draw a name from my Friends List and make that person the subject of a status update where I will cull from memory some funny or interesting anecdote about the person. I’ll do this once a day until I work my way through the entire list. When you’ve been selected, I will also post this note to your wall and tag 5 of our mutual acquaintances in the hopes it will spur some nostalgic commentary.

Today I drew #13, my friends and fellow One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest cast mates.

First, a little disclaimer. Parts of this piece were originally posted on my site (www.edhumphries.com) in the wake of our final show. That said, that was almost two years ago so even if you read it then, it might be fresh once again. At the time I offered up an epic retelling of the backstage stories that the audience was never privy to and the whole point of the piece was to pay tribute to my fellow thespians who made my maiden voyage a pleasant one while also ribbing them a fair amount. All in good fun of course.

So without further adieu, I proudly present the ‘Behind the Curtain – The Completely Unauthorized, Mostly 100% True, Shocking Expose of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.

Show’s over folks. There’s nothing more to see here.

That is unless you’ve been left hankering for some truly titillating tales from back stage. If that’s your bent than you came to the right place. Now that I’m off contract, I have no qualms about letting y’all in on the back stage secrets behind South Central Massachusetts’ hottest show since Local Apple Pickers #321 staged The Full Monty. Yes, I know I’m likely to burn bridges but let’s be honest here. You saw my performance as Aide Warren. In his review in the New Yorker, David Denby said “if this rage were bottled it would be seventeen years past its Born on Date’. I think that’s what the lay-men call, “the suck”. Knowing I’ll never work in this town again, I’ve got nothing but time and bridges to burn.

When I sat down to inscribe the last dissertation on my two-month experience with the Gateway Players, I was officially settling into the doom and gloom of the day after. The windows had been shuttered. The sets struck. And the actors put out to pasture.

But it was a good run. And a great cast. And one of the finest experiences of my life. And that’s why I signed on for this gig in the first place. For the first time in a long time, I found myself, midway through the winter of 2008, in a bit of a funk. Actually, I’ll call it what it was. A full blown depression that had settled in for a long winter’s spell. And those of you who know me well, know that is very far from the norm. In fact, I really can’t recall ever getting depressed for anything more than a half hour or so in my entire life. I’m just not wired that way.

But sometime after that holiday magic had dissipated and the winter chill had frosted my bones for much too long, a deathly pall laid its cool grip on me. I think it hit me twice as hard because, as I mentioned, I don’t often get depressed so this was a brave new world that I didn’t want any part of exploring.

When the ice began to thaw and the days grew long, I found I could shake most of my unwanted visitor. But, somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind, it still lurked – preying on my emotions. So, I did what I often do when confronted with some random, strange ailment. Self-diagnosis.

This one was easy. In essence, I needed a change.

As you know, I’ve toiled for a number of years in the financial industry. Way back, when I first exited college (1994), I dipped my toes in these waters and promised myself that I would keep to the shallow end. One year and I’d be out. Just enough time to make some money to pay my rent, pay down those student loans and get a new car while I looked for a career that would pay me to do what I love – write.

I should have paid more attention to the signs posted on shore. ‘Warning – Dangerous Rip Tide’. I dipped my toes in and got sucked under, whisked out to sea by a swift moving current. And the slipstream carried me forward, faster and faster, as the sand drained from the hour glass and the pages ripped from the calendar with wild abandon. And when I looked back, it was too late. My life had taken such shape that any drastic changes in terms of profession would result in drastic lifestyle changes. And I’ve got kids to feed.

Now, I can’t complain too much because I have it pretty damned good. I have a beautiful wife. Two adorable kids. A wonderful family. A good job that has rewarded me greatly. A nice house. And most of the trappings I desire. Can’t bitch about any of that.

But, I also can’t deny the fact that from time to time, I feel that itch. That I should be doing something more with my talents. We all have something. I can’t cook. I can’t sing. Some of you now know that I can’t act. But I can write like a muthaf@#ka!!!

Excuse the profanity (and extreme narcissism) but I think when you have only one talent (seriously, I completely suck at absolutely every activity on this entire Earth to the point that it is a shear miracle I still draw breath. You should see me macramé. What do I know about making pasta?) – the point being that you have to take some pride in what you do well.

Let’s reel this back in as I swear, the tangent has a point.

Following one of her Sound of Music performances over the Summer of 2008, my wife Andi casually mentioned that her co-star Dave was staging an Autumn production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and that he was hard up for guys. If you take anything away from this post, it’s that Dave is hard-up for guys. Anyway, he had asked Andi if her husband was interested in acting. Knowing that path led directly to Dave’s Casting Couch, she put my better interests in mind and told Dave, “My husband’s dead.” And she would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids… oh, and the fact that her husband happened to go to 101 of the 102 performances that Gateway ran over the weekend of August 15th.

With my reanimation complete, Dave thought he’d toss me an olive branch as penance for macking on my wife for two plus months while I slumbered away through that long dirt nap, and offered me a role in his show. As I mentioned, he was looking for a few good men. See, one of the secrets of theater, especially community theater, is that many productions have a hard time fielding enough dudes to fill all the male roles. So, they’ll pull a bait and switch meaning audiences are often treated with shows like The Female Odd Couple, The Fabulous Baker Broads and my personal favorite; You’re a Good Chick, Charley Brown. Anyway, Dave sized me up, saw I came equipped with the right brand of genitalia and offered me the role of Aide Warren.

I’ll skip through all the rehearsal stuff. All you need to know is that when we started in the second half of August, Dave had assembled a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” to fill his cast. (Wait, I think that’s from Star Wars). Let’s go with this – Dave had assembled a rogue’s gallery of personalities culled from all disciplines. Some were longtime theater vets. Others dabbled. And then there were guys who knew how to flaunt their package. Yeah, that’s right; our Indian Chief Bromden works for UPS. Where’d you think I was going with that?

From those of you who attended a show, the call seemed to be unanimous – you liked what you saw. Personally, I thought we nailed our Opening Night performance; a fact supported by the 4-Star review in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. From there, we only got better; with the following Friday and Saturday shows especially electric.

On a personal note, I achieved my lofty goals. Simply put – “Don’t suck”. My greatest fear was that I would somehow derail this Crazy Train. Then again, I knew my role was marginal so short of clipping the lead McMurphy with my minivan on the way into Opening Night, there wasn’t a great deal that I could inadvertently do to cause complete catastrophe. But, I am an amateur in every sense of the word, so I desperately wanted to “not suck”. I carried that fear with me through the final curtain call. And while I had a number of friends and family attend various performances, each of them offering kind words and rave reviews, I don’t believe any single one of those lying, thieving bastards. After all, they’re my friends and family. They’re supposed to be kind to my face and reserve the “lying, thieving bastard” talk for behind my back. Sort of what I just did right there.

That is why that random woman who cut through the crowd, following our October 20th performance, and offered up her assessment really brings a smile to my face.

I hope you take this as a compliment. I really hated you.”

I guess I didn’t suck after all. Job well done, I say. Behold, Ed Humphries – Master Thespian. Oh sure, laugh all you want but you try stepping into the steel-toed boots of Aide Warren, one mofo so mean he wears white after Labor Day. Yup, that’s me, Nurse Ratched’s Right Hand of Doom.

Now, here’s a little backstage secret for those of you not familiar with the source material. The play was written and published in the 60’s and some of the dialogue dates the piece to that time period. While many of the lines have survived the march of time, the characters of Aide Warren and Aide Williams are clearly antiquated notions. Both characters were written for African-Americans; however the original script peppers their lines with jive slang, language that wouldn’t fly in this day and age – certainly not coming from the mouth of a guy whiter than his uniform.

So, on the opening day of rehearsal, in my first reading and upon my initial introduction to a fellow cast in a long, long time – the director handed my cohort Chris and I our scripts and said “Ed – You’re Warren. Chris – You’re Williams. Learn your lines but not the ones in the script.” I’m probably paraphrasing but the message was loud and clear. For the love of God, and your own body, DO NOT PERFORM YOUR ROLES IN BLACK FACE!!!

So, we had to essentially perform an impromptu re-edit of almost every single line and then remember exactly what we had changed. To this end, my wife sabotaged me. Early on, she caught me rewriting one of my lines and admonished me – “You can’t write in the script. You have to return those when you’re done.” So, with my primitive brain unable to comprehend this new gizmo called a “Caw-pee-ahhh” (<– to be read in my best Bah-stahnnn accent), I decided to take mental notes of all of the changes. As the days flew, I would stare at my fellow cast mates with their dog-eared copies, looking at the sea of yellow that drowned most pages and just shake my head. “Idiots”, I’d mutter under my breath. They’ll rue the day they have to fork over $6.50 to replace that parchment. On the very last day of production, I came across one script that had been fashioned into a Napoleon hat. My fellow Nurse’s Station cohort, Kristin, let on that the “No graffiti” rule only applied to musicals. We were given carte blanche to tear these things a new one. Hearing the news, I felt a “Warren” coming on. So yesterday afternoon, I snuck up on that unsuspecting manuscript and practiced my origami. Tis a shame, I had to then put that wounded crane out of its misery.

As Chris and I were free to redefine our characters, we got working on a back story. You know those old cartoons, where a big bulldog roams down the sidewalk while an excited looking smaller dog bounces up and down around him yammering on “What do you want to do today, Spike. Huh. Huh. What do you want to do?” Yeah, we’re those pups.

He’s the grizzled veteran who just lets life pass around him confident in his station in life and I’m that young buck looking to scrap. If you saw the show, you probably caught Chris in the Nurse’s Station popping the patient’s meds and taking a nap. The way he figured it – Williams has been on this ward a long time, seen his share of trouble, and is now just biding his time ’til retirement. Essentially, he’s too old for this shit. He’s the Danny Glover to my Mel Gibson, only he couldn’t actually play “Danny Glover” given Dave’s previous direction.

Me, I’m the loose cannon. My guy has been on the block a short period of time and is just looking to kick some ass. He’s found the perfect gig to remedy his inferiority complex, his levels of testosterone and authority leveled just enough to give him the rhyme and reason to beat down those he wouldn’t dare tussle with in the real world. A huge, hulking gentle giant like the Chief makes perfect fodder for his sadism. After all, the Chief is deaf and dumb, quiet as a field mouse and just as scary, meaning not very. The perfect prey for Warren.

But that infers that I had any sense of what I was doing and as I think I have made abundantly clear, I was clueless. I’d open that door, spit out some lines and try not to knock down the set or a cast mate. With an 82% success ratio, I think I did all right.

Where I may have been adrift in a sea of mediocrity, my fellow thespians walked on water. I was really taken by their performances and the subtle nuance that they colored into their characters as we walked that winding road from initial read-through to Closing Night. I may have heard those lines a thousand times, but they all found new ways to say them, to increasingly mine diamonds from the bedrock foundation laid out for us.

And that’s why, as I write this, I write it with a heavy heart. Coming together as one, united under the undying rally cry of “Hey Kids, Let’s Put on a Show“, whiffing a little in batting practice and then belting it out of the stratosphere when all the eyes of the world were upon us – it’s an experience I’ll treasure.

And it’s the people that I’ve encountered, strangers at the beginning, and now good friends – they’re what I’ll miss most of all. You put a lot on the line when you decide to get up and entertain the masses. Each of us is out there tethered to the same life line. One of us slips and we could careen down the mountainside. But working together – working off of each other – that’s what keeps you driving ahead.

And I think it’s those sentiments that completely out me as an amateur. I’m sure my fellow cast mates – certainly those for whom this show is just another character added to their healthy body of work – have adapted to the curious demands a production brings upon its players. You need to come together, become fast friends and family, work the lines, raise the curtain, give your shout out to the cheap seats, lower the lights, toast the effort at the cast party and then life interrupts and we return to our regularly scheduled programming. They’re used to it. Move on down the line to the next show.

For me – this could be the only show. Who knows, right?

So, this was a great experience – exactly what I needed and it came along at just the right moment to prove to me that regardless of how you pay the bills, there is plenty of opportunity out there to do something that nurtures your passion and soul. I got to go out there and bust heads nightly. That’s entertainment… and therapy!!!

But more than the scratch I needed to remedy that creative itch, this was one of those experiences that nourishes my life. My eyes were opened to a play I knew of but did not truly know. More importantly, I was introduced to a fantastic group of individuals that taken on their own, are immensely gifted and talented, but brought together, rivaled Broadway.

There are many memories that I‘ll carry with me. I’m sure everyone has their own and there’s no way I could capture them all here and keep your attention any longer. But, I’m willing to share a few.

Starting with Chris Ebacher (Aide Williams) and his absolute refusal to iron his damned uniform.

Chris and I both wore matching white suits – looking very much like Good Humor Men from Hell. The difference between us was that I was always stiffly starched and he was a wrinkled mess. On the night of the first true Dress Rehearsal, Chris extracted his white pants and button-down shirt from a crowded gym bag and proceeded to unroll them from the ball he’d fashioned. There wasn’t a square inch of fabric that wasn’t wrinkled. Standing alongside me, we modeled ‘Before’ and ‘After’ as if we just stepped out of a Dry Cleaner ad. Our dear Nurse Ratched, Carol Vancil, offered to iron his clothes but Chris brushed her off.

The next day (OPENING NIGHT!!!) he returned, full of pride. He walked right though, peacocking all the way, showing off his newly ironed uniform (assuming mankind still ironed clothes with a flat slab of granite). His collar an accordion, he strides up to the Big Nurse with a huge, self-satisfied grin and says “What do you think?” She gives him the once over and scares some starch into him. Each day from there on out, his uniform got progressively flatter. By the final performance, I believe his white khakis could have passed for cords, which was really an improvement even if it wasn’t.

Under duress, I could tell you the exact moment that brought the house down, every night. Act II – the big party scene. One of McMurphy’s party girls, Sandy, lets loose an ear-splitting scream and comes running from the dormitory with a staggering, drooling Ruckley quick on her heels. The second he dropped his catch-phrase, “Fuck ‘em all” – the audience would lose it. We would hear the whole thing in our Green Room downstairs, projected over a baby monitor, and the shear chaos and laughter that moment coaxed plastered a huge grin on our collective mug. Every single damn time.

Then there was the aforementioned Ruckley, or John Bull, and the sheer volume of drool that poured forth from his pie hole. I half-expected sand to come coursing from his mouth by the last night. I’ve said it a million times and I’ll put it in print. His was the role I would never want. Between keeping his arms suspended for ten minutes at a time on coat hooks to hypnotizing his fellow cast mates with a pendulum of drool (I swear he had me barking like a chicken one night – and yes, you just read that right) – that role was demanding as all hell. Hats off to you John, you disgusting bastard.

Of course, there was our resident renegade, R.P. McMurphy, essayed by Chris Morse. The Worcester Telegram & Gazette review labeled him as DeNiro-esque. The thing with Chris is he’s not up on pop-culture post 1812, so his first question was “Who’s Robert DeNiro”? My first question was – “Raging Bull, DeNiro or Awakenings, DeNiro?” Anyway, Chris lets on that he psyched himself up for Sunday’s matinee show by taking in a morning showing of the Patrick Dempsey rom-com, Made of Honor. Chris learned what millions of Grey’s Anatomy fans have known forever. Nothing gets the pulse quickening like 20,000 cc’s of McDreamy.

Somewhere Chris is reading this and wondering – “What’s a McDreamy… and can I get that Super Sized?”

I’ll also fondly remember the Nurse’s Station conversations between Nurse Flynn and I. To the audience, it looked like I was planning my own coup and wrestling control away from Williams and the Big Nurse. Inside, we were actually stack-ranking our favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes. Turns out we’re both huge fans of Hush and Once More with Feeling.

There was also the battle royale that almost raged when I dared tell two young starlets (Sandy and Candy) in Dane Cook’s prime demographic (which would be chicks aged 18 – 32) that I couldn’t care less about King Dane and his “Soopahhh Fingahhh”. Their outrage was rivaled only by Chris Morse’s reaction to my Jonas Brothers’ diss.

Then there was Rip’s (Harding) barometric measure of movie IQ. He tossed Buckaroo Banzai at me. I told him my 14 year-old self might have grooved to it but the Warren in me refused to deny its existence, subsisting on a steady cinematic diet of Chained Heat’s I through X. Rip let me vault past the velvet rope for that one.

There was Billy’s quick wit. Case in point. The Chief (Mike Dupuis) labors for UPS in his day job. Director Dave tells The Chief that he needs to start moving quicker in one scene. Billy lobs out – “Pretend you work for Fed-Ex“. I laughed my ass off.

And finally, I remember Dave, our director, bounding down the stairs – walking up to Scanlon (the Corn Chip Commando) and demanding – “You’ve got to play with your box more.” A quick Google search reveals that this is the exact same, unfortunate choice of words that got him bounced as Headmaster at Vasser.

Oh, I hear your groans. Hey, don’t blame me. I don’t write this stuff.

Anyway, that’s all just the tip of the iceberg. Many more stories out there and maybe someday, when I get to work on those memoirs (you know – after I’ve actually done something worth recounting), I’ll polish off a few more chestnuts.

But, in closing, I order up one final curtain call. This show. This cast. This experience. All have conspired to add value to my life. When I really stop and survey my surroundings, I realize I have it pretty good. But there’s always room for improvement.

When I started this show, I made a wish. Like the Chief said to McMurphy, I secretly declared – “Make me bigger.”

Looks like I’ve grown half a foot already.