“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has been cut from Perseverance Theatre’s upcoming season because of concerns about controversial content and cost.
The play’s depiction of an indigenous person, its handling of sexual assault and the theater’s financial constraints were all identified as reasons “Silent Sky” is taking the spot of “Cuckoo’s Nest” in the theater’s 41st season.
Perseverance Theatre initially announced “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” would have a mid-January to early February 2020 run at a March 2019 show of “Guys and Dolls.” The change in schedule was announced July 12.
“There are actually minds, bodies and spirits that could be injured” in putting on the play, said Leslie Ishii, the theater’s new interim art director in an interview about the decision. “I don’t see it as censorship. We still have the choice whether we are going to produce that play or not. … Should we reinscribe oppressive and racist and misogynistic tropes? It didn’t feel like the responsible thing to do when there’s many stories out there that we could tell around mental health.”
The book on which the stage play is based was published in 1962 and written in the late ‘50s by Ken Kesey, and its content is of its time.
Ishii pointed out “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is told through the eyes of a Native American character written by a white man, and its main character, Randle McMurphy, is a convicted rapist.
The decision to swap the play has sparked controversy, with some praising the decision and others saying the change is a form of art censorship.
Kathryn Rhinehart Curry, who already had tickets to see the performance, said she wished the company had asked the public what they wanted, because she and her husband were looking forward to seeing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“There are a great number of writings that are now considered racist, but reflective of the time period,” said Curry in a comment on a Facebook post announcing the decision to swap the play. “We cannot and should not rewrite or ignore our history based on current values.”
But Ishii said she doesn’t see it as art censorship, because from her vantage point, censorship would be if they were to change the play’s content.
Allison Holtkamp, a board member, said companies make changes like this all the time behind closed doors, but it’s refreshing to have an artistic director who is open about her reasoning.
“Perseverance Theatre (in the past) hasn’t been super open about the reasons for changes,” Holtkamp said in a text message. “We only hear rumblings about reasons why. This time it was open. It’s refreshing as a company member to feel informed … and to have an artistic director be so open about her point of view.”
Ishii said she always researches the way art will affect the community, and so after talking with mental health professionals and listening to concerned members of the community, she ultimately decided ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ wasn’t the right play for the theater at this time.
One playwright in residence, Vera Starbard, who is also a sexual assault survivor, said she was happy about the decision.
“As a sexual assault survivor, I am grateful the theater is not, once again, promoting a story with a confessed rapist as the hero,” Starbard told the Empire in an email. “If there is a way to do this play ‘right’ with talkbacks after every show to unpack the comedic use of rape, casual racism, rampant sexism and gross mental health stereotypes lobbed at the audience for two hours straight, or have community discussions about mental illness, consider alternate casting, etc … the theater simply doesn’t have the resources to do it ‘right’ in this moment.”
Former artistic director Art Rotch was also a part of the discussion, Ishii said, as well as Managing Director Frank Delaney, the entire staff, frequent collaborators and the community.
“This would have been potentially the third time that the company produced that particular play,” Delaney said. “That, in conjunction with everything else, we looked at it and since part of our mission is to continually provide space for voices whose stories are not necessarily getting told and one of the goals of the theater is to move toward more gender parity on stage, we decided to make a switch to a show that talks about a person who had a great impact on the sciences, and is not talked about very much. Her impact, her discoveries, were kind of co-opted by another person, so we think that we’ve got an equally important message that is being talked about, but one that is more in line with our current fiscal realities and with the mission of the theater.”
He said the financial limitations of the theater to “do the play justice” was also one of the factors that led to the change.
“Silent Sky” will also cost the theater less than half as much to produce than “Cuckoo’s Nest,” Delaney said.
Last year, the theater had to furlough employees because of six-figure debt. Ultimately, anonymous donors ensured the theater was able to raise the curtains on its 40th season. Delaney said the theater is in a stable place now, but they want to make decisions that will allow it to remain in good financial shape throughout the season.
Ishii said the new play also ties in with the season as a whole better, and highlights a story that isn’t as widely told.
“Perseverance Theatre has forged important relationships with the Alaska Native/American Indian/Indigenous communities and knowing that the perpetuation of derogatory representations of peoples in stories has caused pain and injury, we are dedicated to the prevention of re/injury due to this script’s racist treatment of the Indigenous character in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest,’ Ishii said in the release. “Perseverance Theatre also deeply respects and supports our mental health care community who work tirelessly to contradict negative stereotypes in order to create awareness and to offer care for the wellness of all Alaskans.”
• Mollie Barnes is a freelance writer based in Juneau.