Aisle Seat

Theater of the Insane
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest opens this week, marking the 25th anniversary of its original run here in San Francisco. The ever-charming Lee Sankowich, artistic director of Marin Theatre Company and director of the original S.F. and New York runs (Cuckoo ran in S.F. for more than five years and in N.Y. for two), regales us with tales from those productions: Actor Danny DeVito got his start in the New York show, where he made $120 a week. After he'd been doing Cuckoo for about six months, DeVito approached Sankowich and said, “I think I should either make more money, or put my girlfriend (now wife, Rhea Perlman) in the show.” Sankowich couldn't accommodate him on either count, but the two remained good friends, and DeVito was eventually cast in the movie. Another actor who got his start with Cuckoo (the San Francisco show) was Maxwell Gail, who had never acted a day in his life when Sankowich cast him as McMurphy. Gail is the guy who went on to play Wojohowicz on TV's Barney Miller.

As a matter of course, Sankowich takes his casts on field trips to mental wards so they can observe behavior of the residents and see what it's like to be in a mental institution. One time, he took actors to Napa State Hospital. A nurse showed them into a seclusion room — the proverbial padded cell — and suddenly the door slammed behind them. Through the window they saw a mischievous patient laughing gleefully. Eventually, he unlocked the door, but not until the cast had the loony-bin experience.

During the play's run in the '70s, now and then an audience member would drop his trench coat and run “streaking” across the Little Fox Theatre's stage. One night, Ken Kesey, author of the novel from which the play and movie were adapted, made reservations for a couple of people. He showed up to the sold-out show with a busload of 35 Merry Pranksters behind him, including Wavy Gravy, who for some reason was in a full body cast painted with the American flag. The Pranksters unloaded the immobile Wavy from the bus' emergency exit and propped him upright on a stretcher so he could see the show. The gang sat in the aisles, wearing beanies with propellers, drinking wine, and flying paper airplanes at intermission. “They were a great audience, though,” Sankowich says, “very attentive during the performance. It could have been a catastrophe.” Kesey, who based all of Cuckoo's characters (except for McMurphy) on real folks he observed while working as a night aide at the Veterans Administration in Menlo Park, loved the show. Sankowich says he has no surprises planned for this anniversary celebration opening, though he adds, “Who knows, maybe we'll have a streaker in the audience.” Any takers?

By Laura Jamison

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