ST. PETERSBURG — A tie-dye bus driven by the son of late author Ken Kesey is zizagging the nation in homage to the famed sojourn half a century ago when Kesey and his Merry Pranksters helped launch the hippie era.
Tampa Bay is not on their itinerary.
“We didn’t see a need,” Zane Kesey said during a phone interview, over the roar of the bus and the gleeful chatter of its passengers. “But maybe there was.”
In fact, it’s hard to a imagine a place more focused on Kesey and his works than the freeFall Theatre Company in St. Petersburg, where a stage version of his most popular novel — “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest,” about a brash loner who inspires fellow asylum patients to rebel — has sold out every show in a six-week run that ends Sunday.
Jim Sorensen, freeFall Theatre’s managing director, said the five-year-old theater has sold almost triple the 1,500 tickets normal for a play’s full run.
It was recently honored with nine Theatre Tampa Bay nominations, including best ensemble and outstanding production.
“It has been unprecedented success,” said Leigh Simon, who portrays asylum patient Scanlon and produced a documentary that gives audiences a backstage look at freeFall Theatre’s production. The video is at www.youtube.com/freeFallTheatre.
“I think that success has a lot to do with the brilliance of the play,” Simon said.
It is an immersive production, placing the audience at the center of the action.
All seating is styled after hospital furniture and the entire theater is decorated as a mental institution. Actors move throughout it, treating every inch as their set.
“My father would have enjoyed that,” Zane Kesey said. “He liked the shows that got the audience involved. He loved getting rid of those barriers that separate the audience and the performers.”
Sorensen of freeFall also attributed the success of his company’s “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest” to the continuing popularity of the story 50 years after the book was published.
“People still relate to it,” Sorensen said. “It asks the question, ‘Who is crazy? The inmate or the asylum?’”
The patients central to the story are not insane, Sorenson said. They are labeled so because they act and behave in ways considered unconventional by the majority.
“People still see ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ as a metaphor for rallying against the establishment that wants everyone to be the same,” he said. “It is a powerful message for any generation and one that Ken Kesey remains the spokesman for.”
“The combine lives,” quipped Ken Babbs, who was Ken Kesey’s close friend and a Merry Prankster – the group that formed around the author in Oregon and California for its epic 1964 bus trip. The combine is how the machine-like nature of the asylum system is described in the book.
“It assumes many identities and needs bodies to work its ills.”
Babbs was on the bus trip that turned Kesey from respected author to folk hero.
The trek, chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” began at Kesey’s ranch in La Honda, California, and ended at the World’s Fair in New York City. The trip was staged in part to promote the author’s second novel, “Sometimes a Great Notion.”
Fueled by LSD and other drugs, the Merry Pranksters boarded a wildly painted bus named “Furthur” and introduced Americans to the carefree and colorful lifestyle that would mark the decade.
It was a journey made possible by the success of “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“Kesey said his greatest work was the bus because it wasn’t art written on a page or shown in a movie but was art out amongst the people,” Babbs said.
“We were riding a wave,” he added. “We didn’t create the wave, and lots of others were riding it, too, and the wave is still going on.”
The memorial journey led by Zane Kesey takes place aboard “Further 2.0,” a bus his father purchased in the 1980s and decorated like the original. The journey started in July, runs through this month or longer, and has covered more than 7,000 miles — taking in music, historic and literary festivals in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, and any event or city that embodies the spirit of the original trip.
Zane Kesey’s sojourn is drug free, its purpose to remind and teach America of the importance of his father’s trek.
“There are two types of people — those who already know about the bus and those who see it and want their photo taken with it and in the process learn the history,” Zane Kesey said. “When you get those two types of people together, they always have a lot to talk about.”
Those riding the new bus are seeing first hand, as Sorenson observed, that the story of “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest” continues to resonate.
“High school teachers who grew up on it have chosen it as mandatory reading for their students,” Zane Kesey said. “You would be surprised how many high schools require it.”
The movie version starring Jack Nicholson won all five major Academy Awards in 1975 — best picture, actor in lead role, actress in lead role, director and screenplay.
In its initial run of 82 performances on Broadway, November 1963 to January 1964, the play starred Kirk Douglass and Gene Wilder. It inspired theatrical productions nationwide.
“Some of my father’s favorite performances took place at high schools,” Zane Kesey said. “He didn’t care whether star actors were in it. He cared about the passion of the performance.”
That passion, said filmmaker Simon, is evident in the freeFall Theatre performances.
“The actors love playing these meaty and sexy roles. There is an edge to the characters staying in an asylum as they transform from being part of the system to individuals.”