Monday, September 12, 2011

The Journey to the Stage: "Kaddish" by Allen Ginsberg

"Kaddish" by Allen Ginsberg is an unrelenting expression of grief in poetic narrative written mostly in a marathon 36 hour session fueled by uppers and coffee. In transferring this monolithic text to the environs of theatre, many humbling questions spring to mind.

How does one capture the original energy behind this seminal exertion of poetry?
How does one meet such specific personal experience?
What is the theatrical equivalent to the non-linear recollection of thoughts, memories, and nightmares searching for peace and grace?

The poem “Kaddish” is largely the story of Allen’s mother, Naomi Ginsberg. Naomi's journey began with her immigration as a child from Russia to make a new life in New Jersey where she battled mental illness in adulthood--and ended with a stroke while committed to a mental institution on Long Island. Allen signed for her eventual lobotomy that most likely led to her untimely stroke. Previously, Allen had written notes for years in his journals including false starts of poems about his relationship with Naomi. But, it was the finality of her death that was the catalyst for "Kaddish".

The beauty of the poem is in the words. I love poetry. I love poetic theatre. I first read "Kaddish" fifteen years ago. As I did, the words leapt off the page for me begging to be given physical form. I was not alone in this instinct to adapt "Kaddish". In the early 1960's, photographer/filmmaker Robert Frank asked Ginsberg to adapt his poem into a screenplay which he did. Although never produced, the Chelsea Theater Center in 1971 adapted the screenplay into a multi-media, multi-character play which was produced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and directed by Robert Kalfin. Another production was translated into Hebrew and produced by the National Theatre of Israel. In 1988, the Eye & Ear Theatre Company in New York also adapted the poem incorporating many elements from the screenplay as well.

“Kaddish” is, after all, a dramatic story but not an easy one to tell. It is raw and vulnerable and stands in stark contrast to that other seminal Ginsberg poem "Howl". When Naomi passed, Ginsberg was a rising star. "Howl" was published the year before Naomi's death and the ensuing obscenity trials and censorship controversies put Ginsberg in the national spotlight as an important face of the Beat Generation. The captivating authority of the poetry in “Howl” contrasts the literary voice in "Kaddish" which was born from Ginsberg's own personal demons--his conflicting thoughts about his sexuality at the time, the horrific childhood memories caring for his mother effectively reversing the mother and child relationship, his ambivalence towards his cultural and religious background, and a hint at a new direction for his own spiritual journey.

The title comes from the Jewish prayer for the dead. The Mourner’s Kaddish is an exaltation of God that one speaks at a time of loss particularly that of a parent. It is also an ancient prayer and is written not in Hebrew but in the older Aramaic. When one says Kaddish, one is speaking the words of every person that has ever lost a loved one since the time that prayer was first uttered. It is full of history and conjures the spirits of ancestors inviting them into a communal and public experience. For me, these are basic ingredients of theatre which is a place that is also ancient in tradition, both public and private, and that is cathartic in experience.

The Kaddish prayer was never said for Naomi. Not because the Ginsbergs were not practicing Jews, but because as a fluke a minyan of 10 men were not present to speak it, which is required at a funeral. The significance of the Mourner’s Kaddish is that it must be public and must be heard. Allen was not a practicing Jew and was only beginning to investigate the Eastern philosophies. However at this time of familial loss, it’s interesting that Allen looked towards his own culture and history. Indeed, it is a conflicted relationship which is why the poem is so terribly compelling and dramatic.

In our production of “Kaddish (or The Key in the Window)”, we rely on the first two sections of Ginsberg's poem (the Proem and the Narrative). These sections were written under what Allen referred to as "all day attention". This was a technique that he frequently employed, and one that was born from his belief in "first thought, best thought". Ginsberg is certainly not without structure and he knew how to set up circumstances that would allow him to create lasting works of art. In other words, to get out of his own way.

My theatrical background comes from a strong training in the Viewpoints and the Suzuki Method of Actor Training. Suzuki Training provides a structure for artists to train basic and essential performative issues. The Viewpoints relies on structured improvisation. Both techniques give artists the tools and the ability to create work quickly without sacrificing specificity. For me, this connected to Ginsberg's own methodology of writing, “first thought best thought”, which is less random and anarchic as it might sound at first to the ear. Ginsberg's rapid fire production of language does not come without years of meditation. On the contrary, it includes years of history, discipline, and preparation that finally allow the inspiration to flow freely. It has a lot to do with timing and circumstances. A delicate balance, to be sure.

When I first read "Kaddish", I was honestly not ready to make this piece. I was aware that the idea needed to gestate, and I needed to grow. I needed to experience my own loss, as we all inevitably do, in order to bring something to the table.

In 2009, we finally began workshopping the material in a whirlwind 2 week process. While not as brief as the 36 hours Ginsberg took to compose the original text, 2 weeks is still extremely limited in the world of theatre. However, the opportunity allowed myself and our talented team of collaborators (director Kim Weild, sound designer Darron L West, scenic designer Nick Vaughan, lighting designer Brian H Scott, projection designer C. Andrew Bauer, and costume designer Terese Wadden) to work intuitively and instinctively. Inspired by what Allen remarked as “years of preparation but only seconds to execute”, we worked fast on our feet. By that point, the research had been done and Ginsberg had already provided the detail. There was no time to be heady. We worked quickly, trusting out hearts, listening to the room, allowing all the gestating ideas to unfold freely while making bold strokes on the canvas. Our structure was Allen’s poem. Without editing or deconstructing, we retained every word of the text in the order as it was published. This allowed Ginsberg’s words to stand on their own. They are vivid, dense, and powerful. Our job was to meet the poetry every step of the way. Therefore, we concentrated on cultivating a physical environment, discovering an emotional journey, and creating an aural and visual landscape to stand up to Ginsberg’s language. It meant putting the story back into the heart and mind of a solo character. (It is after all one man’s story from one man’s point of view--a dark night of the soul and an exorcism of memory.)

In truth, "Kaddish" was not written as a play; and yet, “Kaddish (or The Key in the Window)” is not a poetry reading either. It is my belief that Theatre is a journey and often a poetic one at that. As Allen's father Louis, who was also a poet in his own right, once told Allen "there are many mansions in the House of Poetry". I also believe there are many mansions in the House of Theatre as well. I believe in Theatre as a space to take an audience on a journey. Sometimes the journey is entirely about a great plot, or of a theme, or of characters in conflict, or of an emotional response. But whatever the hook, the experience for the audience is still that of a journey nevertheless.

“Kaddish (or The Key in the Window)” has already provided for me a unique collaboration between Theatre and Poetry, and a fitting beginning for The Adaptations Project. I hope you will journey with us.

Tickets are ON SALE at
Sept 29 - Oct 9 at the 4th Street Theatre, NYC
- Donnie Mather
Note: This blog was previously posted in another form during the 2009 Workshop.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Life & Art mix Unexpectedly

I write this entry today during the first week back in rehearsals for "Kaddish (or The Key in the Window)" based on the poem by Allen Ginsberg directed by Kim Weild. Our premiere later this month will mark the 50th Anniversary of the poem's publication. The poem's title comes from the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, particularly of a parent. Allen lost his mother Naomi at the height of his fame with "Howl". The Kaddish was not said at her grave because they did not have a minion of 10 men to bear witness. Allen wrote his elegy to Naomi 3 years after her passing.

Since our initial workshop of this play 2 years ago, my father passed away a year ago in August. The experience of the play, the research of the tradition and ritual of observing such an occasion was swirling in my head. My father while fairly healthy in this elder years, fell out of his bed and suffered a severe subdural hematoma. Within several hours, he was taken to hospital and within the following hour rushed to a specialized hospital to undergo emergency brain surgery to relieve the swelling. But it was clear that his condition was worse and that the damage was fatal. He was left in a coma.

One rushed day of making difficult family decisions via conference calls, I jumped on to the last flight to Louisville where I met my family at the hospital to make our collective goodbyes together. By midnight, the nurse entered to remove the life support, feeding tubes, and the like. She administered the morphine drop and I felt my father's already motionless hand gently release from my own. He held steady through the night. My sister and I slept on a floor in a storage closet for a mere 2 hours. This would be the last sleep I would get for the next 2 and a half days, a feat I had never in my life encountered. By the following night, only 25 hours after removing life support, he passed away in one final struggle and noble fight there in front of myself, my mom, and 2 of my sisters. Never bearing witness to the passing of a life before, it was an extraordinarily profound experience for me. I will never forget it. The arrangements began at 3am that night and I was appointed to write the eulogy (the reason I didn't sleep the third night).

Loss and mourning are basic human experiences that we universally share. I am not Jewish, but I marvel at the rituals that other cultures have to mark these profound occasions. Growing up in a Protestant household without even the rituals of the Catholic Church to guide us, my family relied on the social habits of our community to navigate us through the difficult terrain of our own "shiva". Having lived in New York for 2 decades, I am fairly removed by time and distance from many of these social habits in Kentucky. But leaning on them at that time had its comforts.

This year, in seemingly pure coincidence, our first day of rehearsal for "Kaddish" landed on what is called, in the Jewish faith, the Yahrzeit or the anniversary of my father's passing. Traditionally this is a day of reflection, a day to avoid celebratory and social events. One lights a solitary candle for 24 hours and does something in the memory of the loved one, a mitvah, such as donating to a charity in their name, or engaging in spiritual study. It had not occurred to me until this month that my father's Yahrzeit would be our first day of rehearsal for "Kaddish" of all things.

The circumstances of Allen's loss of Naomi are quite different, of course. She suffered from mental illness for years, going in and out of hospitals, enduring a lobotomy, and succumbing to a stroke while institutionalized. It is not only a story of loss, but of loss that happens in pieces, many times in many ways, over many years. Allen was not a practicing Jew, but even 3 years after her passing, he reached back to his roots, his family's cultural traditions to find peace in his own way through his art. I may not have experienced the same pain and suffering that Allen endured with his mother's struggles, but I understand this very simple and yet profound impulse: Allen looked to his muse Poetry as a way to channel sensation, to find inspiration, to create utterance as a way to discover grace, or what Allen would call "consciousness".

On the occasion of my father's Yahrzeit, I am grateful that I also have my muse Theatre to navigate me through my own experience. And with Ginsberg's poem, he provides a difficult but sublimely beautiful terrain.

The Adaptations Project presents its inaugural production "Kaddish (or The Key in the Window)" at New York Theatre Workshop's 4th Street Theatre Sept. 29 - Oct. 9, 2011
Tickets are on sale now at
30% Early-Bird Discount in effect thru Sept. 12

For more information, visit

Friday, July 15, 2011

Monday, March 28, 2011

THE LAB: Training & Collaboration

Early-Bird Discount ends April 1
Enroll NOW and SAVE $30

The Lab with Donnie Mather
Viewpoints, Suzuki, & Collaboration

This workshop is designed for artists who already possess a foundation in both Viewpoints & Suzuki Method. We will review the basics, work on more advanced material in the context of Collaboration. The Lab is a great opportunity to revisit the training with other artists while exploring Text, Movement, & Music within a prescribed Theme.

April 16, 23, & 30
10am - 2pm
Atlantic Theatre School
76 Ninth Ave (at 15th St) 5th Floor in Studio 3
New York, NY

To apply, email
(only $150 for Advanced Registration by April 1)
(For credit card purchase, use PAYPAL account

Donnie Mather has 15 years experience with The Viewpoints and the Suzuki Method training primarily with SITI Company as well as with Tina Landau and Mary Overlie. Since 1999, Donnie has been a frequent instructor at the Atlantic Theatre School, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, New York University, Columbia University, The New School, Hope College, University of Puerto Rico, Louisiana State University, Fordham University, and Bard College. Donnie has also taught abroad at the University of Rio de Janeiro, Florianopolis State University, University of Uberlandia, Cia dos Atores, Sao Paulo, Manizales Theatre Festival, and the Iberoamericano Theatre Festival in Bogota. As an actor, he is a former Associate Artist of SITI Company performing in SEVEN DEADLY SINS, LILITH, NICHOLAS & ALEXANDRA, and MACBETH. He has collaborated with director Kim Weild on FETES DE LA NUIT and UNCLE VANYA as well as the upcoming premiere of KADDISH (or The Key in the Window). He created & performed A SHOW OF FORCE with director Leon Ingulsrud (NY Fringe, Manizales Festival, Hope College, & Hudson Guild). He is the founder of The Adaptations Project, a collective dedicated to creating theatre based on unusual source material.