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.

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