An interview with Donnie Mather
Kim Weild

I am excited most and come alive most when I am meeting up against an idea that may come from another realm, and in its realm it is fully formed mind you, and I take it to a different context and translate it, or some might say, adapt it. –Donnie Mather

The Adaptations Project, founded by Donnie Mather, is a project that involves working with a rotating roster of associate artists to adapt, or translate, works from media other than theatre into pieces performed as theatre. Kaddish (or The Key in the Window), originally performed as part of the New York International Fringe Festival in 2009, is a play that adapts Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Kaddish” into a one-person show; Rising: A Dance Play, projected to premiere in NY in 2013, uses Yoko Ono’s album of the same name about Hiroshima as a source to create a piece of theatre where each of the songs is theatricalized—a dance theatre scene, a trio, a solo, a monologue. The source material doesn’t have to be a work of art. A Show of Force, conceived and created by Donnie, is devised from the work of journalists and interviews with war heroes as well as work of playwrights such as Charles Mee and William Shakespeare. Behind The Adaptations Project is the idea that inspiration could be found in a coffee cup, or a series of photographs, or a Kandinsky painting, and be the basis for a theatre piece. It gives the artists involved a kind of freedom—a freedom of expressivity. Adapting pieces that fall outside the realm of theatre also raises the larger question of what theatre is in the first place. The process of adaptation involves identifying, working within, and challenging the limits that define theatre; in so doing, there’s a possibility of creating something that is new. Ultimately the process of adaptation and of theatre has to do with telling a story.

Donnie and I met in 1995 when we were training with SITI Co. in Saratoga Springs, NY. SITI is a company that brings together two forms of theatrical training: Suzuki, a practice developed by Tadashi Suzuki, and Viewpoints, originated by Mary Overlie. Donnie was an associate member of the company for six years; I moved to LA in 1998 and starting teaching Suzuki and Viewpoints at the company’s behest. Two years later I founded a company to offer ongoing training sessions and to bring SITI to LA every summer for intensives with the Los Angeles theatre community. In 2003 Donnie and I were both invited to perform with SITI in an opera that Anne Bogart was directing at the Los Angeles Opera called Nicholas and Alexandra. In 2004 I moved to New York to attend Columbia for an MFA in Directing. Part of that first year, I needed actors to be in scenes and pieces that I was working on and directing. I knew Donnie was living in the area, and I contacted him. It was at that point that we began to enter into a deeper relationship. He was Vanya in my production of Uncle Vanya, and he was in a production of Charles Mee’s Fêtes de la Nuit that I directed as my thesis that then subsequently ran off-off Broadway.

In 2009 Donnie approached me and said, “I applied to the New York Fringe Festival to do this piece—it’s this Ginsberg poem, ‘Kaddish’—and I got in. I want you to direct it.” And I said, “I don’t know ‘Kaddish’—I know ‘Howl’—I don’t know this—I’ve never even heard of it . . .” But I went over to his apartment, it was I think a Wednesday, about 8:30 at night, and he sat there and he read it to me . . . and the wind was knocked out of me. I had such a strong, visceral response to it that I had to say yes.

Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the deceased—and a prayer of exaltation rather than lamentation, a prayer that magnifies and sanctifies God, that contains no mention of death:

Magnified and sanctified
May His great Name be . . .

The prayer is recited by the son every day for a year following the death of one his parents. Kaddish may also be said for siblings, children, and immediate in-laws. In order to recite the prayer, a minyan—or a quorum of ten male Jewish adults—must be formed, and the prayer is then recited in unison. It is said to help the soul of the departed rise, and to help the living go on in what could be their greatest despair. When Allen Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi, died in 1956, seven people attended her funeral as she was buried near the state mental hospital where she had spent much of her life. Allen himself, 3000 miles away in San Francisco and employed on a ship that was getting ready to leave for Alaska, did not attend. Because only seven people attended her funeral, the requirements for a minyan had not been met, and the Kaddish had not been recited. His poem would become the prayer that hadn’t been said. The Ginsbergs were not an observant family, and Allen realized he knew little about the prayer. He asked his father to send him a copy. He wrote in his journal on July 29, 1956, “Kaddish or the Sea Poem, irregular lines each perfect. Now all is changed for me, as all is changed for thee, Naomi,” and he ended with a note, “Write Kaddish.”1

Ginsberg worked on “Kaddish” in Paris 1957, but it was in a marathon writing session in New York City in November 1958 that the bulk of “Kaddish” was composed. Ginsberg was up all night with a friend, Zev Putterman, reading sections of Shelley’s poem “Adonais,” an elegy composed on the death of John Keats, listening to the blues of Ray Charles who he had not heard attentively before, listening to the rhythm as Putterman read the Kaddish in Hebrew aloud, high on morphine and methamphetamine.2 In this exalted state early that Saturday morning, he walked from Putterman’s to his apartment

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village

and wrote for forty straight hours the first draft of “Kaddish.” In a deeply, deeply personal poem where memory and poetic license conflate time and image, where rhythm forms the structure that holds the poem together

Magnificent, mourned no more, marred of heart, mind behind, married dreamed, mortal changed

and where perception is charged with all the emotional associations he has with his mother—his guilt, his search for understanding, his love—Ginsberg constructs a narrative whose revelations are imaginative as well as biographical. There’s an extraordinary moment in the poem where Allen takes Naomi to a rest home in Lakewood, several hours from their home. It’s a moment that highlights the symptoms and effects of her insanity that will become patterns—her paranoid visions and accusations that others are out to get her, her erratic and alienating behavior, Allen’s aloneness and wondering if it is somehow his fault—and it appears as a loss of innocence. After the traumatic ride to Lakewood and traumatic effort to find Naomi a room, Allen returns on the bus alone, sunk down in his seat, his heart is broken, he’s twelve years old:

12 riding the bus at nite thru New Jersey, have left Naomi to Parcae in Lakewood’s haunted house—left to my own fate bus—sunk in a seat—all violins broken—my heart sore in my ribs—mind was empty—Would she were safe in her coffin—

In his afterward to the 50th Anniversary Edition of Kaddish and Other Poems: 1958-1960, Bill Morgan indicates Ginsberg was fifteen when he took his mother to Lakewood. Similarly, the letter Allen receives from Naomi may also be an amalgamation of a letter Ginsberg did receive after his mother died—“I hope you are not taking any drugs as suggested by your poetry”3 —and a letter Naomi had written to his brother, Eugene, a few months earlier—“God’s informers come to my bed, and God himself I saw in the sky. The sunshine showed too, a key on the side of the window for me to get out. The yellow of the sunshine, also showed the key on the side of the window.”4

Strange Prophecies anew! She wrote—‘The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window—I have the key—Get married Allen don’t take drugs—the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window.’

In moving from the events of his life to the poem, there’s a consciousness which alters the events as they are re-constructed, and that alteration gives insight into the original events. In the exchange between the events and the poem, which is to say in the creation of the poem, there’s a life force, a breath of giving and receiving. I’ve always felt that Ginsberg as a writer, as a poet, knew that somehow he had responsibility to bear witness to his mother’s life, because he had the ability, the gift to put it on the page . . . and he does that with “Kaddish.” Writing the poem is his duty as a son, but it’s also a love letter to his mother.

In moving from a poem on a page to a play, the words are given a physical presence. They are not seen, they are performed—and likely by an actor not playing the poet but a character based on an understanding of the story the poem has to tell, the skill and vision and chemistry of the people bringing the play together, the specificity of where and when the play is performed, and the way in which the audience relates with the play. When Donnie first asked me to direct Kaddish, we had thirteen days, working four or five hours a night, to build it. Donnie was clear that he wanted to work with collaborators we had strong relationships with, and all of the designers—set, lighting, sound, video, costume—were remarkable, remarkable artists.5 And because we had such a short amount of time to build the piece, we were working quickly and on instinct; and because we all knew one another, there was a lot of trust—a lot of yes was being said. We used every one of those first six performances at the Fringe trying to learn what the piece was and what the piece wanted.

Two years later, in May of 2011, we had the opportunity to perform the piece in the loft Ginsberg lived in the last year of his life that he had bought from the proceeds of selling his extensive archive to Stanford University. Bob Rosenthal, who had been Ginsberg’s secretary and dear friend for twenty years and who along with Peter Hale oversees the Ginsberg Estate and Foundation, made the generous suggestion that Kaddish be staged in the loft as a benefit launch for The Adaptations Project. For the benefit, we needed to shorten the play to forty-five minutes, and we had only several days to put it together. We had a much stripped-down version. We had a chair, we had two clip lights, we had a candle, we had projections on the wall which were a little hard to see, we had a pink hospital gown. We did not have a suitcase, we did not have the lamp we usually use, we didn’t have the pill bottles, we didn’t have the other articles of clothing. Because the designers weren’t in town, we had a lot less tech. And as we were rehearsing, it felt to me that I was hearing the text for the first time and really hearing the story. That was a function of a couple of things. Two years had passed, but Donnie had continued to revisit the text occasionally, so the text was more and more in his body—the integration between the voice, the body, the thought was clearer and deeper and more alive.

The space also informed the piece. It was where Ginsberg lived, the views out the windows were the same views he would have seen, some of his possessions remained. There was this extraordinary architecture and this space with French doors that opened onto a bedroom. We were able to hide somebody behind one of the doors so that as Donnie was delivering the last lines of the play, walking backwards away from the audience, lit only by the candle he was holding and a clip light, the door magically opened as he backed into the room, as though calling to him, and after the last line, the door would close. The room lit up, aglow in this golden light . . . and Donnie blew the candle out . . . We’d arrived at a natural blackout. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the room where Ginsberg had died.

During those rehearsals, clearly hearing the text in a way I hadn’t before, associating that with the simplicity of the stripped-down version we were working on, I kept saying that we needed less tech, that less is more, less is more. But Donnie was arguing with me and getting very agitated. I said, “Look, you have to trust the text in your body and the space, that you are enough”—and he said to me, “I need the tech”—and I said, “What do you mean you need the tech?” That made me very nervous, because I thought it was a crutch. And then he said to me, “The tech is Naomi.” And I got it. The tech for him becomes another character onstage who he’s in dialogue with—which is always the case, especially when you’re working with these great designers.

When we moved into the theatre on East 4th Street, we had a new stage manager. During a run-through she was asking me some questions about some calls, some lighting cues—and there was one where she said, “Well, I think I’m calling that in the wrong place”—and I said, “No, you’re not actually; you’re calling it just right”—and she said, “Yeah, but the light comes up and he’s not in it”—and I said, “Yeah, that’s intentional.” And she looked at me a little puzzled, and I said, “What Brian Scott is doing as the lighting designer is having the light call to Donnie. The light is pushing the story forward. The light is saying ‘no, you’re not going to dwell in that thought, we’re moving forward, come here, come here.’” And that becomes a way of Naomi calling to Allen—and by extension, bringing up something else that he has to deal with, something else that he has to work through or articulate.

Kaddish ran for two weeks at the East 4th Street Theatre, closing on October 9, 2011. Along with the benefit at Ginsberg’s loft and a performance at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center National Theatre Institute in Waterford, CT, where Donnie and I both teach, it had been the third venue where Kaddish had been performed that year. After it closed, I asked Donnie to meet me for an interview over a cup of coffee at Cafe Sonatina on West 69th Street in New York.

Kim: Hello, Donnie. Thanks for meeting with me. How are you feeling five days after closing the show?

Donnie: Exhausted. I finally got some sleep and am coming back, but I’m still exhausted.

The experience of Kaddish and helping to launch The Adaptations Project was quite a ride. Thank you!


You are most welcome! Now what’s this all about, and where’s my cappuccino?

I’ve been asked to be the guest editor for the theatre section of the Labletter. Since I am acutely interested in what you’ve been doing with The Adaptations Project, I thought I’d speak with you about it, ask you some questions.


I am always fascinated to learn about how artists develop, the influences in their lives. Usually there are two or three specific moments they can point to that clearly informed and shaped them, that began the spinning of the thread that is weaving their tapestry. Can you speak to that in your own life?

I grew up in Kentucky. My first connection to professional theatre was The Actors Theatre of Louisville. I count myself very, very lucky to encounter that particular regional theatre at that particular time—the late 80’s going into the early 90’s—because there was some astounding work being done there thanks to Jon Jory who was the artistic director. I feel like I came to Anne Bogart because of Jon Jory. He not only brought her in and introduced her work, he created an entire festival around her—the Modern Masters Festival. I was able to see the spectrum of what her work was very early on. And of course the Actors Theatre of Louisville has a fantastic new play festival, the Humana Festival of New American Plays. It was exciting to feel that in a semi-southern, semi-mid western city you could see works by established playwrights as well as up-and-coming playwrights. It was always a great mix. You know, Jon Jory did something very interesting, which is strangely related to The Adaptations Project. He would ask non-dramatists to write plays for the festivals, he would commission them. I’ll give you two examples: Marsha Norman was a journalist but he said to her, “I want you to write a play,” and he commissioned her first one. And he said to John Conklin, the great scenic designer, “You write a play, you’re going to be in the festival,” and he got him to create a piece.

After completing undergrad I started training with Anne’s company, SITI Co., in the two disciplines they teach, The Suzuki Method of Actor Training and The Viewpoints. That was a big turning point for me. I had engaged in a traditional dance training that is offered to actors and I trained as much as I could because I liked dance, the physicality of it, and I responded to the formality of it, particularly because my training was in traditional dance—ballet and jazz—we did not have modern in this program. However, when I encountered these forms—Suzuki and Viewpoints—the Viewpoints in particular frightened me. It was improvisational movement. It seemed like an enormous abyss—which it is, because the possibilities are endless. It’s like looking at a blank canvas or a blank page in the typewriter and not knowing where to begin. That’s how I felt as an actor inside the Viewpoints. But being inside the Viewpoints gave me tools to focus my concentration. Then it no longer felt like an abyss—or it felt like an abyss I could deal with because I could make choices. Very specific choices. If it’s a canvas, I am going to use this color—and more specifically, this shade of color. And then I am going to use this color, and then I’m going to work in the center of the canvas, and then the corner of the canvas, and then all over the canvas—and these choices made sense to me. Again, it’s adaptation, is it not? Anne would often point to this both in teaching and as a director in rehearsals. She was interested in other art mediums, so she would use terminology that came from them—for instance, from music—and this excited me because I was a musician. I played piano and trumpet, so I immediately understood what she meant. Dance terminology would come into play, which I certainly understood, and then visual arts terminology, which I knew less about but changed how I thought about the stage, which now was being called a canvas. Which could be anything. Which freed me up in a big way. Perhaps because I really didn’t have any background in the visual arts I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what the limitations were. I could make my own paint or I could buy it at Wal-Mart.

How did you become interested in the idea of adaptation?

I have literally had to translate trainings and artistic ideas into other languages, and that experience woke something up in me that has always been present, and for me it relates to Shakespeare. I first met Shakespeare when I was twelve. The first play I read was Romeo and Juliet. The Franco Zeffirelli film was going to be on television. I decided I had to read it before I saw it. I had an annotated version for my reading level. I found it exciting to look up the words and the references. It was like a big mystery. You read this line and not know quite what it is and flip over to another page and read about the context and get a sense of it—and the more I read, the more excited I became. I fell in love with Shakespeare in that way. I’ve come to learn that in my experiences teaching outside the country, there is that same kind of awakening happening. We may not all speak the same language, but we are all trying to find a meaning, and that effort is incredibly exciting. And so these—what I’m jokingly calling, “impossible theatre pieces”—I find exciting to work on because you are ultimately trying to convey something. And for me convey doesn’t mean you are going to get everything on a silver platter, crystal clear, “let me explain it all away for you.” No. That is not what Romeo and Juliet was the first time for me either. I didn’t get it all. Instead, I had sensation of “I have to do a little work here, and that excites me.”

In one of the talkbacks after a show, an audience member made the connection between the difficult language of Shakespeare and the language Ginsberg uses in “Kaddish.” You responded that in “Kaddish” there were three thoughts on a word.

Actually, I didn't say (or mean to say) that there were three thoughts on a single word. But rather, there might be a single thought on two or three words. Sometimes, the thought even seems to change on a single word. Part of this is due to the fact that Ginsberg is working with incomplete sentences and using a lot of dashes, so there is the notion of a work being an entire sentence, if you will. This is the influence of Kerouac who considered On the Road to be one long run-on sentence. Using this technique, he sometimes sums up a thought, then, in very few words. In the acting, very often the challenge was to convey an entire sentence, or complete sentence, through the few words in a phrase. He could often interrupt himself, or cut himself off, such as

or Down the Avenue to the South, to—as I walk toward the Lower East Side—

These interruptions had to have a reason in dramatic terms, and it usually had to do with a new vision appearing, which would change the blocking and therefore the thought.

Can you give another example?

In that Dark—that—in that God?

For me, the middle “that” is a pivot that leads to the next thought—“in that God”. What was he going to say? Why did he interrupt himself? Despite whatever Ginsberg may have meant, for me it became a kind of realization. First, Death is equated with “Dark” or darkness, and then he continues his litany with “that”—but suddenly stops short. The dash becomes a kind of realization, and it leads him to “in that God?” which then leads into a whole sarcastic litany of images of God and the Afterworld: “a radiance, a Lord in the Void, Like an eye in a black cloud in a dream”:

To go where?—In that Dark—that—in that God? a radiance? A Lord in the Void? Like an eye in the black cloud in a dream?

Can you also talk about how in Shakespeare the thought is on the line?

Shakespeare requires the actor to act on the line rather than between the lines. To pause or to take a moment can destroy the drama (or comedy), unless the pause or moment is one that Shakespeare has placed within the poetry himself. He will give you these for emphasis. Otherwise, all the acting must be discovered “while one is speaking” rather than by the pauses one takes. So in his writing he constructs a single thought across an entire line of iambic pentameter or even within a couplet. In Macbeth,

The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,
And these are of them. Whither are they vanish’d?

is Banquo essentially saying “they just disappeared like bubbles!” Often a line like this is mistakenly broken up into two or three different thoughts:

“the earth hath bubbles” (pause)
“and these are of them” (pause)
“whither are they vanish’d?”

If you actually saw three women evaporate into thin air, would you really pause that often before getting to “whither are they vanish’d?”

In the Prologue of Romeo and Juliet you have

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love

This is one line of poetry, but the thought is incomplete unless you continue with the next three lines of poetry:

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;

but you could even say that the thought is still not complete until you add the following couplet:

The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

The difference in Ginsberg's poetry is that he breaks up thoughts, interrupts them, confines them to a few words like “she did”, or “us lonely”, or “Him. Sitting there”, etc., etc. They are like painting with short brush strokes rather than the long flowing strokes that Shakespeare provides. To deal with the text dramatically in Ginsberg means that you must also deal with the silence, the pauses. The thoughts can continue or change within the pauses as well as on the line.

At the O’Neill you were performing Kaddish for students whom we had been teaching all week and who were sitting on the same level as you. Can you speak to that experience, that exchange with the audience?

The word “context” comes up. At the O’Neill, it was a very different context. In other words, I could not engage in that material in the same way in any other context. It had to be THAT audience. I don’t think I’ve ever liked this analogy before but I keep coming back to it: an obstacle course. Like running hurdles or jumping through hoops. That was once a horrid image for me in relationship to acting, but I’ve come to love it. There is beautiful grace that happens, that HAS to happen, if you truly jump THAT hurdle or through THAT hoop. It’s not merely being a dog doing a trick. It’s not like that at all. It’s a different hoop, a different hurdle. At the O’Neill, the audience had a different connection to me because I’d been teaching them all week, and they had a different connection to the poem because they are a completely different generation. Most of them didn’t know this poem at all and didn’t really know Allen Ginsberg, so what they had to hang their hat on, was me. That’s an important distinction. At the Fringe and certainly when we performed in Ginsberg’s loft, there were people who knew Ginsberg and they had him to hang their hat on, not me. It’s a very different hoop to jump through when you’re working with the understanding that “OK, I am going to have to do THIS in order to make THAT hurdle for THEM.” That’s how it feels inside the piece relating to the audience, to different audiences, and knowing, understanding, the context in which you are performing.

I had never seen you inside the piece the way your were at the O’Neill, and I didn’t know if it was because I had to leave abruptly to go to LA and came back with a slightly different lens, having just been to a Jewish funeral. I had not been with you for several days, yet you continued to work on it. But it seems what you are saying is that because there was a personal relationship between you and every member of that audience, there was another meaning, layer, depth that was added to that performance. I watched how you talked to them, directly spoke to them, in a way that you had not in previous performances, and we discovered that that was a vital part of this piece as well that could be incorporated. What’s interesting is how the exchange with that particular audience affected the immediate performance as well as the performances that followed at East 4th Street. Both you and the audience were changed.

Yes, but when you think about it, when we performed it in the Fringe we had what, six performances? So I had six opportunities to figure out how to talk to that particular audience and how to listen to them. I think if we are going to talk about what the one-person show is, at least how I feel about it, it is about the people who are in the room.

Would you say that having had two years in between when Kaddish was performed in the Fringe and when you performed at the O’Neill made a difference?

Not really. In some respects that doesn’t matter. It’s about the time in front of the audience. Andrei Tolchine from St. Petersburg was right when he said that you need to do it again and keep doing it and doing it in front of an audience because you are only going to find deeper connection to it.

Can you speak to performing the piece in Ginsberg’s loft and for an audience that intimately knew Ginsberg?

That performance was fueled by so much. There was a lot going on then. It was the kind of performance where all you could see was one step in front of you—take this step, now this step, etc. As you recall we edited the piece down from an hour twenty to forty-five minutes tops. It was already a different journey inside of it because of that. We changed the blocking entirely. What was interesting is that we didn’t spend a lot of time working on the changes. We continued as we had been, working very quickly, trusting our instincts and going back and forth—“now go here, now go there, we’ll fix that . . .”—and we both were relying on our solid training with the Viewpoints as well as our history together. Without having that I don’t think I could ever have done this piece, let alone that showing, because I was literally figuring it out as we were going through it. Working that way caused me to wake up inside of the piece. It was a really good exercise to change it. I feel there were things I carried forward with me into the next phase of rehearsals. The experience of the architecture of that room, of being in that room, that corner with the windows, the neighboring church and hospital outside on that 14th Street block—those visual reference points which were, albeit for a short time, also Ginsberg’s reference points—I found very helpful for the East 4th Street production.

Speaking about “impossible theatre pieces,” the next piece for The Adaptations Project is based on Yoko Ono’s album Rising. She is certainly one who as a visual and conceptual and installation artist, and a singer, crossed mediums.

She changed mediums actually. Yoko Ono is interesting for me. I’ve had complicated feelings about her, if I had to be totally honest. When I turned ten, John Lennon was shot. That’s when I found out who she was. Then I found out WHO she was. That was the first time I had ever heard the word “avant-garde.” I didn’t know what it meant. I had to look it up. She was my first reference point for what avant-garde was. I would read about the kind of installations she would make, her paintings which were also poems, or as some people would call them, “Zen Jokes.” I didn’t take to her work immediately, but in looking back now I can say I connected to her work because there was a childlike sense of humor that people overlooked that I got because I was ten. I saw it and I would say, “OH, but that’s a joke! That’s supposed to be funny! There’s a sense of humor here! I GET IT! I GET IT!” I could see what she was saying—“Don’t take it so seriously, but you have to take it seriously in order to go to THAT place.” One thing that Yoko expressed is the notion that all her art is unfinished. She would hang a painting on the wall that would be words. Instructions. They were called “instruction paintings.” Forgive me because I don’t have any examples memorized, but she would suggest to the viewer, “Imagine a person going into a skyscraper and imagine them opening and closing all the doors of the building.” That would be the painting. But the remarkable thing is that you would go there, you would immediately be there. What she means by unfinished is that it is not finished until it activates you in your imagination. It is unfinished on the wall, but when you engage it, you finish it. The first album she recorded with John Lennon was called Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins. The next one was Unfinished Music No 2: Life with the Lions. I’m appropriating this for The Adaptations Project. Allen Ginsberg was not a dramatist, he was not writing “Kaddish” to be a play, but I’m treating it as though it is the unfinished play, and what you and I did was to finish it. That is my attitude toward the work. “No, it IS a play. We have to finish it.”

What about story?

Mary Overlie said, “Story is what I call eight to ten. The curtain goes up at eight and comes down at ten, and story is what happens in between.” Now in 1997 I was very frustrated by that answer, but it stuck with me. Like some of the greatest theatre pieces I’ve seen, it bothered me. Like Yoko Ono, it wouldn’t go away, it gnawed at me. Which means it was touching on something within me. And I think I grew into my own understanding of what Mary meant, and then it had a profound affect on me—and I arrived at her being absolutely right, it is what happens in between, it is what happens in between your mind and my mind, it’s what happens in between that gesture and that gesture, that entrance and that exit. I’ve been teaching for twelve years now and I’ve also come to understand audience in a variety of ways, but there is one universal fact: the audience is a story junkie, they are story machines. Even the staunchest New York, arms-folded, show-me audience bought the ticket and sat in the seat and is daring you to “bring it.” They are story junkies. It took me a while to get to the place where I could understand that was what Yoko was doing. She put it on a wall and the audience completes it. The curtain goes up the curtain goes down and the audience is immediately asking, processing, “What just happened?” The audience is filling in the blank.

Rising actually has its seeds from a playwright, Ron Destro, correct? Didn’t he approach Ono saying that he was writing a play for the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and then ask her to write music for it?

Yes. Rising has an interesting journey. I don’t know the story of how he got her to agree to this as she hadn’t released an album in ten years, but she gave him three or four pieces for a play that was going to be workshopped at the Kennedy Center. Those three or four pieces ignited something in her. She was excited by what came out of it. It was a dramatist writing a play, asking her to create music for the play, that then inspired her to create an entire album that stands on its own.

I’m working on a piece right now about Olivier Messiaen and his Quartet for the End of Time. It’s fascinating to investigate synaesthesia, which he had. When he heard music, he saw colors. His scores are filled with color notations such as “more blue.” He was also an ornithologist, and bird song figures heavily into his work. Again, I’m looking at influences and how I think we are “adapting” in order to create art all the time.

Yes . . . You know, I’m nor sure why but this just popped into my head. Did you see The Medium? That SITI Co. did?

Yes. With Bondo at The Magic Theatre in San Francisco.

I saw it with Bondo, too. Now The Medium is a piece that the SITI Co. created in ’92. I saw it in ’95 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in a gorgeous blackbox theatre where I have seen some of the best theatre of my life, and Bondo—Will Bond—was Marshall McCluhan in that piece. I did not know at the time that Bondo had not originated the role, but of course, for me, he did. He absolutely did. Afterwards, working with the company in a training session, I found out that Tom Nelis had created that role. Tom is long and lanky, and Bondo is much shorter and more compact. It was somewhat startling for me to find out that Tom had been the originator of the role, because Bondo so completely made it his own. That seemed scandalous when it came to acting. This is what I love about Anne. She runs her company much like a dance company. You step into this role. She was demanding precision on the part of Bondo, which he can deliver in spades.

We both know how virtuosic he is.

Yes, and she was demanding the recreation of the physicality of Tom’s performance so that everything that was set was kept, and he had to inhabit that. They had videotaped Tom’s performance so he could watch it over and over again. His fellow cast mates helped him. At some point, after they had worked and worked and she demanded the utmost precision of that recreation of Tom’s performance, Anne said: “OK, now I need you to be you. To be Bondo.” As an actor, I love THAT—that challenge of creating something that is so set, that you have to attend to so specifically to get to that point where you can say, “OK, now be free. Allow your humanity to come through.” It’s a way of working actors don’t often inhabit, but dancers always have. “No, that’s not a tondu, THAT’S a tondu.” And doing that tondu is all the dancers going before you doing that tondu. You can’t find the expression of the dance unless you find THAT tondu. That I think is spectacular. When you do tap into that lineage, it is profound. When I was younger, much, much younger, I don’t think lineage excited me. It’s not a sexy thing. But the older I get, the more I understand it. Not because I am looking forward asking, “Who is following my lineage?” I am still looking towards where I come from, where my ideas come from. I am now able to recognize where some ideas came from subconsciously, to see, “Oh, that came from that, it came from Yoko Ono,” and knowing that allows me to do something about it. Which is why I think last year I went, “Ah, The Adaptations Project,” and not ten years ago. It has to do with understanding lineage in some fashion. What excites me now is to consciously try to harness my lineage and strive towards something new in the creation of art.

And hence the creation of The Adaptations Project . . . I’m sure I’ll have a few more questions, or not . . . or maybe I’ll make a painting out of this and send it in saying this is the interview.


Would you like a second cappuccino?


1. Bill Morgan, afterward to the 50th Anniversary Edition of Kaddish and Other Poems: 1958-1960, by Allen Ginsberg (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010), p. 116. Most of the biographical information and the information about the writing of “Kaddish” in this paragraph and the next paragraph come from Morgan’s afterward. Bill Morgan also wrote a full-length biography of Allen Ginsberg (see note 3 below).
2. Allen Ginsberg, liner notes for his Atlantic Records recording of “Kaddish” written in 1966, reprinted after Bill Morgan’s afterward in the 50th Anniversary Edition of Kaddish and Other Poems: 1958-1960; p. 127: “not heard attentively before” said of Ray Charles’ classics; also p. 127: “we chippied a little M [morphine] and some then new-to-me meta-amphetamine”; p. 128: “I sat at same desk from 6 AM Saturday to ten PM Sunday night writing” [40 hours].
3. Bill Morgan, I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg (New York: Viking Penguin, 2006), p. 220.
4. Ibid.
5. The designers: set—Nicholas Vaughan (New York International Fringe Festival), Brian H. Scott (East 4th Street Theatre); lighting & sound—Brian H. Scott; video—Andrew C. Bauer; costume—Terese Wadden.

Robert Kotchen contributed to the writing of this article.

“What If It’s a Canvas?” appeared in the 2012 edition of the Labletter. For more information about The Adaptations Project, visit The Adaptations Project’s website.

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