Don't Look Now, but 'Simon Says' :: New Play Explores the Supernatural

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday February 25, 2015

"Do you believe in synchronicity?" Boston-based radio host and newly-minted playwright Mat Schaffer asks EDGE. "Do you believe in this stuff?"

It's a question many people might answer by hedging. A neuroscientist would note that the human brain is hard wired to identify - or perhaps impose - patterns on the random events of life and the world around us. But the emotional charge wreaths human experience lends a sense of intuition to the idea that there may be larger patterns in the world of which we are only dimly aware - paths that we follow unconsciously, but inerrantly, toward the people and places we are destined to encounter.

Schaffer is much less circumspect than our correspondent. "I've met too many people who are doing weird and interesting things, and had too many strange things happen to me, not to try to keep an open mind about this stuff," he says.

Schaffer's question is relevant to the topic at hand. He and EDGE are discussing "Simon Says: A Dramatized Séance," Schaffer's play about a psychic, a paranormal researcher, and a skeptic who, seeking comfort, comes looking for answers that lie outside the realm of the quantifiable and the visible. The play is slated to run at the Boston Center for the Arts from Feb. 26 - March 14, with Boston stage stalwart Ken Baltin starring as a researcher named Dr. Williston. Anthony J. Goes plays the young psychic, a fellow named James, who is the subject of the Williston's scrutiny; their world... or worlds, if you want to think of the hereafter as a place into which one might peer without having to leave this mortal coil... are shaken and stirred by the arrival of Annie, a high school science teacher played by Brianna Beatrice. Annie is used to looking at the world through rational eyes, but she's nudged toward the supernatural by her grief at the loss of her late husband.

Schaffer has a degree in "Interdisciplinary Studies in Mysticism" from Tufts, so his having written a play that brings people into close contact with the supernatural isn't something that's happened in a vacuum. It's important to note, though, that his interest in the occult reflects a wide-ranging engagement typical of the polymath; the supernatural is only one of many areas in which he has some measure of accomplishment. Schaffer is a published author, a media critic (he was, formerly, on the airwaves as a theater and film critic known as the Culture Vulture), and a food writer. Schaffer's interest in the culinary arts continues even now; he's also a restaurant consultant.

An obvious question to pose is whether those various fields of interest - food, culture, and mysticism - inform one another for Schaffer, of whether he compartmentalizes his various enthusiasms.

"Gosh," Schaffer responds, "I mean, the common denominator has always been the writing, so that brings them all together. But the mysticism part of it, or the spirituality part informs my life generally. I've always been interesting in spiritualism, spirituality, religion, and in phenomena for which there are no easy answers."

Asked about his exotic-sounding degree, Schaffer, sounding amused, replies, "I was at Tufts, and I was involved in a program that allowed us to create our own fields of study, and so I graduated with a cum laude - that's what they called it. But to me, it was reading literature; I went to Virginia Beach, I met Edgar Cayce's grandson and interviewed him... I was really interested in the surrealist movement in France, Andre Breton. It was a matter of putting it all together and trying to make sense of really big topics. I'm not psychic," Schaffer adds, "but lots of interesting things always happen to me, whether you want to call it synchronicity, as Carl Jung calls it, or coincidence. One of the themes of the play is there are no accidents, things happen for a reason. I believe that, even when circumstances are difficult and you're dealing with trying situations. Those things, I believe, happen to us as individuals to help us grow."

Schaffer then provides an example, relating an anecdote about a recent slip on Boston's icy streets that resulted in a hospital visit for stitches to the resulting head wound. At one point, after having held is arm up for several minutes at the behest of the doctor treating him, Schaffer asked if he might not put his arm down, and the doctor told him to go right ahead; at this, a technician in the room wisecracked, "Simon Says."

That was enough to send an excited Schaffer to his bloody coat to fish out palm cards bearing the name of his new play. "Things like that happen to me a lot!" he exclaims to EDGE.

The synchronicity surrounding the play is but a prelude to the story Schaffer tells within it - a story in which a psychic "channels" a spirit being that calls itself Simon.

The psychic "is loosely inspired by Edgar Cayce, who was one of the primary channelers of the 20th century," Schaffer explains, adding that another real-world source for the fictional people and events of his play is "a woman named Jane Roberts, who channeled a being named Seth in the 1970s. [Editor's note: Cayce died in 1945, and Roberts in 1984.] Seth dictated, through her, numerous books that are pretty remarkable to read," the playwright adds. "So Jane Roberts and Edgar Cayce are the primary inspiration for this psychic channeler, whose name is James. He really does this," Schaffer adds; "he's really, as they say in the play, he's the real deal. For the last dozen years he's been living with this retired academic who's been studying him and trying to scientifically prove the continuation of the soul after death.

"Into their home comes this woman. Two years ago she lost her soul mate husband in a car accident. She's a science teacher - she doesn't believe in this stuff. But she hasn't healed [from the traumatic loss of her husband], and she's sort of at the end of her rope. She's come hoping to contact her dead husband, although that's not what thee people do.

"The themes for the play are: Reincarnation exists; you choose the circumstances of each life so you can spiritually grow; you do that through the application of love; and there are no accidents," Schaffer continues. "If there are no accidents, it's not coincidental that she has shown up there. Something's going on that the people in this room are mostly unaware of." Moreover, Schaffer points out, "The play is performed in real time, so from when it starts to when it stops, which is about 90 minutes, the audience goes on a journey with those people in that room."

EDGE, taking note of the fact that the play credits both a special effects person (Paul Ezzy) and a projection designer (Johnathan Carr), inquires about the use of those elements in the production.

"There's a special effects component to the play, which I perceive as metaphorical," Schaffer teases. "If it all works out - we're going into tech today - then audience members will be able to, at times, see beings that they would not ordinarily be able to see.

"The projections are part of the special effects, and there are little bits of 'theatrical magic' happening, so it's on several different levels," adds Schaffer. "But those are things, again, that are meant to inform the script."

Another intriguing aspect of the show is, actually, something quite apart from the play itself, and yet certainly connected to it: Mentalist Christopher Grace, who is also known as "The Blindfolded Madman," will present a post-play show of his own at 10 p.m. on February 28 and on March 7, 13, 14, and 28. Text at the "Simon Says" website practically leaps out of the screen with excitement: "In this seventy-five minute intense mind reading performance he will read your minds, describe your thoughts and tell you your inner most dreams & desires!"

"That's something we put together," Schaffer tells EDGE. "We're also going to have some interesting talkbacks. The first Thursday night, after the performance, I'll be interviewing Maria Halvorsen, who's a psychic medium. She is going to try to put members of the audience in touch with loved ones who may have died. The following week, this guy named Robert Murch, who is the world's foremost authority of Ouija boards, is going to be coming in and I'll be speaking to him and several members of the talking Board Society. The third week of the run I think - this isn't for sure -- Maria's going to come back Wednesday night. And Thursday night, my friend Robert Schoch will be coming in, and he's a fascinating guy! He got notoriety in the early 1990s when he went to Egypt and examined the Sphinx and concluded that the Sphinx is several thousand years older than we had thought. He's also written a book called 'The Parapsychology Revolution,' which talks about parapsychology research, and how there needs to be a new paradigm in order to continue it. He's written a bunch of really interesting books."

EDGE marvels at the collection of people Schaffer has pulled in to co-present the talkbacks.

"I have a radio show, so I've met all sorts of interesting people," Schaffer reflects, referencing his Boston Sunday Review program on 98.5, a radio station also known as The Sports Hub.

One of those "interesting people" happens to be the play's director, Myriam Cyr, who is quite the polymath in her own right. Cy's resume offers surprise after surprise: The bilingual French-Canadian actor and director is also a published author, a musician, and a onetime poet laureate to New Brunswisk's PGI foundation for Literacy.

"I met her in 2006 because she's written a book called 'Letters of a Portuguese Nun' that was the result of a one-woman show she did at The Culture Project in New York," Schaffer recalls. "It was based on a series of letter written by a Portuguese woman in the 17th century. Miriam came in to promote her book, and that's how I met her."

Cyr's involvement with the project was sparked immediately. "I've been working on this for a long time," Schaffer notes. "Twenty years. Any time I'd meet someone who I thought could possibly help me with it, I would bring it out and mention it. I said to Miriam, 'I wrote a play. I'd love for you to read it.' At the time, one of the characters in the play was named Miriam, though that has changed subsequently. And, of course, the main character is a seer!"

With that final bit of synchronicity, EDGE is convinced: Something is definitely going on here.


"Simon Says: A Dramatized Séance" plays at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre Feb. 26 - March 14. For tickets and more information, please visit http://simonsaystheplay.weebly.com or, for tickets, visit http://www.bostontheatrescene.com/season/simon-says/ or call 617-933-8600

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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