Playwright Lynne Kaufman talks searching, spirituality in ‘Acid Test’

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From teaching psychology at Harvard University to teaching spirituality and advocating for the use of psychedelics, Ram Dass has led a transitional and dynamic life. Now, in his later years of life, Ram Dass has become the subject of a one-man show, adding yet another layer to his career history.

“Acid Test: The Many Incarnations of Ram Dass,” written by award-winning playwright Lynne Kaufman, centers on Richard Alpert, who eventually took on the name Ram Dass as part of a spiritual journey. The play chronicles different aspects of his life, including his transition from academia to spirituality, and his sudden stroke in 1997. The show originally premiered in 2012 at The Marsh in Berkeley and is now being revived at The Marsh in San Francisco, beginning Sept. 21. The show is structured as Ram Dass giving a talk, and features actor Warren David Keith in the main role. Keith played Ram Dass in the original run and has come back to reprise the role.

Having read Ram Dass’ book “Be Here Now,” Kaufman was intrigued by him and his life’s progression. She was drawn to his transitional periods, including his adjustment to life after a major, life-altering and sudden stroke.

He was very robust, living a very spiritual life, and then he suffered a major stroke … and was partially paralyzed, and he lost his faith,” Kaufman said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “And what intrigued me the most was how he regained (his faith), how he became resilient.”

Kaufman is no stranger to writing about real people’s lives. Her most recent play, “Two Minds” centers on two psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, and their groundbreaking work on decision-making. The subjects of her plays often stem from her own desires to explore certain topics that she is curious about.

“I don’t want to compare myself in quality to Shakespeare, but he borrowed. He borrowed stories. Then put what he wanted to examine within that story, using it almost as a framework,” Kaufman said. “And so I have my own framework of a major conversion — major change in people’s lives — and I use that to examine my own questions.”

The question in “Two Minds” deals with the circumstances that bring broken friendships back together; “Acid Test” revolves around the ideas of resilience and finding strength in hard times. Kaufman is drawn to universal topics, things everyone can relate to, and zeroes in on one interesting subject she can use to explore the idea. Her personal connection to the universal topics contributes to her desire to write about them.

“I guess that I’m really interested in how one deals with life’s adversaries. And my own stories, my own life — I don’t want to write about it,” Kaufman said. “I like writing obliquely — dealing with the big question that I have personally, but framing it to get distance.”

With Kaufman writing about real people, there is the possibility that the subject of the play will actually get to see it performed. In the case of “Acid Test,” this actually happened when Ram Dass expressed interest in watching the show after reading the script and seeing positive early reviews.

“It was an amazing experience. There was Ram Dass in his wheelchair, just beaming,” Kaufman said. “It was wild too, because we start with the actor having, as Ram Dass calls it, ‘been stroked.’ So he’s in a chair, giving a speech, can’t really move, and then the actor leaps up and then it’s a performance. It becomes fully acted. And the audience just gasped, because there’s Ram Dass. He isn’t going to be able to do that scene in his life, but he was re-enacted.”

When you have a subject as widely recognized as Ram Dass, finding the right actor to encompass such a layered character is vital.

Kaufman had seen Keith in multiple different productions — many by the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley — and he came to mind when she was looking for an actor. Keith’s portrayal of Ram Dass was so successful in the show’s first run that there were even instances of people starting to mistake him for his character’s real-life counterpart.

“I love his timing and his droll… he has a droll sense of humor. And he is so intelligent and just really grounded. He has a real presence and authority,” Kaufman said. “And people were amazed by David’s performance. It’s not a mimicking or a mirroring of the person, but it’s honoring the true essence of the person. The sensibility. And David has done that; he’s done so much.”

The character of Ram Dass is complex in many ways, but he also comes down to a few key themes that Kaufman has brought to light with “Acid Test.” Beyond showcasing the man known for helping to lead the psychedelics revolution and immersing himself in spiritual living, he is representative of broader ideas, which Kaufman hopes for audiences to be thinking about after watching the show.

“It’s about the search,” Kaufman said. “And Ram Dass is searching.”

Nikki Munoz covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].