‘Tibetan Book of The Dead’ At La Mama to Benefit Shantigar Rebuilding

A special performance of “Tibetan Book of the Dead or How Not To Do It Again” by Jean-Claude van Itallie will be presented one night only, October 27, 2008 at La MaMa E.T.C. (Annex Theater), 66 East Fourth Street, Manhattan, to support the rebuilding of the century-old theater barn at Shantigar, the unique center for theater, meditation and healing located in Rowe, MA.

Shantigar, in 1977 founded by playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie and named by Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, is a not-for-profit educational foundation dedicated to the practice and exciting cross-pollination of theater, meditation and healing. The institution offers workshops and hosts theater artists, meditation masters, and healers. The barn had been Shantigar’s theatre center and a community meeting place, but was lost to a fire in 2000.

The benefit evening October 27 will begin at 7:30 pm in the lobby with a silent art auction of Asian antiques and of art by friends of Shantigar, including Gwen Fabricant, Mary Frank, Betsy von Furstenburg, Ronald Rand, Deb Katz and Robert Wilson.


Contributors of $350 or more will receive two tickets to the benefit performance and an invitation to Wendy Gimbel’s pre-performance party. Contributors of $100 will receive a ticket to “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” and a signed poster by Jean-Claude van Itallie. Contributors of $50 will receive a ticket to the performance alone. Reservations can be made by calling 413 339 4332 or visiting the Shantigar website at www.shantigar.org.

Anyone desiring to contribute a painting or a work of art for the Silent Art Auction can contact Ronald Rand, Benefit Chair, at [email protected]

Shantigar Foundation is a not-for-profit Foundation. Contributions are tax-deductible to the full extent allowed by law and may be mailed to: Shantigar Foundation, 63 Davenport Road, Rowe, MA 01367.

Rehearsal of Tibetan Book of the Dead at Shantigar Tent, August 2008.


This production of “Tibetan Book of the Dead or How Not To Do It Again” is a re-investigation of the play by Pilgrim Theatre, which was founded in Poland by Kim Mancuso and Kermit Dunkelberg, who were students of Jerzy Grotowski. In 1997-98, Pilgrim worked for a year at its center in Ashfield, MA, creating its first production of the piece with eighteen artists involved. The play made a powerful impact when performed at Boston Center for the Arts.

Western Massachusetts reviewer Gregory Lewis called the production .” ..a masterpiece… van Itallie’s stage adaptation of “Tibetan Book of the Dead” is genius… an allegory of how to live and make choices in the here and now. It renders an esoteric treatise accessible… Kim Mancuso’s skillful direction of three masterful actors–Kermit Dunkelberg, Susan Thompson, and Court Dorsey, supported by on-stage musician John VanEps and Steve Gorn’s music–magnifies ‘Tibetan Book’ to dramatis excelsior. A lovable, dead one is guided through the ‘in-between place’ by two angelic beings. A travel guide to the afterlife, ‘Tibetan Book’ is a musical pendulum of fright and fun.”

The original production of “Tibetan Book of the Dead or How Not To Do It Again” premiered in 1983 in Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa Annex to great acclaim. For this benefit, LaMama resident designer Jun Maeda has recreated his original set: a huge ethereal skull, used by the actors as scaffolding, built of saplings, molded by hand at Shantigar.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that to hear The Tibetan Book of the Dead even once in this lifetime confers great blessings. Traditionally the treatise is a manual to be read aloud to the dying by friends. It is navigational instructions, spoken-as-you-go, for the moments surrounding death, and the days that follow. Its loving counsel applies to living as well as dying. In the play, the deep wisdom of the original texts is entirely accessible even to those with no knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism.

The performance features Court Dorsey, Kermit Dunkelberg and Susan Thompson. It is directed by Kim Mancuso with music by John VanEps and Steve Gorn and costumes by Patricia Spees. This performance is presented by Shantigar in association with Pilgrim.


In December, 1999 when the careful renovations on Shantigar’s cathedral-like century-old barn were nearly complete, 175 people celebrated the millennium in the barn. Three weeks later, the barn burned down. Many from nearby towns came to mourn it. Today the barn site with its old stone walls, greenery, and large stone Buddha feels like the ruins of an ancient temple. But van Itallie asserts, “The barn is only temporarily invisible.”

Since the barn burned in 2000, summer workshops and performances have been held in a big white tent in the woods. A large wooden shed has housed the office and dining space. Shantigar wants to rebuild the barn as a theater. The first step will be to build a much-needed commercial kitchen along with an eating space and bathrooms.

The barn reconstruction is the first part of a long-term building plan which includes an architecturally innovative and ecologically “green” Cloud Mountain International Community Center, to house workshop, healing, meditating, and eating spaces as well as thirty individual dwellings, to be used by their time-share owners and by visiting artists, teachers and participants in workshops. The “barn-raising” campaign is also intended to raise seed money to sell the planned thirty individual dwellings.


In 1940, Shantigar founder Jean-Claude van Itallie’s Belgian family fled the holocaust to settle on Long Island, New York. In 1948 van Itallie’s father bought the farm (now Shantigar) as an investment and a sanctuary.

In the sixties van Itallie, a playwright in the revolutionary off Broadway movement, drove up to the farm with Greenwich Village theater friends on voyages of discovery and creativity. In 1968, when his anti Vietnam war play, “America Hurrah,” was a hit, he bought the farm. It’s been his home since.

In 1977, van Itallie’s Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, retreated for a year to the farm to write his renowned Shambala teachings. Trungpa renamed the farm “Shantigar,” which means “peaceful home.” Van Itallie turned Shantigar into a not-for-profit foundation for theater, meditation, and healing.


On October 28, The Soul of the American Actor Newspaper and CUNY’s Martin E. Segal Theatre-Graduate Center will present “The Theatre of Jean Claude van Itallie,” a day-long event celebrating the plays and work of the man that Professor Gene Plunka, author of the book “Jean-Claude van Itallie and the Off-Off Broadway Theater,” referred to as “the most innovative playwright in America since Eugene O’Neill.” The day-long conference will be at The City University of New York Graduate Center at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, 365 Fifth Avenue at 34th Street. Included are scheduled afternoon screenings of Jean-Claude van Itallie in “War, Sex and Dreams” and Joseph Chaikin in “Struck Dumb….” Planned particpants include: Brian Murray, Laila Robins, Angelica Torn, Ruth Maleczech, Ronald Rand, Rosemary Quinn, Peter Goldfarb and the cast of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” (Court Dorsey, Kermit Dunkelberg, Susan Thompson). With readings from many of Mr. van Itallie’s master works including “America Hurrah,” “The Serpent,” “Light,” “Bag Lady,” a screening of “Struck Dumb” with Joseph Chaikin; the new musical MILA for which van Itallie is writing the book, Steve Gorn the music, and Lois Walden (who will sing a song from MILA) the lyrics; and a special dialogue between Mr. van-Itallie and Professor William Coco. 2-6pm and 7-9pm. Admission free. For information contact 212-817-1863.


Jean-Claude van Itallie was born in Brussels, Belgium on May 25, 1936, raised in Great Neck, Long Island, and graduated from Harvard University in 1958. His trilogy of one-act plays, “America Hurrah,” was hailed as the watershed off-Broadway play of the sixties. Van Itallie was one of Ellen Stewart’s original “LaMaMa playwrights.” He was principal playwright of Joe Chaikin’s Open Theater and for that group wrote what has been called the classic ensemble play, “The Serpent.”

In the seventies, van Itallie wrote his frequently-produced new English versions of the four major plays of Chekhov, published by Applause Books, New York City: Chekhov, the Major Plays. “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” premiered at LaMaMa in 1983 and is published by North Atlantic Books, San Francisco. His 1985 translation of Jean Genet’s The Balcony was produced by the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The Traveler,” van Itallie’s play about an aphasic composer, premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1987. “Struck Dumb,” van Itallie’s monologue written with/for Joseph Chaikin, premiered at the Taper Too in Los Angeles in l988 and was presented by The American Place Theatre in New York City in 1991. (It is published in Best Short Plays, 199l-92.)

“Ancient Boys,” van Itallie’s play about a gay artist living with AIDS, premiered at LaMaMa Annex, February, 1991. His play “Master and Margarita,” adapted from Bulgakhov’s novel, was presented by Theatre for the New City, NYC, in May, 1993.

Among van Itallie’s other plays and translations are: “King of the United States,” “Bag Lady,” “The Doris Plays,” “The Hunter and the Bird,” “Medea” and “The Taming of Jacques.”

As a performer, van Itallie appeared in 1988 in Boulder, Colorado in “Flesh Chronicles,” conceived with choreographer Nancy Spanier. He appeared at the Art Bank in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts in “Guys Dreamin'” in the fall of 1996. This largely autobiographical play, written by the three actors appearing in it, had its NY debut at LaMaMa in May, 1998. Van Itallie’s one person autobiographical show, “War, Sex and Dreams,” began at the Art Bank in Shelburne Falls (with accompanist Steve Sweeting) and had its NY debut at La MaMa.

In 2004, van Itallie’s “Light” had its world premiere in Pasadena, California at the Theatre at Boston Court. His latest play, “Fear Itself, secrets of the White House,” premiered at Theater for the New City in NYC in 2006.

Van Itallie’s book on play writing, “The Playwright’s Workbook,” was published in 1997 by Applause Books, NYC. He is also a painter of large black-on-white calligraphies and his exhibit, “Characters,” was at the Open Center Gallery in NYC in May, 1993.

Van Itallie has taught play writing and performance at Princeton, NYU, Harvard, Yale School of Drama, Amherst, Columbia, University of Colorado, Boulder, Naropa Institute and many other colleges. He now teaches workshops in writing and creativity at Shantigar, in Los Angeles and in NYC.

The honorary benefit committee is a roll call of theater notables including Joyce Aaron, Edward Albee, Karen Allen, Lucie Arnaz, Ava B., Darren Bagert, Alec Baldwin, Anne Bogart, Robert Brustein, Joan Buck, Kathleen Chalfant, Tina Chen, Martha Coigney, Emilie Conrad, Nancy Cooperstein, Billy Crudup, Lee L. Elman, Rabbi Edward and Merle Feld, Angelina Fiordellisi, Mary Frank, Rita Fredricks, Gerald Freedman, Barbara Gimbel, Wendy Gimbel, Peter Goldfarb, Steve Gorn, Lee Grant, William G. Hoffman, James Houghton, Morgan Jenness, Tony Kushner, Steven Lang, Bokara Legendre, Laurence Luckinbill, Judith Malina, Jodie C. McDowell, Evangeline Morphos, Meredith Monk, Patricia Neal, Paul Newman, Austin Pendleton, Steven Post, Carol Fox Prescott, Michael Pressman, Harold Prince, Linda Purl, Roger Rees, Mercedes Ruehl, Lisa Schubert, Marian Seldes, Mel Shapiro, Joan Micklin Silver, Laura Simms, Ellen Stewart, David Threlfall, Tulku Thondup, Rinpoche, Christel van Itallie, Serge Vidal, Betsy von Furstenburg, Lois Walden, Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, Robert Wilson and Joanne Woodward.

The Steering Committee includes Ronald Rand (chair), John Adams and Lauren Bond. The Silent Art Auction Committee lists Gwen Bucci, co-chair; Lil Malinich, co chair; Rebecca Damon and Audra Blaser. The Production Committee includes Lisa Clarke, Rosemary Quinn and Harvey Schaktman. Shantigar offers special thanks to Peter Goldfarb and Wendy Gimbel for hosting Benefit parties. There are special thanks also to Michael Stuart and extra special thanks, as always, to Ellen Stewart.

Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.