Fools Mass: Interview with Director Matt Mitler

“Fools Mass” is a rolling production that had been performed by the Dzieci Theatre since 1998. The show runs annually and has sold out at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This year, the beloved annual holiday tradition will instead be livestreamed from Bushwick’s Sure We Can on Sunday, December 5th at 5pm.

“Fools Mass” takes place at Christmas time during the plague of the 14th century when a motley crew of village idiots gather for mass only to discover that the pastor has died. Thus, the fools decide to perform their own mass encompassing choral singing and buffoonery.

“Fools Mass” was conceived, directed, and designed by Matt Mitler who recently discussed the show via an exclusive interview.

Q: How did you discover your love for theater and how did you think up “Fools Mass”?

Matt Mitler (MM): When I was little, my mother took me out of school to see a matinee of “Oliver” and I was completely blown away. “Fools Mass” came about from a question. We were working on an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s historical novel, “The Devils of Loudun”, involving a messy affair among nuns and clergy in 17th century France and realized we needed to understand Catholicism more. But a visceral understanding, not an intellectual one. I’ve always had a deep interest in ritual, so we began with exploring the Mass. And how better to approach this investigation than from a perspective of innocence? So, we entered the study with the minds of children, which easily transformed into village idiots.

Q: Why did you decide to set it during the plague?

MM: Dzieci has always had, within the company, members with sweeping knowledge of early choral music, so that took us back in time and centered us in Europe. We also wanted to raise the stakes in this piece, and the plague years offered a palpable challenge to faith and belief.

Q: How long did it take you to write this piece and what inspired the characters?

MM: We spent close to a year developing “Fools Mass” before the first performance, but we have never stopped creating it. Every season we return, revise, and renew. The characters are meticulously crafted, some elements brought out from our deepest imbalances. Other qualities come through observance. Dzieci has always offered outreach to marginal communities including psychiatric hospitals and homes for the aged, and many details have come from that. And since the beginning, we’ve also had therapists who hold group therapy sessions with us while we’re in our fools’ characters.

Q: Is it sort of trippy to be broadcasting it online due to the modern-day epidemic?

MM: “Fools Mass” has proved to be astonishingly relevant, perhaps never more so than at this particular time. For 22 years, we’ve never missed a season and knew we had to find a way this year. The piece serves as a rite of passage for us and for our community. We have brought our personal struggles into “Fools Mass,” deaths of loved ones, dark nights of the soul, and met current events in ways in which we, and the entire audience, were in tears.

Q: How difficult was it to move this to an online space?

MM: “Fools Mass” is a very malleable piece. Every performance is different, every space is different, every audience is different, and we are different from moment to moment. The challenge this time around is with the technical aspects. Fortunately, there are those in the company (not me!) and friends who are adept in such matters.

Q: What segments of this show are your personal favorites and why?

MM: I am often moved to tears, or find myself doubling over in laughter by something one of the actors does. So many moments are alive and unique. I offer a sermon in “Fools Mass,” which is different every performance. Unrehearsed, unplanned, and always somewhat terrifying.

Q: Why do you think this show has remained so popular over more than 20 years?

MM: It is a great gift, and I am in awe that “Fools Mass” continues. We touch on something essential here, within ourselves (not as actors but as humans), and that seems to resonate with our public. By the end of every performance, we are one body.

Q: What are your favorite Christmas memories from childhood or adulthood?

MM: I once spent the holiday in the Polish mountain village of Zakopanie, and on Christmas Eve, I was with a large gathering of Roma in a rustic wooden house. Accordions, fiddles, and huge legs of some animal being passed around to share, along with endless bottles of vodka.

But I’ve been living with “Fools Mass” for over two decades, and it is really my Christmas practice now, it has stripped me bare and opened me up and continues to do so. I am forever grateful that I have this ritual in my life.

Q: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

MM: When the pandemic became a reality, we were in rehearsal for “A Passion,” a non-denominational choral ritual performance for the Easter season. We ended up creating a live Zoom version of that piece, but this coming spring we plan to stage it in person and set up a live stream as we’ll be doing for Fools Mass this Sunday. We’ve also been creating a highly comic Zoom version of “The Tempest,” which allows us to work with past company members who no longer live in New York City.

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“Fools Mass” runs 50 minutes. Tickets are $20 per device (with premium packages available) at www.dziecitheatre.org.

Meagan J. Meehan is a published author of novels, short stories, and poems. She is also a produced playwright and an award-winning modern artist.