Fools Mass: Interview with Playwright Matt Mitler

Meagan J. Meehan
6 min readDec 13, 2023

“Fools Mass” is an annual performance that has been enjoyed in church-locations since 1998 courtesy of Dzieci Theatre, an experimental play company based in New York. One of their most famous stops is at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine that routinely sells out. In December of 2023, the show will celebrate its 25th anniversary and tickets are only $25.

“Fools Mass” takes place in the 14th century amid the plague. When a “motley group of village idiots” (to quote the press release) gather together to attend Christmas mass, they learn that the clergyman has died and, in his place, they decide to perform their own mass and buffoonery (and choral singing) ensues.

Playwright Matt Mitler recently discussed this play via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (Q): How did you get interested in theater and what gave you the idea to enter into unique spaces, like churches, to stage your performances?

Matt Mitler (MM): My mother had been a performer and a live radio personality. She took me to some plays as a child, mostly musicals, which were transporting for me. I found them utterly fantastical, yet totally believable, and I was absorbed in the experience. As for unique spaces, the first theater company I became a member of (highly physical and experimental), was housed in a church. I’d always been drawn to spaces, which created a visceral impression, perhaps even mystical. It didn’t have to be a church; one of my favorite performance spaces was in the top of the arch at Grand Army Plaza.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for “Fools Mass”?

MM: Fools Mass evolved as a stepping-stone to a larger piece, an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s historical narrative, “The Devils of Loudun” which delved into possession, politics, and power in the Catholic Church in medieval France. We wanted a ritual framework, and felt the best place to start was with the Mass. And the best way to approach the Mass was with total, uncomprehending innocence. Hence the village idiots. The piece immediately took on a life of its own.

Q: Has the show changed at all since its 1998 debut version?

MM: The show changes with each and every performance, but more importantly the show changes with every shattering world event and personal challenge we inevitably face. For instance, after 9/11, we added an Islamic role and this year included a Jewish character.

Q: What was the process of getting the churches on board like?

MM: Churches and spiritual leaders have been our biggest champions since the beginning.

Q: How did you strike a cord between having the show be comedic without being shocking or insulting to religious parishioners?

MM: We tried to make sure that Fools Mass had a solid core of spiritual intention and that the comedy served that aim, but we needed to test it out to make sure it wasn’t offensive to anyone, especially to religious communities and disabled populations. So, we presented it to cloistered nuns at an abbey and for a group of clients at United Cerebral Palsy. The nuns blessed us afterwards and the clients at UCP posed for photos with us and said that a lot of groups come to perform for them but that Dzieci performed with them. One wanted to be lifted in the air like one of the characters is during the show. We accommodated.

Q: What is your favorite part of the play and why?

MM: That’s a hard one. It’s not my favorite in a “fun” way, but I appreciate the challenge of creating a sermon extemporaneously for every performance. And my heart sails each time Ryan Castalia closes the piece by placing a candle beside Father Jerzy’s hat and saying to the congregation, “The Mass is over. Go in peace. Shhh.”

Q: What memorable feedback have you gotten about this show?

MM: I have a book’s worth of quotes and testimonials. A number of people have expressed having profound encounters after the performance with other audience members that they had never met before. Here’s one comment: As we were walking away from the performance, a car with other audience members flagged us down to get our reaction. We were all so moved, we didn’t quite know what to say, but we all just stopped everything and talked about theater and ritual and God and spirit. How often does that happen?

There was a post-show discussion with professors at Union Theological Seminary where one of the theologians expressed how he was left breathless to witness the stabbing of the bread as the body of Christ. He wanted to know how we came to create that moment and I had to admit that I’d never thought of it that way before. Maybe it was intuitive or subliminal, but I had no idea about symbolism. I just wanted a dramatic effect.

And the following relates to being concerned over how the piece might be perceived. Near the beginning of one show, a gentleman jolted up from his seat and left with such raw intensity that the whole cast felt we had done something horribly wrong. No one else in the audience had that reaction, in fact they loved the show. We were mystified.

A year later we returned to the same venue to perform Fools Mass again. Again, it was joyously received. And as we were changing out of our costumes in a small room upstairs, there was a knock at the door. A voice said, “May I come in to speak with you?” We opened the door and a man entered, though we didn’t recognize him. He said, “I came to Fools Mass last year. Your characters just made me picture my son who’d died of Muscular Dystrophy. I couldn’t bear it and had to leave. But I knew it was an important show for me to see, so I came back.”

He began to cry, and so did the rest of us. Then he said, “And I just want to thank you for doing this and to tell you that, for me, this is a beautiful tribute to my son.”

By that point, we were all crying.

Q: How do you hope “Fools Mass” continues to evolve from here?

MM: I’ve never had a destination in mind, an aim certainly but not some point in the distance. There was no original plan for what Fools Mass would be, how it would look, what it would feel like to perform. It has been an endless series of astonishments for me. The fact that the piece continues to exist and be meaningful, not only for audiences but for my fellow actors and myself is a miracle. Fools Mass has been a process since its inception, and it remains a process. I can’t say how it will evolve but I can trust that it will continue to do so.

Q: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

MM: I don’t really know what ultimate means and goals are also not quite in my vocabulary, but for now I wish to work with a larger ensemble, and this is already becoming the case. I also wish for Dzieci to remain financially solvent, which has never been certain for us, but somehow we’ve managed to continue to be so for twenty-six years. Next weekend, Dzieci will close out our twenty-fifth season of Fools Mass at St. John the Divine, where we haven’t played since before the pandemic. In another couple of months, we will return to A Passion, our Easter/Passover offering. Then maybe we’ll present Cirkus Luna in the summer, and Makbet next fall. And somewhere, somehow, it would be nice to return to our marathon workshop experiences and even explore a new theatrical piece.

********

FOOLS MASS runs Friday, December 15 at 7:30PM at St. John — St. Matthew Emanuel Lutheran Church in Brooklyn and Saturday, December 16 at 7PM at Cathedral of St. John The Divine. For tickets and information visit www.dziecitheatre.org

--

--

Meagan J. Meehan

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.