To playwright and former food critic Mat Schaffer, there are no coincidences.
Even if it involves a seemingly meaningless tumble on Boston’s perpetually present ice, resulting in a morning trip to the ER, two stitches, and an impressive black eye.
“Signs happen around me all the time,” Schaffer says. “For example, I’m laying in a hospital bed in the emergency room after my fall. The doctor says, ‘Hold up your right hand. I’m going to give you a tetanus shot.’ After about two minutes, I turn my head to the doctor and say, ‘Can I put my hand down now?’ and the technician said, ‘Simon says!’” he exclaims.
The connection here is that the play that Schaffer has spent the past 20 years bringing to the stage, Simon Says, bears the very same name as that mentioned in the innocuous exchange with the technician. According to him, it’s one of many instances over the course of his life affirming that which he (and many others) holds to be true: Everything happens in our lives for a reason.
“I believe that in a weird way, I sort of channeled this play, that it came through me,” he explains. “I say that because it’s a lot smarter than I am. There’s a line in the play: ‘Omens surround us all if you are open and aware.’ A lot of people are not, or are sort of freaked out by [the idea of] it.”
Born out of Schaffer’s lifelong fascination with the paranormal, the performance is directly inspired by his research into the lives of famed 20th-century mediums Edgar Cayce and Jane Roberts. Cayce slipped into thousands of trances in his time, and claimed a voice would speak through him to solve everything from medical problems and to modern mysteries (see: how the Egyptians built the pyramids). Additionally, Roberts claimed to have channeled a spirit who dictated a number of books to her husband, using Roberts as his mouthpiece.
“I’ve always thought that the concept of someone channeling was inherently dramatic,” Schaffer says.
Simon Says tells the story of a young psychic named James, who possesses the ability to channel Simon, an omniscient being offering wisdom from beyond. It seeks to explore the intersection of science and spirituality, and to portray that which cannot be explained.
Above all, Schaffer says, he strives for authenticity. A Marlborough-based mentalist named Christopher Grace is helping produce the special effects, and an actual medium will be available during a talk-back after the Thursday night performance to help people get in touch with deceased relatives.
“I wanted to do it in a way that people who do this sort of thing found that I would be treating them with great respect,” he says. “People who have read it who identify as psychics or mediums have been impressed that I was able to present them in a way that is truly representative of what they do.”
Audiences, as well, have been impressed and moved by the play, especially those who have recently lost a loved one. Schaffer says Simon Says has served as a method of helping audiences deal with their grief in a positive way, and has sparked important conversations and thoughtful examinations of who they are, and the direction in which life is taking them.
“I think that people are often looking for meaning in a world where it’s often difficult to believe there is some,” Schaffer says. “Everybody’s got their own path, and their own right to believe or not believe. I just hope it sparks curiosity.”
And yet, he adds, the play has never given him reason to doubt.
“Twenty years ago, after a reading of the play, the woman who organized it called me up crying. She just had her cards read by a psychic named James, who lived around the corner from me. The psychic in my play is named James,” Schaffer says. “I’d never met him before. [So] I went to his house. He came downstairs and he said to me, ‘Who’s Bill?’ and I went, ‘My father.’ And he said, ‘He’s not the writer, you’re the writer, but his spirit is really strong around you and protects you.’ My dad was dead.”
No coincidences, indeed.