Playwright Lynne Kaufman spins a trippy tale.
Back in the mid-’60s, when LSD was legal, the drug’s poster child was Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary. A lesser-known story is that of Leary’s sidekick, fellow Harvard prof Richard Alpert. A nice Jewish boy from a wealthy family, Alpert served for several years as the counterbalance to Leary’s wild Irish ways—then gave up acid and transformed himself into the tremendously popular guru of Be Here Now fame. This odd metamorphosis is detailed in Acid Test: The Many Incarnations of Ram Dass—a one-man show penned by San Francisco playwright Lynne Kaufman and running through Feb. 17 at the Berkeley Marsh (local stage vet Warren David Keith stars).
Paul Kilduff: It always seems that Ram Dass is overshadowed by Leary. What was their relationship like?
Lynne Kaufman: [Alpert] was rather a shy, conventional, buttoned-up kind of guy when he met Tim Leary at Harvard, and Leary was the Pied Piper. He said he always felt that Leary was the top banana and he was happy to assist in that. He wasn’t as flamboyant or as theatrical.
PK: He was Leary’s straight man.
LK: Yes, he was. And then there was a big falling out.
PK: Was it over his gay dalliances?
LK: That seems to be what I can gather.
PK: But I thought he was bisexual.
LK: Primarily gay. When Leary went out of town and came back to Millbrook [the upstate New York estate where Leary and Alpert lived], there were all kinds of hippies crashing there and it was out of control. And that was one of the reasons, too, that they broke.
PK: So Leary was a little uptight?
LK: About gays, yes.
PK: Maybe deep down inside he really wasn’t such a hippie-dippie, lovey guy.
LK: I wouldn’t want to say that.
PK: Well, I get to because there are no repercussions for me and the guy’s dead, anyway.
LK: He is. And there was a coming together at the end. In fact, Ram Dass was with Leary when he died. [Leary] wanted to do something very creative after he died. His plan was to have his head frozen and then attached to the body of a beautiful black woman.
PK: A dead black woman?
LK: No, a live one!
PK: This would have been some pretty advanced cryonics. “Hey, Jimmy the intern! Have you checked into that cryonics thing I want to do yet? I’m dying here! C’mon!”
LK: [Instead], he had his ashes cremated and then flown in a Pegasus rocket [into outer space], along with Gene Roddenberry. But no, I don’t think Ram Dass ever felt competitive. He was enchanted with the wild life that Leary led. The only real prob–lem was with the homosexuality. It was considered an illness then.
PK: Did Ram Dass have second thoughts about psychologists advocating a very powerful drug?
LK: He stopped using after hundreds of trips.
PK: Hundreds of acid trips. Wow! No wonder he was so enlightened.
LK: He says 377 trips. Somebody in the audience at Berkeley [told] me that she took acid twice a week for two years and was fine. When he went to India, he had stopped using LSD, because he felt that he wanted to stay up even when he was down. When the drug wore off, he wasn’t where he wanted to be in terms of connecting to the universe and loving-kindness. That’s when he went into a spiritual conversion and found what he was looking for. [LSD] was never really meant as just a recreational drug [but] as a way to see the deepest level of who we are. But . . . it just became this recreational crazy drug. The same thing happened with MDMA.
PK: Do you think that Ram Dass would have ever achieved enlight-enment without all these acid trips?
LK: I don’t know that he needed that many. LSD is coming back.
PK: Is it? Really?
LK: Leary and Alpert had wanted to use it—and did—for guys who were in prison. They had thought of it as a socially therapeutic drug. Now it’s being used for post-traumatic stress in a very controlled, therapeutic environment.
PK: So guys coming back from the Middle East are taking acid?
LK: Yes, to show the different levels of reality. I haven’t done it myself.
PK: You’ve not done acid?
LK: I haven’t.
PK: You didn’t write this play on acid?
LK: No, I didn’t. Maybe I’ll revise it on acid.
PK: That’s kind of a disappointment.
LK: Sorry! I’m so sorry. I have tried MDMA.
PK: Did you go to a rave and do it?
LK: No, I wouldn’t do it at a rave.
PK: You’re a little old for that.
LK: Well, yeah. Some experiences should be private between you and your partner.
PK: Right. It’s the love drug, isn’t it? I’ve never done it.
LK: Well, you’re still young. They’re using [LSD] for end of life, where people know they’re going to die very soon. And they’ve had such good results. There’s a sense of unity, of oneness, and apparently a sense of continuity that something remains of your life after you’re gone. People face their death with more peace, with less fear. It allows the person to step away a little bit from [their] own convictions and look at them from the outside. That’s what psychotherapy is all about.
PK: With all of our technological devices, it’s harder to be here now.
LK: That’s why I’m the only person I know whose cell phone always stays in the glove compartment. I don’t even know the number.
PK: Really? Well, you’re not going to be very successful.
LK: That’s fine. It has been proven you cannot truly do two things at the same time. Multitasking is nonsense. All you’re doing is moving from one task to another very, very quickly, so you’re not anywhere. Meditation and focus and awareness is the essence of all spiritual traditions. [But] people don’t want to look. They just want to be distracted.
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Age: “I remember the ’60s.”
Birthplace: New York City, the Bronx.
Astrological sign: Pisces.
Three rules of business: Take care of the customer, take care of the customer, take care of the customer.
Motto: “Yes, and . . .” rather than “No, but . . .”.
Book on nightstand: How the French Invented Love.