Viewing religion from the outside in: New play, ‘The Oven’ recalls shamanic, hallucinogenic ritual

Last modified: Thursday, November 20, 2014

Five years ago Ilan Stavans participated in a shamanic ceremony in the South American country of Colombia that involved the use of hallucinogens. It was an experience, he says, that changed his life.

Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, has written a one-man play about the experience. “The Oven,” a monologue, performed by Stavans, will be presented at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst on Sept. 28, and Oct. 12. He will later tour with the show to locations in California, Florida and Illinois.

Stavans is an essayist, playwright and author. His many awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Jewish Book Award.

In 2009, Stavans traveled to Colombia while on a cross-continental journey through Latin America. It was there, at the behest of a shaman friend, that he decided to participate in the religious ceremony with members of a tribe in the Valley of Sidumboy in Putumayo, in the Amazon.

While Stavans describes himself as a “rational person,” he says the religious ceremony challenged him to put reason and intellect aside, and to cast off preconceived notions about the value of analytical or logical thinking.

“For years my shaman friend kept inviting me to participate in a religious ceremony with his Amazonian tribe. He knew I am Jewish and fascinated by the role of religion in social and intellectual life,” Stavans said. “He told me it would be an experience unlike anything my religion provided.”

“Yours goes from the inside out,’ the shaman told Stavans. “The ceremony will teach you to look at religion from the outside in.”

“Initially I was reluctant to participate because I understood the physical and spiritual demands the ritual would have on me,” Stavans said. “But I also didn’t want to go through life as a coward, failing to experiment with other religious manifestations.”

Indeed, he starts his monologue with a quote from Socrates: “An unexamined life is a life not worth living.”

A potent brew

During the outdoor ceremony, Stavans drank a liquid called ayahuasca, a psychedelic concoction long used in shamanic ceremonies in the Amazon. Stavans describes it as looking like petroleum, or a thick, black and unprocessed gasoline.

“I have never tried petroleum but this was incredibly acidic,” Stavans said.

After drinking the brew, Stavans and the other dozen or so attendees were invited to find a personal space for themselves and wait for the effects to take hold. When they did, Stavans says, he had both an out-of-body as well as an “out-of-soul” experience.

The ritual involved persistent musical arrangements, collective chants, offerings to the spirits, the consumption of herbs, and some dance in a group. But mostly, he says, it was a journey performed by each of the participants alone with the help of a curandera (healer) and a couple of shamans.

It was done outdoors, in a large expansion of land, with a clay oven always being fed wood to keep a fire going.

“That fire became the center of our religious behavior,” he said.

“The shamans told me that ... the moment I stopped thinking, the moment I see my mind stopping in its process of just observing everything and making sense, that I would start feeling things,” Stavans said.

“I allowed myself to be transported by the ayahuasca into another reality,” he said. “In it, I was myself but also other entities, that is, I inhabited myself but also traveled far and beyond it.”

He says the effects of the event are still with him: It taught him to be more humble, to listen to people differently, to be more aware of his circumstances, and to listen to the rhythms of his body.

A fixation

These are not things that are easy to describe or explain, he says, but he’s eager to give it a try. “The Oven” is an attempt to articulate the experience.

The title of the play refers to the old-fashioned oven that was used to keep participants warm. Stavans said he became fixated on that oven during the experience, which reminded him of other ovens in his life: “I am the grandchild of a family that survived the Holocaust but whose relatives, not my grandparents but their siblings, perished in different concentration camps and gas chambers,” he said.

The resulting monologue is a reflection on that intense focus during the ceremony.

Stavans started working on the play as soon as he returned to the United States after the ceremony. He decided to use a monologue format in part, he says, because he’s a longtime admirer of the late actor and writer Spalding Gray, who died in 2004, who was known for his autobiographical monologues. Stavans said he felt his trip was the kind of experience Gray might have and riffed on.

Stavans says he wanted to compose a piece in which the audience could experience the ceremony with him and where it would change with each performance.

“I recreate the ceremony and go back, through words, to the action — to the site and allow audiences to see exactly what was taking place and how my mind was disintegrating and the place the oven had during the whole thing as an anchor, but also as a metaphor of an entity where things just disappeared, disintegrated, lost the form that they had,” he said

He chose as his director Matthew Glassman, an actor and director at Double Edge Theater, an experimental company based in Ashfield that uses a “laboratory theater” approach, meaning that the piece will not be rehearsed beforehand in a traditional sense but will change and develop further each time the monologue is performed.

“Audiences will have an opportunity to see how it comes together and what ‘together’ means because, in theater, things keep on changing,” Stavans said. He says he hopes his audiences will reflect, along with him, on the limits of knowledge, to question how and why we “know” certain things, and to explore whether our minds alone are enough to comprehend the world around us.”

“The Oven” will be performed Sept. 28 and Oct. 12 at 2 p.m. at the Yiddish Book Center, 1021 West St., in Amherst. Tickets cost $10; $8 for members; $6 for students. To reserve, visit


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