New York-based, experimental company Wooster Group performs “Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation” at Z Space.
In 1976, when Rounder Records produced “Early Shaker Spirituals”—an album of 40 songs sung a cappella by members of the United Society of Shakers in Sabbathday Lake, Maine—Wooster Group director Elizabeth LeCompte was so entranced by it, and by the religious sect itself, that a few years later she led a group of her fellow theater artists on a visit to Shaker villages. She particularly wanted to meet Sister R. Mildred Barker, the lead singer on the album. Among those who went on that long-ago road trip was Kate Valk. Years later, Valk—a founding member of Wooster who, like LeCompte, had been listening to the LP over the intervening decades—suddenly realized that the time was right to turn that music into a performance piece.
This is not the first time that the internationally acclaimed, New York-based experimental company—housed, since its inception in 1975, in the Performing Garage in SoHo—has devised new material using a record as a source; other such pieces include “Hula” and “L.S.D. (…Just the High Points…)," both from the 1980s. But it is the first time that the Wooster Group—founded by LeCompte, an award-winning director, along with the late actor Spalding Gray—has performed in San Francisco. After premiering in New York last May, “Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation” is presented here by Z Space and piece by piece productions.
Although normally LeCompte directs Wooster’s shows—which include more than 30 works for theater, dance, film and video—this time actor Valk is at the helm. “It started out more directorless,” explains Valk, who took the lead in generating the project in 2012. She needed a break from acting, and she wanted LeCompte to have the experience of being onstage. Valk told her, “Liz, your voice is perfect, you have to be in this.”
The Group had worked with stage and film actor Frances McDormand twice before, and at the time that Valk seized the idea, singer Suzzy Roche (of the Roche Sisters) was on site, so Valk realized that, along with Wooster member Cynthia Hedstrom, she had the perfect cast to channel the voices of the Shaker women she’d heard on the album. “It was the right time, and the right people were all here at the theater looking for something to do,” she says.
LeCompte had known about the Shakers (“this odd religious organization near where we spent summers”) since her East Coast childhood. Founded and led by women in 18th-century England, they were an offshoot of the Quakers, and were called the “shaking Quakers” for their ecstatic dancing during worship. The Shakers settled in colonial America under the leadership of Mother Ann Lee. The sect was known for pacifism, celibacy and meticulous, proscribed equality of the sexes. Today only Sabbathday Lake village remains as an active community.
“The whole thing about the way the Shakers lived is inspiring,” says Valk. “And I wanted very badly to make something where older women, over 55, were the power center—it’s a feminist urge.” She and the Wooster team transformed the recording into a stage piece in which the four women sing all 20 tracks from side A of the album, and then reprise 6 of them accompanied by dancing. “I didn’t want ‘choreography,’” Valk emphasizes. Instead, she devised simple, rhythmic movement patterns based on research. “I wanted to take whatever clues or detail I gleaned from all the reading I did,” she explains. Firsthand accounts of latter-day Shaker dances (no longer the free-form “ecstatic” dances of Mother Ann Lee’s era, which at times caused Shakers to be persecuted as witches) described how the singers would swing their arms, or shuffle, or skip. Valk also incorporated techniques of other sacred dances, in particular the McIntosh County Shouters of the Georgia coast, whose Southeastern ring shout is an old African-American tradition. “From there we made this simple series of dances,” she says. She added four male dancers to the cast—“young, 32 down to 24, so they wouldn’t steal the center; they’d support and balance the energy in the room. So it feels sexually charged, but not sexual.” The dances are in a circle formation, men going one way, women the other, spoke-like.
Much of the album’s music
derives from secular dance tunes of the era, such as a bar song that everyone knew and was then transformed with lyrics. “The music and the dancing were all about union,” notes Valk. “They were tunes and steps that everybody could do.” Throughout the performance, assistant director Jamie Poskin reads the album’s liner notes.
At the Shaker Museum/Mount Lebanon, New York, Valk put on a pair of white gloves and fingered early Shaker dresses, from the 1800s—“needle-made, amazing!… Ours have that homemade feel. But of course our fabrics [some in shades of green and gold, subtly patterned] came from SoHo, whereas I’m sure theirs came from mills in Maine.” (The male dancers look like a boy band, she says: black jeans to set off the colors of the women’s dresses, button-down shirts.)
During the development process, the actors met in a small group and repeatedly listened to the album and sang. “We’re channeling the singers, that’s our practice,” explains Valk. LeCompte, who designed the set, says, “In the architecture of the Shaker community, there was a line down the center of everything. Men on one side, women on the other, but always equal. There is something beautiful about that for a stage arrangement.” For her, it was an architectonic approach to conceptualizing the space.
Unused to being onstage, LeCompte says that it’s a new thing for her to experience the piece nightly from that perspective, with an audience. But it’s less about her adjustment to the stage and more about her relationship with the room at large. “I have to feel the edges of the room,” she says, “and if I know where those edges are, I use my voice to in some way touch everyone.” She sees it as a humble task: “To somehow translate what it must have been like to hear these women receive a song as I’m receiving it.”
For Valk, it was important that the production values in “Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation” not retreat too far into a “pristine past.” “Nothing is static,” she says, “and you negate [the Shakers] if you want to keep them static in the past.
“We kept the task simple and honest,” she concludes—“to listen and to sing. We’re still doing that, and we’re still finding more and more nuances.”
Feb. 5 → 8
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