Wooster Group channels Shakers 

click to enlarge From left, Elizabeth LeCompte, Suzzy Roche, Frances McDormand and Cynthia Hedstrom appear in “Early Shaker Spirituals.” - COURTESY STEVEN GUNTHER
  • From left, Elizabeth LeCompte, Suzzy Roche, Frances McDormand and Cynthia Hedstrom appear in “Early Shaker Spirituals.”
The notion that The Wooster Group, a sophisticated experimental theater group from New York City, would successfully channel the music and energy of one of New England’s celibate puritanical Shaker communities seems, at the least, hard to believe. But, by all reports, it is exactly what the five decade-old theater group does, with riveting success, in “Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation.”

The evening of theater and dance – onstage at Z Space in The City this week – is based on a 1976 LP of Shaker hymns, marches, anthems and testimony recorded by Sister R. Mildred Barker and others in the Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

Director Kate Valk, set designer-performer Elizabeth LeCompte, and other members of The Wooster Group visited the community in 1980, met with Sister Barker, and were taken by the music.

“We went on to make a lot of theater pieces. We just had the right complement of women to do the piece now. I wanted to direct, and the others were here,” Valk told the San Francisco Examiner.

Valk’s original impulse was to simply meet onstage and sing the songs. Soon, she became inspired to make up dances to go along with them.

“The songs are so beautiful that I wanted to perform them,” she says. “I was also attracted to the fact that the power center of piece would reside in older women, 55+. Then, after I had the desire to make up dances, I wanted to have men join in to have that balance of energy.”

That all the male dancers are 30 and younger is but one of the curious attractions of the piece. Another is that the company not only sings all the songs from Side A, including two monologues taken from interviews with Barker, but that a young man, assistant director Jamie Poskin, reads the liner notes to every track before it’s performed.

“It turned into this beautiful little piece,” says Valk. “We may be using in-ear receivers and other modern-day technology to literally channel the LP as it’s being played, but, in keeping with the spirit and aesthetic of Shaker music, the piece is very, very simple. I was quite surprised when there was a big audience for it.

“The Shakers wanted to sing music that everyone was familiar with, so that everyone could sing together, even if they were indifferently talented. So they drew from music, both sacred and profane, that everybody knew, including Civil War marches. The spirituals are unaccompanied, and there are no harmonies. This may be why they so familiar, and why the response has been so positive.”


Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation

Presented by The Wooster Group

Where: Z Space, 450 Florida St., S.F.

When: 7 p.m. Feb. 5, 8 p.m. Feb. 6, 2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 7, 5 p.m. Feb. 8

Tickets: $50

Contact: (866) 811-4111, www.zspace.org

About The Author

Jason Victor Serinus

Jason Victor Serinus

Jason Victor Serinus is a music and high performance audio critic, whistler, and lecturer on opera and vocal recordings. He is editor of Psychoimmunity and the Healing Process: A Holistic Approach to Immunity & AIDS. In addition to writing for the San Francisco Examiner, he has written about music for Opera News,... more
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