Experimental Theater Meets Experimental Faith: The Wooster Group’s “Early Shaker Spirituals”

The subject of The Wooster Group’s latest workEarly Shaker Spirituals by the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, may elicit chuckles. After all, the last time the company based shows on recorded music, they came out with “Hula” and “LSD: Only the High Points.” But there’s no one better prepared to interpret the work of the celibate, plain-living religious group than this wildly experimental group of artists.

Both are pioneers in their fields—avant-garde theater and millenarian religious movements. Both have outlasted nearly all the competition, even if their form has changed. Both have a protected home, which admirers visit in hushed tones. The Wooster Group has The Performing Garage, enshrined as part of the Grand Street Artist’s Co-op, a project of the 1960s Fluxus art movement, around which high-end fashion boutiques now proliferate.

The record Early Shaker Spirituals came out in 1976, just a year after The Wooster Group was founded. In 1979, founder Liz LeCompte and company made their ownpilgrimage to Sabbathday Lake and other East Coast Shaker sites; it was longtime company member Kate Valk’s first trip. The Wooster Group has a unique way of working with source material, beginning with a meticulous recreation of that source. The performers wear visible earpieces and microphones over their plain cotton dresses so as to stay in sync with the recording. The Shakers too, we find out, though famous for their “shape-note” musical notation, also learn their many complex songs by ear.

Members of both groups are perceived to have sacrificed a worldly career for a cause that can’t possibly “pay off” in this life, prompting admiration and scorn from outsiders. For decades, critics have heralded Valk, one of a handful of original company members still performing after 39 years, as one of the best actresses in New York, and wondered at her decision not to work with other companies. It certainly doesn’t seem to bother her any. In Early Shaker Spirituals (which ends its successful run on June 15th) Valk steps further away from the spotlight by acting as director.

Like the Sabbathday Lake Shaker site, which is both a religious community, museum, and shop, The Wooster Group has also struggled with the tension between a somewhat Spartan existence and the temptations of commerce—Willem Dafoe, founding company member, left the group, and his relationship with Liz LeCompte, supposedly lured by Hollywood fame. Meanwhile, The Wooster Group recently attracted bona fide movie star Frances McDormand to join their ranks, as an “associate.”

Four women (McDormand, LeCompte, Suzzy Roche, and Cynthia Hedstrom) sit on a small square of green and white tiled floor in the middle of the traditionally empty space, with lightly etched circles outlined on the white floor. Aside from small moves like the opening and closing of a prayer book, standing and sitting, changing chairs, they sit still, focused, and sing. A younger male actor introduces each “track” to the audience with comments from the liner notes, which occasionally foreshadow where the production will go in its explosive second half. One song urges singers to “shake out all the starch and stiffening.” Another “may have originally been accompanied by symbolic gestures.” You can bet you’re going to see some of those, Wooster-Group style. Another was created in response to a popular fake Shaker performance devised by a “troupe of apostates,” characterized in the lyrics as “fools” and “vile persecutors.” What would the ladies of Sabbathday Lake—and they were mostly ladies for a long time, women’s life expectancies being longer—think of this present exercise in theatricality?

My guess is, they’d love it. When I mentioned the show on Facebook, I learned that my high school English teacher had grown up in New Gloucester, Maine, the worldly town the contains the otherworldly Sabbathday Lake settlement. She remembered her sister, who worked there for a summer, telling funny stories about how much the elderly sisters liked to watch “bad sitcoms.” Otherworldly, yes. “Millenarian, celibate, communistic,” yes. But that kind of human frailty is what has allowed them to be remembered, as the album notes had hoped, as “more than just a stick of furniture.” The Wooster Group is well on their way to the same kind of legacy.