Three years ago, Frances McDormand was sitting in a Manhattan bar with Kate Valk, star of the Wooster Group, New York’s premiere experimental theater company, when Valk told her about a piece she’s directing that sprung from a sabbatical she, along with company director Elizabeth LeCompte and other Group members, took to Maine in 1980. There they visited the Sabbathday Shaker community, celibate Christians who focus on worship, and met with Sister R. Mildred Barker. Valk and LeCompte were swept away by a 1976 recording of Barker singing spirituals along with other women in their diminishing community. As she listened, McDormand suddenly had an idea, “I want to be a Shaker.” And now she is, appearing in the Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals through Feb. 1 at REDCAT.
Although she hadn’t tried it before, Sunday night’s SAG Award winner welcomed the opportunity to sing and dance onstage. “I don’t have a trained voice and I’m not a trained dancer, but I always loved it,” McDormand tells THR. “This really suits my capabilities,” which isn’t to say the new show features middling performances, but it’s more in keeping with the Shaker esthetic of purity of commitment, whether it be to daily chores or singing praise. In fact, Valk stressed to her cast, including LeCompte, (who usually directs), Suzzy Roche (who formed a popular trio with her sisters) and Cynthia Hedstrom, a producer who, like McDormand, has little experience singing and dancing, that a good sound is not what they were after, but an authentic one.
The first half of the 50-minute show is comprised of the women seated or standing in traditional Shaker garb and singing hymns, which are introduced by a narrator reading from the album notes. Each performer is fitted with an earpiece by which they listen to the music and sing titles like “Come Life, Shaker Life,” “I Hunger and Thirst” and “Tis the Gift to Be Simple,” on which composer Aaron Copland based his “Appalachian Spring.” In the second portion of the show, several young men join the women in a square dance. In keeping with the Wooster Group tradition, it is a challenging piece for both the performers and the audience.
McDormand finds the relationship with the show’s detractors similar to the one the Shakers had with the outside world. “They called them the world’s people,” she says about the religious sect’s name for non-believers. “They would be invited at any point to join in the room and it brings more cynicism to the experience. People are coming with frustration that it’s not more theatrical or not more like previous Wooster Group shows they’ve seen. That’s good too because then we struggle against that, not to win over anyone but to keep our focus on the path.”
As her first major foray into directing, Valk confessed to doubts that Early Shaker Spirituals would be well received, but the show earned high praise when it was workshopped at Lincoln Center last year, and the plaudits continue for the engagement here in Los Angeles.
“It’s much more communal than most Wooster Group shows and most commercial theater,” says McDormand. “The fact that we leave the lights up on the audience, Kate (Valk) doesn’t want the audience to sit back and observe. She wants them to be communally involved in the full-circle process.”
With a director and cast composed mainly of women of a certain age, Early Shaker Spirituals is a communal work borne of the sisterhood at the heart of the Wooster Group. “The idea that Liz is coming back to performing after not having performed for so many years, and Kate, as the premiere female performer of the company, is kind of emerging as the director of this piece — it’s the perfect symbol of that kind of continuity,” observes McDormand, who has long been a collaborator with the group. “It’s not just the female aspect of it, but the elder status that we have all gained. To sit in those chairs for as long as we sit and to get the attention of the audience for as long as we do, we’ve put in the time.”