First Q&A: Alfred Uhry/Martha Clarke

Two of Connecticut's undisputed stage masters take on the enigmatic Shakers in "Angel Reapers," opening in Boston and New York City this month.

 

Sara Davis

It’s safe to say that any collaboration between Pulitzer Prize-, Tony- and Oscar-winning playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy), and visionary choreographer Martha Clarke, 67—co-founder of the dance troupe Pilobolus, MacArthur “genius” and 2010 recipient of the highly prestigious Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement—is destined to be, at the very least, intriguing.
“Intrigued” is probably the best word to describe Clarke’s reaction when Uhry, 74, approached her at what she recalls as a “lavish Thanksgiving party” (“It was only the second time I’ve seen him in my life,” she says) to ask, “How would you like to do a piece on the Shakers?” Six years later, the collaboration of the two Litchfield County residents has “lurched into life” (Clarke’s words) as
Angel Reapers, a dance theater piece currently on tour in the Northeast. The show heads to Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre Nov. 15-20 and New York City’s Joyce Theater Nov. 29 through Dec. 11.

How did the idea to do Angel Reapers get started?

Clarke: I was at this lavish Thanksgiving party and saw Alfred there for the second time in my life. Right, Alfred? And he said, "How would you like to do a piece on the Shakers?" I thought the idea of working with Alfred Uhry would be wonderful. Many years later, it's lurched into being.

Uhry: Over the last six years we've had a lot of opportunity to work on it, which is great. We've worked on it together in the studio, as well as had umpteen meetings where we fumbled around. I've rarely done anything where I've had this much prep time.

What prompted you to ask Martha to do it?

U: About a thousand years ago when our children were little, my wife and I rented a summer house up in New York State, about 10 minutes away from the original Hancock Shaker community. I'd take my kids there several times a week. In the gift shop I found books about Ann Lee, and this is long before the Internet, so I researched her in the library. I became fascinated with her and saw immediately that her story had theatrical possibilities. But I also saw just about as immediately that it was not a play, that it was too far out there to be a traditional play.

What about Lee fascinates both of you?

U: I'll go first; okay, Martha darling? She was sort of a Joan of Arc figure in a very bizarre way, a poor young woman in England who had multiple stillbirths. She'd be in labor for three or four days, and the babies were all born dead. Then God came to visit her, Jesus, Pope Paul II—everybody came to visit her. They told her to not only be celibate, but to preach celibacy as much as she could. And she did.

C: She did this also as a result of losing four children at birth. It was the dramatic and tragic events of her life that were the explanation for all that.

U: She founded the Shaker community. Shakers are "shaking Quakers," that's what they were called. They shook, and they danced, and they were totally abstinent—there was absolutely no sex at all. No talking, no fondling, not even of yourself. In place of that, they would have these prayer meetings where they would serve spiritual wine and get drunk . . . which was really, no wine.

C: Although it is rumored that they did drink "spirits," as in Holy Spirit.

U: It was pretty strict. The sexes were not allowed to communicate in any way. Men lived on one side of the building, and women on the other; they used separate staircases. They never spoke to each other. Even within your own sex, you weren't allowed to have much social congress. People did their work, and the communities thrived, and they did wonderful things.

Reading about them, it sounds like they were progressive in many ways, but . . .

C: They were matriarchal, which is extremely progressive.

 . . . it sounds like their lifestyle increased the mystification of sex.

C: Absolutely. There's nothing like denial to make you want something.

U: It's like, "From now on, you're never going to think about your left hand . . . Don't think about your left hand. Don't do it." So there you go.

C: Which is why there's currently, probably only two Shakers left. There were three, and I think one died.

U: Lately, they've been fighting people who want to join. Originally, they took in anyone: abused women, runaway slaves, escaped prisoners. They took in a lot of orphans, but when these kids became teens, they left. They did get married couples—we have one pair in our show—whose farms were failing, and if these people would tithe their farms over to the Shaker community, then they would be able to keep their land. But they would have to live in the community as brother and sister. Some people were able to do that.

Ann and her own husband did that, right?

C: He left. Ann's husband said, "If you don't sleep with me, I'm out of here," basically.

U: For the first few years, we did all of that biographical research, but Martha made me realize we had to distill it. We couldn't be biographical; we just didn't have time.

C: And also, it didn't lift off the page as much as when we started thinking of it as a "tone poem." I call it a "tone poem on the Shakers" now. In a certain sense it's put together very viscerally and not linearly.

U: All of the show is based on our research—everything we do, we can trace to the Shakers—but it's more an emotional temperature of how it was.

I know people have done works on the Shakers before. How does your piece differ?

C: I haven't looked on purpose, because I don't want any influence from other people.

U: What we're doing is strictly about a wonderful project that ultimately had to fail. You can't deny your sexuality, that's how we all got here. That's what the story's about: suppressing your desires and trying to find other ways to satisfy them, and the ultimate failure, no matter how good your intentions are, of such a thing. To my knowledge, there's never been a play about the Shakers. Ours deals emotionally with what went on, the high and low spots.

C: And we use the wonderful Shaker music from the 18th century—they wrote more than 2,000 hymns. For me, on a very abstract level, to do a piece that was just based on rhythm and foot-stomping was quite fascinating, as a director-choreographer. There is a rhythmic drive that moves through the piece that was a wonderful challenge for me.

U: The music was all conceived by the Shakers to be a cappella. We have a wonderful music director named Arthur Solari who, out of these thousands of Shaker songs, has distilled about 20 that cover the range from spirited and lively to plaintive and beautiful. The one that's famous is "Simple Gifts." No lyricist that I can imagine could write these now, they're too remarkably interesting and on the nose for the Shakers. When I found there's a song in a community where sex is forbidden called, "A Companion to Stiff I Will Not Be" . . . yes, it's a laugh, but can you imagine?

We thought about this a lot, about celibacy and what it means. I think along the way we all realized that there are times we've had our bodies take us somewhere we didn't want to go. I mean, at certain times you find yourself being led around by your sexual parts and you think, "if I didn't have to have that in my life—if I could have gone through college, say, without those urges—what might have I accomplished?" It's within the human spectrum, don't you think, Martha? I mean, most of us are never going to do that . . .

C: Do what?

 U: . . . Give it up. For our whole lives, I mean.

C: Depends on how much of a pain in the ass our partner is!

U: But I think it would take an incredible amount of courage—I can only speak as a male-type person—to do it. It's like a diet on steroids. It would be a huge commitment to say, "I'm not going to think about it; I'm not going to do it."

As a woman-type person, would you agree with that, Martha?

C: Yes. I have great respect for the community of the Shakers, leading that ordered, lovely life. I've often thought it would be nice to have been like Dolores Hart, over in Bethlehem. But the idea of celibacy doesn't work for me.

I wonder if Freud would describe what the Shakers did as "displacement"—you put your sexual energies somewhere else.

C: What is wonderful about the dance and song is the sublimation. Wonderful, crazy worship scenes were witnessed, and there were testimonies from people who saw the Shakers saying that what they did simply looked like "Bedlam." We have a section of the piece we call "Bedlam." The audience may not know the reference, they may feel the whole thing is bedlam. But the sublimation obviously brought out extremely physical exercise, jumping and howling.

How is Angel Reapers structured? Does it have scenes, or acts?

U: It's hard to characterize. I would say it's split in thirds: one-third dance, one-third music and a third text. Maybe leaning a little more towards dance.

C: I would call it "movement." There are no identifiable dance steps. It's not going to be based on a vocabulary people are accustomed to. We did research, but we didn't try to do anything historically accurate. It is a somewhat abstract structure, however, there is a dramaturgical curve.

U: We have 11 people in the cast—six women and five men—and we tell lots of different stories within that little group. We have a young couple raised by Shakers who fall in love with each other. We have a runaway slave. We have Ann Lee and her brother William who gave up his married life to join his sister. We have a couple who gave up their marriage to become Shakers, and we have a woman who, I think, killed her husband. We have all these stories.

C: And they were developed with the company members, so that the company, which is exceptional—there are two actors and nine dancers—we talked about what was important to them. So the back stories of the characters were built on who the performers are as well.

U: We have these actors who can really move and dancers who can really act . . . and everyone can sing! It's pretty remarkable.

What is the role of text? Is there dialogue?

U: There's a tiny bit of dialogue; most of it is confessions. That was big in the Shaker community. Most of the speaking that was done had to do with explaining to the community why you're there . . .

C: Ann Lee wanted that; it was a necessity to say why you were there . . .

U: . . . because you had to forswear everything. We have distilled all of that.

Any parallels between the Shakers and organized groups in the present day?

U: Certainly there are parallels to communities like Jim Jones or Waco, any of those heaven-on-earth communities. This was truly pure-at-heart, it wasn't some lascivious thing started by someone so they could sleep with all the young girls in the world.

C: Also, it was a very inventive community. Mother Ann invented the round saw, the clothespin, the concept of selling dried seeds in packets. They were very inventive in how to sustain themselves. The flat broom . . . they were really responsible for things we use everyday.

U: Ann Lee said, "We build chairs for angels to sit in." It was a wonderful experiment that ultimately had to fail. That's what the underpinning of this project is. It wasn't the only religion with vows of celibacy, but this one actually engaged the two sexes living together. It was a remarkable experiment. I think that anyone who would undertake it is very brave. And it's very touching. At first it's snickery, but you get over that pretty quickly when you realize what these people did.

The other piece that's fascinating about our production because it's historically accurate is, our performers are completely costumed from head to toe. You don't see a single bit of flesh except their faces. They're completely covered, including their hands.

C: And women's dresses were made so that there's kind of a white shawl or bib-like thing, so that you couldn't see the form of a woman. It was an early American burka.

U: Men had on three-piece suits and buttoned-up shirts, so they were completely covered—yet the Shakers really encouraged nude dancing. They thought that if you were nude, you were invisible. Your body wasn't a sexual object, it was just your body. It was just sort of odd, bizarre. There's naked dancing in the show, for all types. We have male nudity, female semi-nudity—we get there.

C: What we don't have is a lot of jokes.

U: You mean, you took out all my one-liners?

What have been the greatest challenges in getting the piece the way you want it?

C: The challenges are the same as in writing or directing a traditional play: it's really pacing, clarity, musicality and wonder.

U: And how to keep the involvement with the characters when they don't say all that much.

C: We want you to feel that you know them, and yet we're giving very little literal info.

U: You're learning quite a bit through music and movement. There aren't any sitdown sessions where they talk about how they feel.

C: It's the old thing, body language. We built storytelling into the movement through trial and error. With all my work over many years, I try to find vocabulary per subject matter, so that I don't strain to apply Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham technique. It usually starts from what the subject matter is about and what the emotional intent of the scene will be. There is no movement that is just a pretty move for movement's sake. If you don't understand what it's trying to say, or tell, I don't use it. Fundamentally, this work is very earthy, very rhythmic, with a lot of stamping and polyrhythms. I built a company vocabulary, and it's extremely limited, so I try to find the emotional expression within the limitations.

You can't suddenly have a woman do a pirouette as a Shaker. The usual dance vocabulary doesn't apply; you work more from the emotional states and what we were trying to say about the characters. The physical and abstract part of the movement came out of trying to realize through physicalization what we were trying to say specifically, emotionally.

U: As the playwright, I find that the less you say in this piece, the more the audience will provide their own interpretations of what you mean. There's quite a bit of actual quotes from Shakers, confessions from Mother Ann. And there's a lot that I wrote. But now I can't remember which is which anymore. It's all intertwined. I utilized all the Shaker text I could find. Like all theater, it's entertainment, but you have to bring something to it.

C: It's not Hairspray.

U: It's not?

That might make an interesting double bill, actually. A mindblower. How long is the production, by the way?

C: It's about 75 minutes. We don't believe in long, except for life. How we sustained thinking about it and working on it for 6 years, I have no idea. But it's always been a pleasur to get back to and the rehearsals, the process, has been one of the most fascinating I've ever been involved with.

U: And we have the best company in the world. It was built around these people.

C: They're so committed, so generous, so focused . . .

U: And talented. Martha said the other day, "We've got a room full of racehorses here." And that's what we have. Being a complete klutz myself, to watch these people work is remarkable. The control these people have over their bodies—I wonder if I'm in the same species.

C: What's wonderful is that they really understand and have brought an intelligence to the work that is not just technical. They've brought a real understanding and sensitivity to the characters that they're playing.

U: I would say that 85 percent of what I wrote is from being in rehearsal and observing and listening and watching and thinking, "She would be the one who would say this, he would be the one . . ." It all just flowed together.

C: The making of it was extremely organic.

It would be cool if you could time-travel and observe the Shakers directly, without being involved . . .

U: For a day-and-a-half, maybe . . .

C: But, you know, Alfred, I don't think of them as a joyless community whatsoever . . .

U: Not at all. The piece begins with them just sitting there, laughing.

C: We've kind of compacted 50 years of Shaker history into this rather abstract work.

U: Yes, I would say we go from about the late 18th to the mid-19th century.

C: And the time curve is not at all important, it's just information on what we read. During Ann Lee's lifetime, I think the rhythm and dancing was less codified than some of the structure we were going for in the piece.

U: That was a stumbling block for us for a long time.

C: In the 1830s, there was a revisitation of Ann Lee's spirit. That's when the dancing became more codified. That's been the most interesting thing to deal with.

Angel Reapers has been staged before, correct?

C: We did this as a work-in-progress at the American Dance Festival back in 2010, and had three performances. And now we're doing a small tour of New England, starting with shows at Dartmouth and the University of Connecticut. We're in Boston for a week and New York City for two.

Would you say there's a theme to the piece beyond what people are seeing on stage?

C: I don't think we're slinging home a "message." Do you, Alfred?

U: The last speech we have in it, the brother says, "My soul is an angel, my body is a man, and they're fighting all the time." So that's really what it's all about.

First Q&A: Alfred Uhry/Martha Clarke

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