SHAKERTOWN — Artists frequently come to Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill researching Shaker history or music for works they are preparing.
But Susan Hughes, interpretation and education manager for the village, can't remember any of those completed works coming back to Shakertown, until now.
University of Kentucky Theatre on Friday will bring its production of Arlene Hutton's As It Is in Heaven to Shakertown for eight performances over two weekends.
”It is wonderful to have this play recognized in its hometown,“ Hutton said from her New York apartment.
It was nearly a decade ago that Hutton, a pen name for actress Beth Lincks, visited Shakertown to research her play about a community of nine Shaker women in 1838. That was the Era of Manifestations, a time when Shakers were experiencing divine visions. The play looks at the group dynamics when some of the women experience the visions and others don't.
As It Is in Heaven was originally presented by UK Theatre in 2002 in the Briggs Theatre on campus. It has also been performed more than 60 times throughout the United States and Europe — including an ill-fated run in New York that opened two days after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
”It is satisfying that it had such a nice life,“ said Hutton, whose writings include the Nibroc trilogy of plays set in and about Kentucky. Her parents were from Corbin and London.
UK theater professor Rhoda-Gale Pollack is happy the play has come back into her life. She was the director of the 2002 UK production.
”I have so many new insights into it,“ Pollack said. ”I start every rehearsal with a Shaker moment. Today's, for example, is called, "Plain and simple.'“
That moment explored how Shakers were plain and simple in everything except their worship.
During a morning meeting in Shakertown with several media outlets, the actors in As It Is in Heaven demonstrated worship in a meetinghouse, their songs pouring out of the doors for tourists to hear.
Shakertown is happy to host the play because it helps explain the Shaker story and lifestyle.
”It explains to people why it was attractive to be a Shaker,“ says Madge Adams, president and chief executive officer of Shaker Village.
The Shakers were a communal society that believed in peace, celibacy, and racial and gender equality.
The community is probably best known for the simplicity and quality of its craftsmanship, particularly in furniture, and music, including the tune Simple Gifts (”'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free ...“) heard in many places, such as Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring.
The Shaker community existed at Pleasant Hill from 1805 into the late 19th century.
Hughes, the education manager, notes that people were attracted to the Shaker faith because it offered, among other things, ”the answer to the quest for eternal salvation“ and comforts such as the safety of a tightly knit community.
Hutton views the Shakertown officials' desire to have her play done there as an affirmation that it faithfully portrays the Shaker community and life.
Everyone involved says they always wanted to stage the show at Shakertown, but the problem was finding the right venue.
In 2002, UK did an abbreviated performance of As It Is in Heaven in Shakertown's meetinghouse, which Hutton says was a great venue for the music, but not so great for the dialogue.
The problem was solved last year, when Meadow View Barn, an old tobacco barn on the property, was renovated to accommodate the Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass, which has its second edition this weekend.
With a successful first edition of the music event, the idea started to be floated that maybe the barn could be a venue for other shows, particularly As it is in Heaven.
”This time, the backdrop will be the rolling hills of Pleasant Hill,“ says music director Donna Phillips, who also worked on UK's 2002 production. ”They will be in the world the author was writing about.“
Mary-Hollis Hundley, one of the actresses in the play, says, ”I think it will be awesome to perform it out here, where it actually happened.“
Hutton says being there was essential to writing the play.
”It was important to wake up in the morning and walk around this beautiful property and soak it up,“ she says. ”It made it come to life for me.“