Bruce Cornwell has the kind of opportunity every playwright would love. He gets to set his play about Shaker founder Ann Lee precisely on the same ground where she did most of her best work.
“She must have been an extremely charismatic person, and I have the privilege of setting my play where she eventually established what became the most successful utopian community in the country,” said Cornwell, a Schenectady resident and pastor at the Community Reformed Church of Colonie on Sand Creek Road. “She was magnetic, an early feminist who attracted all these followers. She’s a very interesting person.”
“Second Coming: The Character and Ministry of Mother Ann Lee of the United Society of Believers” will be performed in the Shaker Meeting House on the grounds of the Shaker Heritage Society in Colonie where Lee founded the Shakers in 1774. Cornwell, who has been at the Community Reformed Church of Colonie for 27 years, began working on his play nearly 10 years ago.
“Our church happens to be on property that was owned by the original Shaker settlement,” he said. “We’re right down the street, so after a number of years I wanted to learn more about the Shakers. Once I got into researching them and Ann Lee, I realized, ‘I think there’s a play here.’ I had a sabbatical coming up so I decided to continue researching and to write a play.”
Cornwell is well equipped to create a play and direct it. For nearly 10 years he was producing director of the Walden Theatre in New York City. From 1982-85, while he was finishing up his run at Walden Theatre, Cornwell began taking classes at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
WHERE: Shaker Meeting House, 25 Meeting House Road, Colonie
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through July 24
HOW MUCH: $15
MORE INFO: www.secondcomingplay.com, 588-4954
“I’m a second-career pastor,” said Cornwell, who graduated from the University of Iowa with a theater degree in 1973. “I was directing and producing Off-Off-Broadway shows at a small theater in New York when I received a call to the ministry. But I’ve continued to do a lot of theater things related to our church. We had a clown troupe that toured for a number of years, and we also had an improv group that did quite a bit of theater.”
Cornwell also produced a musical titled “Weep Jeremiah!” based on the prophet, and performed at Schenectady County Community College in 2001. “Second Coming” is also a musical, filled with original Shaker songs and hymns.
“Michael McLane, a former member of our church and a good friend of mine, is my collaborator because he waded through around 1,300 different Shaker hymns and chose some that he thought might go with what I wrote,” said Cornwell, who put together a staged reading of his play last year.
Singing a cappella
“We’re only going to have a little bit of instrumentation because the Shakers generally sang a cappella and that’s what we’re striving to do. We’re going to do a few things differently just to accommodate a modern audience, but much of the music will be sung the way the Shakers used to do it in the very same building.”
While Malcolm Kogut is serving as musical director, McLane, who has moved out of the area, is coming back to be part of the cast. Playing Ann Lee will be Elizabeth Frishkoff, a Ghent resident.
“She’s a very interesting character and I feel as if she definitely had visions and could feel all this energy and vibrations in her body,” said Frishkoff. “I don’t know if it was a lot of charisma that she had, or just this high energy that spilled over to others and inspired them. But I’m thrilled to be a part of this play and it’s great working with all these wonderful people putting on the show.”
There are 14 people in the cast. Joe Phillips plays Ann Lee’s brother, William, and Margot Phillips is Mother Jane, Ann’s mentor in England. Recent Niskayuna graduate Ben VanDeBogart plays James Whitaker, one of the leaders of the Shaker movement following Lee’s death.
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected].