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August 16, 2001

As It Is In Heaven

MARCH 2002 EDITOR'S UPDATE: As It Is In Heaven will make its midwest debut as part of the 2002 Festival of Faith & Writing. It will be performed April 17, 18 and 19 at 8 p.m. with additional performances on April 18 and April 19 at 1:15 p.m.

The Edinburgh Theatre Festival is the world's largest. A play begins about every five minutes, from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m., over the span of almost a month. There for the theatre-lover is everything from the most traditional theatre to strange and surreal performance art.

So imagine the thrill for Calvin College theatre professor Stephanie Sandberg (left) who attended this year's Festival as both a spectator and a participant. Sandberg recently returned from almost two weeks in Edinburgh where she not only took in about 30 shows, but also witnessed and worked on the world premiere of "As It Is In Heaven," a play on which she collaborated with playwright Arlene Hutton.

She says the experience is like no other she's ever had in the theatre world.

"Edinburgh is huge," she says. "I can't even describe it. Everywhere you go there's theatre. And it's such an intense experience. It teaches you more about how to produce theatre than you ever imagined. One of the things you have to do is sell your own show. So every day I was out with the rest of the cast and crew handing out flyers on our play, talking to people, promoting it. And all over Edinburgh this was going on. It's amazing."

Debuting a play at Edinburgh can be a daunting experience. Critics from around the world attend the Festival each year. So do representatives from movie companies, looking for the plays which could become the next hit movies.

So Sandberg was pleased that the first reviews of "As It Is In Heaven" were positive. In fact, "The List," the official guide to the Festival, gave the play four stars, saying: "All of this drama is superbly realised by a cast of Broadway veterans expertly gifted in words and music. Skilfully directed, these performers glide with ease through a challenging and thought-provoking period piece that less proficient performers would struggle to do justice to."

"As It Is In Heaven," which portrays a Kentucky Shaker community in the 1800s, was written by New York City's Hutton. Sandberg worked with Hutton as dramaturg and was associate director of the play in Edinburgh. She says the experience was an eye-opening one.

"As the dramaturg I did a lot of research, for example," she says. "And I found it to be a very good experience. A lot of people in theatre don't want to be a dramaturg; it's too much behind-the-scenes. I found that I really enjoyed it."

A dramaturg, in fact, is a true collaborator with the playwright. For her work on "As It Is In Heaven," Sandberg drew upon years of prior research on the Shakers. She also used a Calvin Alumni Association grant to travel to Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, where she spent time at the Shaker Village, immersing herself in the Village archives to learn more about how the Shakers thought, worked and, most importantly, worshipped.

Ultimately Sandberg's work was critical to a story about nine Shaker women who, because of the visions of an outsider, had to grapple with what it meant to be God's children and each other's sisters.

Being true to the Shaker's came out of Sandberg's research and from her and Hutton's own Christian commitment.

"Both Arlene and I are Christians," she says, "so this story was a powerful one for us. The Shakers are so different from other American religions. They're not fundamentalist. They're separate from the world, but part of it too with their contributions - - their art, their furniture. Yet they have these intense religious experiences, like the revivals I went to as a child. We wanted to treat that seriously and respectfully."

Sandberg notes that "As It Is In Heaven" finds itself as part of a larger current trend in theatre. "All of a sudden spiritual subjects are coming back to the stage," she says. "This play fits into that movement. We didn't plan it that way, but it's interesting that that's how it worked out."

After its Edinburgh run, the play will premiere in New York on September 20. It will have its midwest debut in April 2002 when Sandberg directs a cast of Calvin students as part of the Calvin Theatre Company's production. That performance will be part of the 2002 Festival of Faith and Writing.

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-957-6475 (v)
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