"Shirley, Vermont. This is a weird town. . . Small and weird."
- Frank Bonitatibus, Body Awareness
Playwright Annie Baker grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts. But the town she likely knows the best is the one she made up. Shirley, Vermont is the fictional setting of all four of Baker’s plays: Circle Mirror Transformation, Body Awareness, The Aliens, and Nocturama.
"Shirley is a combination of Amherst with a bunch of Vermont towns that fascinate me," Baker said. "Vermont fascinates me, period. The remoteness and the self-congratulation and the embracing of diversity and the fear of diversity and the beauty and the good intentions and the old farmers and the old hippies and the new farmers and the new hippies — I love all of it."
If there was a Wikipedia entry about Shirley, what might it say? Adam Greenfield from Playwrights Horizons asked Baker this question when she premiered Circle Mirror Transformation there in 2009. Here's what Baker wrote:
Shirley is a town in Windsor County, Vermont. The population was 14,023 in the 2000 census. Shirley is home to Shirley State College, and it hosts the annual Vermont Gourd Festival.
Once a fishing place for the Abenaki tribe of the Northeast, Shirley was settled by the English in 1754 and named for Lord Henry Shirley, the man who was eventually responsible for one of the first acts of biological warfare in North America. In response to various Native American uprisings in the 1760s, Shirley approved a plan to distribute smallpox-infected blankets to the Indians, whom he referred to as "an execrable race."
Shirley has never moved to a mayor-council or council-manager form of government; instead, it has maintained the tradition of a town meeting and select board.
In 1853, pure spring water was discovered near Shirley’s Plum Brook, and for the next few decades the town was home to the Shirley Hydropathic Institute and became a curative health resort destination until 1882. Now the former Hydropathic Institute is home to the Shirley School, a small preparatory school for dyslexic students.
Public nudity was legal in Shirley until 2008, and for years the town’s Saturday Morning Farmer’s Market was a destination point for nudists. But in 2008, by a narrow margin, the town banned nudity “on the main roads or within 300 feet of any school or place of public worship,” and the face of the Farmer’s Market (always held in the parking lot of the Unitarian Church) was forever changed.
Notable historical residents have included Gilbert Rosebath, astronomer; Edwin Hunt Lessey, reed organ maker; and Elizabeth Collins, poet.
In the 1980s and ’90s Shirley became home to a small community of Cambodian refugees who were fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime. The community is still thriving, and now all Shirley public school newsletters are distributed in English and in Khmer.