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January 3, 2000

Word for Word: Being literally literary

By Barbara McKenna

Anyone who's fallen in love with a book and then gone to see the movie remake knows the dangers of adaptation. But most of us keep going back again because, sometimes, the adaptations are good and, when they are, the only thing better than curling up with a favorite book is seeing it come to life.

Word for Word performs "A Night in Eden" on Friday, January 14, in the Mainstage Theater. Tickets are $16 adults; $13 seniors and students with ID; $8 UCSC students. For more information, call (831) 459-2159.
Audiences have been able to find great adaptations on the big screen (To Kill a Mockingbird and Fried Green Tomatoes are good examples), but the attempt is made less frequently for the stage.

A handful of theater companies across the country are dedicated to bringing the text to stage, and one of the most outstanding is Word for Word, a San Francisco-based company. Their work has won critical and popular acclaim, and, even more amazing, praise from the authors whose works they perform. Word for Word is performing in Santa Cruz as part of UCSC's Arts & Lectures program's 1999-2000 season.

Since 1993, Word for Word has been performing short stories on stage. But, rather than adapting texts, as their name implies, Word for Word actually presents entire works verbatim.

"A lot of people are confused," says Word for Word co-artistic director Susan Harloe. "They think they're either coming to see a revision of a book or to see a staged reading. But this is a complete performance, with blocking, and sets, and costumes. We simply make the text a play, and we perform every word."

For years, directors have seen the crossover potential of novelists like Charles Dickens, who naturally write with a theatrical flair. But Harloe and co-artistic director JoAnne Winter have evoked great performances from a wide range of literary styles. Among the authors whose works they have used are Barbara Kingsolver, Ray Bradbury, Langston Hughes, Rudyard Kipling, Grace Paley, John Sayles, Eudora Welty, Richard Ford, and Ring Lardner.

It can be challenging figuring out how to deliver certain lines from a text, Harloe says. "Dialog is easy, of course. But how do you perform the narration? Somehow we've got to figure out a way for someone to say sentences like, 'The two women spoke on the telephone. One was busy typing away.'"

To determine how they will break the text down into a script, who will say various lines, company members get together and decide collaboratively while reading the work. "This is very much a group effort and it works best if done organically," Harloe says. "Sometimes we might even divide a sentence up so that one word stands alone. You can't do this without a strong ensemble."

Before Harloe and Winter formed Word for Word, Harloe was co-artistic director of the Seattle-based company, Book-It, which also performs short stories on stage. Word for Word's award-winning performances are highly regarded and the company is successful enough to support an annual tour to France. But despite its reputation, Harloe says that many audiences members shy away from the shows because of misconceptions. "I can't tell you how many people come because they have been dragged there by someone else. And they are always pleasantly surprised."

The Santa Cruz show, "A Night in Eden," features two pieces. A Passion in Eden, by Joanne Greenberg, is the story of a young girl coming of age. The girl faces her imminent adolescence by pretending to be an enormous tree. In a metaphorical growth, she begins to branch out as an independent adult while still supported by her roots at home. Ellen Gilchrist's short story, There's a Garden of Eden, portrays a bored, wealthy older woman. As Harloe says, "She has everything and nothing." The woman's life undergoes interesting changes when a young carpenter comes to work for her and, soon after, a flood takes place.

Harloe, who plays the lead in Gilchrist's story, says that both authors have seen Word for Word's performances of their works. "We aim to really bring things to life. The fine line we tread is being true to the author's voice. I was really nervous when [Gilchrist and Greenberg] saw the show. But they loved it."

Word for Word recently adapted a piece by Richard Ford, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his book Independence Day (which has no relation to the movie). "When you invite an author to come all you can do is hold your breath and hope they'll be happy. He was so pleased by what we did. He said, 'I was dazzled by this. I was amazed by this. It was a huge wonder to me.'"

Harloe says that the authors are almost always pleased by what they see. And so are the audiences. "Writers choose their words carefully and we are very careful about how we say them. We've had half-hour arguments over a comma."

Harloe and her fellow company members often perform with other, more traditional theater companies, but they are always excited to come back and perform Word for Word's unique form of theater. As Harloe explains it: "Stories are such a human form of expression and everyone responds to them. It's how we communicate--it's how we relate to one another. Everyone wants to hear a story."

For tickets, call (831) 459-2159.

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