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Authors' best friends

When Word for Word adapts short works of fiction for the stage, not one syllable is added or subtracted.

August 17, 2003|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

San Francisco — A few years ago, Los Angeles writer Greg Sarris got what he thought was a routine request from a nonprofit group called Word for Word to use a story from his collection "Grand Avenue." Another literary anthology, Sarris figured, signing his approval. The next thing the author knew he was invited to a theater here to see a play based on his story "Slaughterhouse."

Sarris went to the premiere ready to be disappointed. He was shocked by what he heard and saw: Not a single word had been changed, yet the actors weren't just reading the story but were performing it as well, bringing the narrative to life in a new way.

"It was unbelievable and amazing," Sarris says. "Unbelievable that they could do a stage production of the written word and amazing that they did it so well."

Word for Word takes its name seriously. The theater company, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, has won accolades for its imaginative yet literal productions, which have ranged from Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio" to Annie Proulx's "The Bunchgrass Edge of the World."

The company's premise is simple: Find a great literary work that can be dramatized, but don't cut a single word.

"We perform short works of fiction in their entirety," explains the company's mission statement, "preserving the author's voice and honoring his/her intent with exciting visuals and inventive staging."

"Our most important task is to really, truly honor the writer," adds Susan Harloe, the company's co-founder and artistic director. "When you're editing, you lose the author's voice in some sense. What's beautiful about this style of theater is that you're really seeing the whole thing up on stage, and if you're successful it's magical to see that transformation."

'A new art form'

Unlike traditional theater, which is mostly driven by the talking of characters, Word for Word often stages works that are heavy on narration, although multiple actors may speak in the author's voice, sometimes breaking up sentences into spoken-word mosaics that shimmer and sparkle.

"Those who have discovered Word for Word see the language like they've never seen it before," the San Francisco Chronicle raved when the company staged Edith Wharton's "Xingu" in 1994

"Tobias Wolff said that we're creating a new art form," says JoAnne Winter, the company's other co-founder and artistic director. "We're committed to the writer's voice, but we interpret it and take it to another place. We've never had an author say, 'It's wrong.' "

The company's latest production is "The Fall River Axe Murders," which opened this month at the Magic Theatre and runs through Sept. 7. Written by English writer Angela Carter, the story takes places in the early morning hours on the day in 1892 shortly before Lizzie Borden's stepmother and father are whacked to death with an ax. Although Borden was ultimately acquitted by a jury, Carter crafted a psychological portrait of an oppressive Victorian household and a stifling social milieu that combined to turn a wounded young women into a savage avenging angel.

"It's the hardest thing I've ever done on stage," director Amy Freed says. "Nightmarish. Carter's style is very interior, nonlinear, introspective rather than active. All the things that are not a natural match for stage adaptation. When the story was presented to me I was completely flummoxed but also seduced."

The Word for Word production is startlingly evocative, conjuring the heat and stench of the claustrophobic Borden home, the emotionally stunted Lizzie, the terrifying parents, as well as unexpected flashes of comedy. The parents pop up almost like puppets to illustrate a scene while a ghostly choir of narrators guide the story to its horrifying conclusion.

"Brings her words to life, for the most part to riveting effect," Chronicle critic Robert Hurwitt opined, "... the ensemble embodies and enlivens Carter's descriptions and discussions with vividly sketched portraits and humorous flourishes."

Word for Word thrives on turning text into unlikely theater. "It's all about imposing dramatic structure where there is none," observes director Freed, herself an award-winning playwright ("The Beard of Avon," "Freedomland"). "You have a text that ultimately isn't in the business of driving action forward, which is the basic purpose of a play script. It demands non-naturalistic treatment. You can't cut it. It forces you into really unexpected places. It's both rigorous and rewarding. It's the hardest workout you ever get as a director."

Although the company has occasionally had to give up on an idea, most literary works have proven adaptable.

"First and foremost we look for very beautiful, evocative, heightened language, that's really important," Winter says. "If a story is told in pedestrian language it's not going to be interesting for the audience to hear or for us to perform. We've done stories that have almost no dialogue. What you need is a story that can be activated, that can be theatricalized."

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