Contemporary theatre is moving away from language and linear storytelling and toward images and concepts, often presented in multimedia and multidisciplinary form.
Which is why companies like Seattle's Book-It and San Francisco's Word for Word, bringing literature to the stage, are such treasures. Word for Word takes short stories and chapters of novels from page to stage verbatim. Book-It also presents short stories, usually verbatim, and condenses entire novels.
The actors I talked to agreed that this unique genre, which we'll dub "literary theatre" for the purpose of this column, is extra-hard work—and wonderfully satisfying.
Whose Line Is It Anyway?
In a short story, there is usually one main character. Events are seen through that character's eyes only, or through the point of view of an omniscient narrator. Literary theatre avoids narrators and omniscient presences—this isn't readers' theatre—so a key decision is, who will speak which narrative lines?
Word for Word allows a whole rehearsal week for the arduous process of experimenting with who says what until things feel right—which may not be until opening night. The director makes the final decision.
With narration, explained Word for Word's JoAnne Winter, "You have to straddle this line of what's subconscious, what is the character aware of? If they're not aware of something, and they're speaking it, how do you communicate that to an audience? Sometimes someone else will say that line about your character."
In subtle and complicated stories, like Alice Munroe's Friend of My Youth, a Word for Word production, it can be hard to determine which character's version of the story it is on any given line. When the story has a unified point of view and a linear sequence, those decisions appear to be easier, said Word for Word's Stephanie Hunt, but in all stories, "The question of who says what is huge."
Often several actors share a line. But how? Hunt said, "You have to cooperate on what the important words and images are." Learning, technically and emotionally, how to finish someone else's sentence, or how to keep a thought, feeling, or intention afloat for someone else to complete, is an unfamiliar experience for most actors.
Delia MacDougall, a Word for Word actor/director, offered some technical advice: "You have to follow the thought, even if it takes a whole paragraph. Don't hang too long on your part because the job of the sentence isn't finished until the last word, the completion of the thought. And make sure you don't end your section with a down inflection."
With lines shared in this manner, actors naturally tend to memorize the whole piece, not just their own part. But Winter said that it's harder to memorize a story than a script, because it's not always logical the way a dialogue or monologue is. In addition, Word for Word pays meticulous attention to whether the author wrote "he said" or "said he," a tricky thing to memorize. Clearly, this type of work requires ensemble acting of the highest order, which is perhaps why Word for Word and Book-It maintain core companies.
Acting the Text
However, assigning and memorizing lines is only part of this complicated process. "The most important thing you learn is that you end up with heightened language," MacDougall said. She studied Rust Hills' Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular to understand the type of text analysis required for literary theatre. Although text analysis is always an important part of preparing to act (and we'll discuss it in detail in a future column), it's absolutely essential here, where every word counts and there's no room for paraphrasing.
MacDougall encourages her actors to examine the words carefully and look up unfamiliar ones—often, she said, you'll find three different meanings per word, which will help you make choices. She and her cast also study the punctuation, which reveals deeper levels of meaning as well as rhythm.
"The language is where the action of the story is," MacDougall elaborated. "And your action has to be more precise and choreographed than in any other form. You do less with your body and more with throwing the focus onto whoever is picking up a line. It's a tighter form, and the actor has to work harder."
Because in a short story, tone, style, character, and description are interwoven, with nothing extraneous; every line must be delivered with a specific point of view and a clear motivation. Imagine that your character is discovering these thoughts at the very moment he's speaking them, MacDougall suggested.
When playing Lydia in a recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Book-It's Heather Guiles realized she had to consider the narrative as dialogue or thought, complete with actions and objectives.
For example, when she said, "Lydia, with perfect indifference, continued to express her admiration for Captain Carter," she used that line to show her attraction toward Captain Carter, to exert her independence, and to rebel against her father. "Regardless of whether it's written in first or third person, you have to act it in first person," she said. "It has to be active and have the same stakes as any other portion of the play."
She added, "I feel you have to be more specific than normal. With narrative, it's so easy to melt into mood and tone, and that's not the actor's job."
"You can't rush through the images," warned Winter. Literary theatre, she said, is slightly more presentational at times. "If you're just doing it for yourself and your partner onstage, you lose the audience. Pacing is really important, but you can't be pedantic. It's a tricky balance."
Imagination and Innovation
In literary theatre, imagination is crucial. For example, in Barbara Kingsolver's short story "Rose-Johnny," one Word for Word actor found himself playing a dictionary stand and the voice of the dictionary. In the first chapter of Upton Sinclair's Oil, Stephanie Hunt will play a speedometer, a car horn, a street cop, a yucca plant, fog, and a young boy's mother. "The whole point is to explore the theatricality of literature," said Guiles.
Also, short stories (and novels, too) often have minor characters, of the type that rarely appear in contemporary plays. Delia calls them "fixed" characters, as opposed to the main "movable" character, who is changed in some way by story's end. If you're playing a fixed character, you need to avoid the complicated motivations and backstory you might normally invent, advised MacDougall. "A better way is to do shorthand: If that character had a gesture, what would it be? Maybe your character is a smoker, or wears a hat, or has a specific accent or speech mannerism."
Literary theatre is different from scripted theatre in other ways, too. For one, the author may have provided you with the subtext that you'd normally have to invent. "It's wonderful!" said Guiles. An actor friend of hers is jealous that she actually gets to speak her subtext. The key is to load that subtext with actions.
Hunt noted that many writers don't, in fact, provide subtext. Raymond Carver, she pointed out, is "action, action, action," whereas Virginia Woolf is mostly internal monologues. In some cases, Hunt digs for subtext beneath the subtext.
Also, the relationship with the audience is different. "We frequently have to question who has permission in this text to directly address the audience," said Hunt. "And who is the audience—are they overhearing the story? With first-person pieces, does that person alone get to talk to the audience?" Those choices strongly affect audience-actor rapport.
Finally, what's the best way to prepare for acting in literary theatre? "Physical training, and working with poetry," said Winter. She also familiarizes herself with the author's other works: "Then I can say, Oh, Edith Wharton uses that word a lot, or that structure." Hunt recommended vocal work. "In literature there's so much allusion. A good liberal arts education can be important, so you know what they're referring to" mused Guiles.
"You have to be devoted to language," said MacDougall simply. BSW
Book-It's two-hour adaptation of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" runs through Dec. 10 at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice (310) 822-8392. Word for Word's opening chapter of Upton Sinclair's "Oil," called "The Ride," opens Jan. 11 at the Magic Theatre.