Word For Word Theater Brings Alice Munro’s Stories to Life on Stage

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Carl Lumbly, left, and Rod Gnapp rehearse a scene with a severed head for Word for Word's production of '36 Stories by Sam Shepard' in 2014. Mark Leialoha Photography

When people talk about a story brought to life, they generally mean a representation of a narrative that conforms to, or at least doesn’t clash with, their idea of what that story should look like. Reese Witherspoon goes out on the Pacific Coast Trail dressed as Cheryl Strayed did 20 years ago and voila, you’ve gone Wild. Or theatergoers attending the RSC production of Wolf Hall gape at the actors portraying members of Henry VIII’s court and nod, or say, “Anne Boleyn wasn’t that hot!”

But those productions were based on a memoir and a historical novel, respectively; you can look at pictures or likenesses of the characters in the source material and draw your own conclusions. Now think of a favorite short story; the images it conjures are yours, made from scraps the author has offered in peopling and set-decorating that world. But what if objects in the stories had a life of their own, kind of like that teapot in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (and her son, Chip); or the voices of fictional neighbors were like a Greek chorus, stepping forward to comment on the action; or snapshots described in the narrative were acted out as if in a tableau vivant, with actors striking poses, aping characters that never existed? That might give you some idea of what Word For Word is like.

“When they first approached me I was a little wary,” says Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life, In Pharaoh’s Army), who’s had six of his stories performed by the San Francisco–based performing arts company. “I’d had my work dramatized in different ways before but never like that.… You cannot be more respectful of the text than to render it word for word, but at the same time really making bold moves in ways of dramatizing emotions.”

Wolff is talking to me from his office at Stanford University, where he has taught creative writing for the last 17 years. “For example, there’s a wonderful moment in their version of my story ‘Down to Bone’ in which the narrator is renting a red sports car, a Miata, while he goes to visit his dying mother in Miami. Again, they stuck completely to the text but they represented the red Miata as a very sexy young woman in a low cut short dress and high heels, pulling him behind her by a scarf in her teeth. In the story the Miata is sexualized; there’s no question that he’s getting it because he wants to appear a certain way. It’s that kind of verve and imagination that they bring to the work of portraying short stories.”

“In some ways, it’s almost the opposite of what people imagine,” says Word For Word’s Joel Mullennix, who is directing the company’s production of two Alice Munro short stories, “The Office” and “Dolly” (at SF’s Z Below, March 4 to April 12). “We’re trying to find a visual way to use these words so that it’s not like reader’s theater.”

The inspiration for the company’s literature-based theater came from the Seattle repertory company Book-It, according to Word For Word co-founder Susan Harloe. “I was a librarian for a while, and I just thought it was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen,” she recalls. “The first story I ever saw performed this way was by Mark Van Doren, and it was just magical. It was just two people in this funky little space on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and I couldn’t believe it.” After working with that troupe for a few years, Harloe returned to San Francisco and with fellow founder and artistic director JoAnne Winter plotted doing something similar here.

Mullennix joined the group early on and immediately saw the potential benefits of fishing in the short fiction pond. “When you’re looking for a play, there’s good ones too but many of them have been done, or the rights are held by a major company,” he says. “But there’s such an open world of possibilities [with short stories]. I always tell people now, when I’m trying to describe what it is, ‘Whatever it is you’re thinking, it’s probably not it.’”

Since it launched in 1993, Word For Word has built a following among theatergoers and writers. Its shows have toured Europe, as will the Munro stories, and the biggest challenges have often been in getting the rights. Elizabeth Stroud’s novel-in-stories Olive Kitteridge, for instance, had already been optioned by Frances McDormand for the HBO series. (“Like we’re going to kill the HBO series!” says Mullennix.) And Sam Shepard, who cut his teeth and god knows what else in experimental theater, wanted to see what Word For Word did before he gave his blessing to their production, 36 Stories By Sam Shepard.

The elusive American playwright dropped in on a Word For Word production of some Siobhan Fallon stories, read the adaptation of his work (featuring a talking severed head and a female mercenary) that company member Amy Kossow made and directed but did not interfere with the production. (When I asked Wolff if he ever crashed a rehearsal of his stories, he said, “If somebody is making a really nice dinner for you, it doesn’t seem like a really good idea to show up two hours earlier and hang out in the kitchen and ask if they wouldn’t want to put a little more salt in that stew.”)

The process generally begins with reading meetings where the core cast, all avid readers, bring short stories they think would work well on the stage. For the Munro stories they did staged readings of four of her works and then let audiences vote on which they liked best. It sounds democratic but Harloe is quick to point out that she and Winter make the final cut and to hell with democracy.

We talk in a general way about the older audiences who are the sometimes arthritic backbone of American theater and how to get younger crowds in the door (“a national question,” she calls it, though perhaps even more striking in San Francisco, which has been overrun by young tech people in the last decades). I mention the long-running New York show Sleep No More, a reimagining of Macbeth that draws 20-somethings at a record rate, and she tells me, with only a tad of desperation, “There’s a punk rock musical upstairs right now [Home Street Home] in the Z Space, definitely a different crowd!”

But Munro’s work is not so punk, and she herself is getting on. The 83-year-old Canadian author declined Word For Word’s invitation to come to the opening, saying she needed to concentrate on her writing, and even skipped going to Stockholm to pick up her Nobel Prize for literature in 2013. Watching the cast rehearsing her stories I was struck with their fealty to the text—Harloe shows Mullennix that her character is lighting another cigarette, not a first—and their desire to discuss the bigger topics behind Munro’s tales: Work. Love. Death.

Sheila Balter and Howard Swain, who play the old couple fantasizing about a double suicide, discuss the importance of a note explaining their actions—whether they should leave one. “Franklin’s idea was that any explanation at all was an insult,” Munro wrote. “We belonged to ourselves and to each other and any explanation at all struck him as snivelling.”

“I would love to talk about this stuff because I feel unclear,” Balter says, after she and Swain have practiced getting out of their imaginary car to talk about the place they’ve chosen to die.

Mullennix tries to channel the thoughts of the 83-year-old husband, who seems to have a change of heart while they’re discussing the note: “I can’t be part of ending her life when she’s 71, healthy, writing books.”

The story, narrated by the wife, turns later and after a misunderstanding, the couple reunites: “‘We can’t afford rows,’ he said.

“No indeed. I had forgotten how old we were, forgotten everything. Thinking there was all the time in the world to suffer and complain.”

Mullennix, addressing the actors as if they were the fictional couple brought to life, could be any son or daughter talking to their parents as they invent difficulties for themselves: “You guys need a dog or something.”