Off the Page

I saw a Word for Word staged reading of two stories from Peter Orner’s collection, Esther Stories, tonight in San Francisco. After the performance, Orner, the cast of actors, and the director fielded questions from the audience.  Someone wanted to know how a story meant for reading is turned into a “play” and how it changes the performance process.

The answer is intriguing: The director takes a first cut at portioning out the dialogue (the obvious part) and the narrative (the not-so-obvious). In some cases, the director and actors may decide that it makes sense for multiple characters to recite the same lines simultaneously, akin to a Greek chorus.

The actors approach the story from the outside during initial readings, the way a general reader would. And at some point, an actor may say that it doesn’t make sense for his/her character to have a certain portion of the narrative because it appears to be a different character’s point of view. So they give the line(s) to the other character. In this way, they work through the text, assigning and rehearsing the performance until the story finds its rhythm.

Let’s look at an example of how narrative can be assigned to an actor. The first line of James Joyce’s story, “The Dead,” from his collection, Dubliners, reads:

“Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.”  

Although it’s not dialogue, it’s clearly from Lily’s point of view. So it would be natural for the actor playing Lily in the story to recite this line in character, perhaps while running around frantically performing household chores. You get the idea. An aside: If you’ve never read Dubliners, read it—now.

Back to Word for Word. Once they start rehearsing, the rhythm of the words takes over and the actors begin to go inside the story until they become the story, turning the written word into a living thing. During the Q+A Orner commented on this transformation, saying that the performance made him see his stories, and his characters, in a new way.

So now I’m thinking that there’s a lesson here for fiction writers who sit in silence, typing or scribbling away. Perhaps we would benefit from mixing it up with the theater department? Lacking that option, I’ve long thought that all authors would benefit from hearing or reading their works-in-progress aloud. See where the rhythm lies and where it’s lacking. Observe the narrative point of view. Does it change erratically for no apparent reason? Or does it follow a plan like Joyce’s narrative?

Go ahead, clear your throat, get a tape recorder, and give your characters voice. Get inside your story. It may shed some new light on those words you’ve got written on the page. Because, remember, they’re not just words, they’re flesh and bone.

[For those unfamiliar with Word for Word, the theater group performs short stories, including every word of the narrative and the “he saids” and “she saids.” If you live in or visit San Francisco, check out their production schedule at Z-Space.]

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