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  • Alice Munro, word for word

    Monica Prendergast

    The Belfry gives us two stories from Canada’s beloved Nobel-winner.


    THERE IS A FORM OF THEATRE that presents literary texts in verbatim style, or word for word. San Francisco is home to theatre company Word for Word that has been staging literature verbatim-style since 1993. Some authors whose work has appeared on stage there include Richard Ford, Barbara Kingsolver, Emma Donoghue and James Baldwin. The artists who tackle this kind of work have to attend to the challenges presented by dramatizing literature, but without the intermediary step of crafting a script. Every. Word. Counts.

    The risk of this kind of theatre-making is that it slips into a mash-up of Reader’s Theatre (talking heads) and Story Theatre (in which both narration and action are spoken). The risk is that the result is like watching an audiobook, lacking the essence of stagecraft: theatricality. Yet what I hear about some past Word for Word projects sounds intriguing, inviting both actors and audiences to imagine the transition from page to stage together. Techniques such as having inanimate objects tell part of the story, or using visual metaphor to illustrate interior psychology, can create powerful moments on stage.

    For example, New York company Elevator Repair Service has performed a six-hour verbatim version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby titled Gatz that proved a great hit there as well as on tour to many countries worldwide. Set in an office, a worker frustrated by a broken computer pulls a copy of the novel out of his Rolodex and begins reading it. Magnetically, his peers are pulled into the reading and staging of the novel, using only what is available to them in the workplace. New York Times’ theatre critic Ben Brantley describes the effect of the experience: “It’s…that elusive chemistry that takes place between a reader and a gorgeous set of sentences that demand you follow them wherever they choose to go.”

    In April, the Belfry embarks on its first-time-ever word for word literary project, staging Alice Munro Stories. I spoke to Belfry Artistic Director Michael Shamata about how this production has unfolded. It turns out Word for Word has performed two Munro shows themselves, and Shamata was contacted by Word’s Artistic Director Susan Harloe. Would the Belfry be interested in bringing in their latest Munro show? Shamata tells me, “I realized that having an American company come here to perform Canadian literature could not be justified.” He suggested to Harloe, “What if we did our own production and have you come and be the consultant?”

    Shamata travelled to San Francisco with General Manager Ivan Habel and Vancouver director Anita Rochon to see a sampling of their work. Then the Belfry held a workshop a year or so ago to experiment with the word for word approach, and to select their choice of two Munro stories. Director Rochon carried out a second workshop earlier this year in Vancouver with the acting company hired for the production.

    All Alice Munro fans will want to know which stories from her canon will be staged. Shamata gives me some insights, saying, “The first story is Differently, a beautiful piece about couples, essentially about a woman who encounters a man that she used to have a relationship with. It’s about regrets, about the ways we can behave to each other. Set in a hospital room, it will start with a woman in bed, her husband and daughter by the bedside and they begin reading the story, with a doctor and nurse coming in at some point.”

    And Act Two? Shamata discloses that, “The second one is a bit more acted out. Save the Reaper is a fascinating but complex story about a grandmother and grandson in a car who head off to try to find a place that had some memory for her and stumble on some bizarre events.” The story’s subtitle “Can you trust your children with your mother?” indicates that this one has some of the heightened dramatic tension, verging on horror, that appear in certain Munro tales.

    And what about the director Shamata has chosen for the production, Anita Rochon? Shamata describes her as “a smart, smart young director” whose work has been previously seen here. Itai Erdal’s one-man show How to Disappear Completely and Spark Festival shows KISMET: One to One Hundred and Through the Gaze of a Navel were all co-created and/or directed by Rochon. She has cast actors Jenny Patterson (Homechild), Gerry Mackay (A Christmas Carol, Jitters), Michael Scholar Jr. (The Black Rider), Carolyn Gillis (And Slowly Beauty) and newcomer Arggy Jenati. The production is designed by Peter Hartwell (Red, Best Brothers), lit by Alan Brodie with sound designed by Antoine Bedard.

    Shamata describes what he hopes audiences will experience when they come to see Alice Munro Stories: “It’s a wonderful way of hearing the actual words that have been written, without messing with Alice Munro, putting it in a theatrical realm and finding a theatrical vocabulary for it without changing the words at all. I think it will be a very cool event, it will feel like theatre but I know that Anita is smart enough to not try to disguise what it is we’re doing, that we’re celebrating the words, not trying to pretend it’s something else.”

    Alice Munro Stories is the final mainstage production of the 2016-2017 season. It runs April 18 to May 14.

    Backing up a bit to March, the Belfry presents Spark, its annual festival of innovative theatre from across Canada (March 9-26). This year I am looking forward to seeing a mix of local and touring productions. Local shows include a new project by Atomic Vaudeville, BlissKrieg, “a musical comedy about the last two people in the universe.” Those familiar with Vaudeville’s comedy revues and their hit shows Legoland and Ride the Cyclone will look forward to this one. Victoria actor and sound designer Brian Linds is premiering Reverberations, a site-specific show that takes place in an “undisclosed location” close to the Belfry. Spark is also presenting Theatre SKAM’s new play Joan by Matthew Payne about longtime Victoria arts devotee Joan Mans and her touching friendship with Payne, who now tells their story.

    Another production coming here for Spark is a new Itai Erdal project, This is Not a Conversation. Erdal, an Israeli Jew, enters into dialogue with Palestinian Arab Dima Alansari. A discomforting but necessary exchange ensues. Also, Toronto’s Evalyn Parry brings us SPIN described as “a tour-de-force performance celebrating the Bicycle as muse, musical instrument and agent of social change.”

    But the play I look forward to most is brilliant Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s What a Young Wife Ought to Know, presented by Halifax’s 2B Theatre. Two of Moscovitch’s earlier plays have appeared at the Belfry’s Spark Festival, Little One and The Russian Play. She can be counted on for her intelligence and innovation.

    With all this activity at the Belfry, don’t miss out on other shows around town in March and April, including season closers at the Phoenix (The Government Inspector) and Pacific Opera Victoria (Les Feluettes/Lilies), based on the play by Quebec’s Michel Marc Bouchard). Langham Court has Taking Leave, a dramatic comedy inspired in part by King Lear, followed in late April by Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Finally, Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre opens its summer season with Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. Plus, Canadian puppeteer/genius Ronnie Burkett returns with his hilarious and risqué Daisy Theatre to Intrepid Theatre. How lucky for us! See the calendar at www.focusonvictoria.ca for dates and details for all of these productions.

    Monica works at the University of Victoria in the Faculty of Education and is currently undertaking a new research project on Canadian Theatre for Young Audiences. She also reviews theatre on CBC’s On the Island.

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