How to describe
Word for Word? A decade after launching the San Francisco theater company,
co-founder Susan Harloe (B.A., '68) still struggles
with an explanation.
"We take stories from the page to the stage without changing a single
word of the author's text," Harloe says, then sighs. "Nothing
quite gets it. You really have to be in the audience to understand."
Word for Word performers don't simply read works of literature on stage.
They dress up in costume to act them out as they recite the text -- word
Harloe, co-founder JoAnne Winter (B.A., '96)
and several other SFSU alumni actors in the theater company find ways
to weave every bit of narration and every "he says" and "she
says" seamlessly into the performance. (The line, "Each one
waited for the other to speak" once was divided among eight actors.)
The group also comes up with imaginative props to transform characters
or setting. (In the flash of an eye one actor unties her scarf and raises
it over her head. Another actor takes hold of the loose end. Suddenly
the two are riding together on a subway.)
Harloe, once a librarian and struggling actress in San Francisco, joined
her two loves -- the written word and theater -- when she and Winter assembled
the core company of actors in 1993. The two friends brought literature-based
performances to libraries and schools before finding a permanent home
as part of the city's Z Space Studio theater collective in 1994.
Two years ago, Harloe invited SFSU Professor Jules Tygiel to speak after
a Word for Word performance of chapter one of "Oil!," the novel
by Upton Sinclair. Tygiel had studied Sinclair's work extensively and
wrote the preface for a paperback edition of "Oil!" published
in 1997, but he'd never seen Word for Word perform.
"The night before I gave the talk, I reread the first chapter and
thought, 'How in the world are they going to do this?' There's not a lot
of dialogue. I just couldn't imagine it," he says.
Then Tygiel watched the performance. "It was an absolute tour de
force. I was blown away by their ability to take something off the page
that isn't designed to be performed and to bring it to life with such
vibrancy and remarkable humor," he says. Now he and his wife, Luise,
never miss a show.
Word for Word has taken to the stage stories by such writers as Michael
Chabon, Alice Munro, Edgar Allen Poe, and Virginia Woolf at Fort Mason
Center's Cowell Theater and Magic Theatre, as well as public schools across
the Bay Area.
The authors themselves can sometimes be found in the audience, eager to
see how their stories play out on the Word for Word stage.
In July 2002 Tobias Wolff watched Word for Word perform three of his short
stories, "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs," "Lady's
Dream," and "Bullet in the Brain."
"I was truly moved by the depth of imagination, wit, and feeling
Susan and the rest of the company brought to the production of my
stories," Wolff told SFSU Magazine. "I had only one wish as
I left the theater -- that [Word for Word] would do all my work."
For more information: www.zspace.org