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Cover of the Fall/Winter 2003 SFSU Magazine. Photo of Professor and talk radio show host, Michael Krasny.


SFSU Magazine Online, Spring/Summer 2003, Volume 3, Number 2.

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Alumni & FriendsThe cast of Word for Word’s production of Edith Wharton’s “Xingu” featuring SFSU alumni Susan Harloe and JoAnne Winter dressed in period costume. Photo by Jamie Kibben


Word Play

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 for 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."

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-- Adrianne Bee


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