Word for Word Stages Alice Munro Stories

by Jean Schiffman

Word for Word is one of only a few companies nationwide to exclusively stage literary short stories, and sometimes chapters of novels, verbatim, all the “he saids” and “she saids” intact.

At the first rehearsal of Word for Word’s new production, "Stories by Alice Munro: 'The Office' and 'Dolly,'" a group assembles: the five cast members, four designers, director Joel Mullennix and various associates of Word and Z Space, the producing and presenting nonprofit with which Word is affiliated. Athena, a coonhound with soulful eyes, curls up
quietly in her basket.

A new show by this acclaimed theater company, founded in 1993 by co-artistic directors Susan Harloe and JoAnne Winter, is cause for rejoicing among the city’s lit-loving audiences. Word is one of only a few companies nationwide to exclusively stage literary short stories, and sometimes chapters of novels, verbatim, all the “he saids” and “she saids” intact. The troupe seamlessly distributes the narration among the actors, assigning words, phrases, sentences or paragraphs according to which character they best fit; sometimes a quasi-chorus speaks in unison, and actors at times play animals or inanimate objects.

Audiences had a hand in
choosing these two particular stories by esteemed fiction writer Alice Munro. The Canadian author, now 83, won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2013. She is the 13th woman to receive this particular honor, and the first Canadian. For its Off the Page reading series last year, Word chose four stories by Munro and asked the audience to vote on two favorites for a mainstage production. Viewers chose an early story, “The Office,” published in Munro’s collection Dance of the Happy Shades in 1968, and a much later one, “Dolly,” from her most recent (2013) collection, Dear Life. Luckily, these were Word’s choices, too. “These two together felt like we were being introduced to Alice,” says longtime Word member Jeri Lynn Cohen, who plays the first-person narrator in “The Office.” “They’re personal, as opposed to some world she’s created with other characters.” In both stories, the central character is a writer.

In “The Office,” which Word has set in 1964, the nameless narrator is young and struggling to define herself as a writer. Cohen, who thinks of the character as “Alice,” says the character immediately spoke to her: “She is trying to be taken seriously. She wants to be her own person and finds it hard to ask for what she wants.” What she wants seems simple enough: an office of her own with a card table holding a typewriter; a jar of instant coffee; a mug. Her husband (played by Howard Swain) is casual: “Go ahead, if you can find one cheap enough,” he says. But Mr. Malley (Paul Finocchiaro), the landlord from whom she rents the perfect room, small and spare and nondescript, proves to be benignly—and then not so benignly—intrusive. “He takes away the only thing she craves as a wife and mother,” says Cohen, “privacy and the freedom to find her own voice.”

In fact, Munro has said that at one point in her career she did rent an office, and wasn’t able to write anything at all in it—except for “The Office.” She said the landlord did indeed bother her all the time, but even when he stopped, she couldn’t work; she’d just sit there thinking, paralyzed. Writes Munro’s daughter, Sheila Munro, in the 2001 memoir Lives of Mothers & Daughters, “Perhaps the point of [‘The Office’] is that women writers must fight against some hostile presence that is censoring them and not giving them permission to write freely.”

In “Dolly,” set by Word in 2008, the narrator is a retired, 71-year-old math teacher (played by another longtime Word member, Sheila
Balter) who writes biographies of neglected Canadian novelists. She lives with her 83-year-old poet lover, Franklin (Swain). As the story begins, the two are planning, quite calmly and matter-of-factly, their inevitable demise: “That fall there had been some discussion of death,” the story begins. But the narrator adds, “I said that the only thing that bothered me, a little, was the way there was an assumption that nothing more was going to happen in our lives. Nothing of importance to us, nothing to be managed anymore.” That turns out not to be true when an old flame of Franklin’s, the déclassé Gwen (Harloe), arrives by chance. Her visit changes everything for the narrator. “They’re practical and intellectual even in talking about their upcoming deaths,” points out Mullennix, “and then comes this elemental physical, emotional threat. [Munro] has that wonderful, observational, unsentimental, deep empathy.”

“The first story is about a woman coming into herself, creating her own artistic path of the soul,” observes Harloe, who brought “Dolly” to the group. “The second story is about a woman in conjunction with a man. In ‘Dolly,’ she feels something is missing, she wants passion to still be a part of their lives. When this other woman comes in, this innocuous woman, she’s ambushed by her feelings for [Franklin] and fears of losing him. Both stories are centrally about a woman and each feels this kind of restlessness of the soul… . ”

As the rehearsal gets underway, Mullennix makes a few introductory remarks: “A lot of Alice Munro’s work has to do with the passage of time, a dissatisfaction the characters are feeling in different parts of their lives.” He notes the young narrator’s struggle to find her voice, the older narrator’s unexpected inner turmoil. “[Munro] illuminates [these things] in a way that’s simple and that we recognize,” continues Mullennix. “Her writing is deft, not flowery; it captures the essence… Her empathy is the great power of her work—her understanding of inner conflicts.”

The design presentations
begin. The set, by Jackie Scott, includes projections and a variety of
set pieces to represent the two stories’ multiple locations: kitchen, car, town, motel room, office. Costume designer Cassandra Carpenter displays the sketches and color palettes for the costumes, which are period-specific—think conservative 1950s styles for early 1960s Canada (“but not ‘Mad Men!’” says Carpenter)—with warm, autumnal colors for “The Office.” The musical underscoring, says sound designer Cliff Caruthers, will defer to Munro’s text. “The scenes are depicted in words,” he says. “You don’t want to depict them twice.”

After the design presentations, and when the two stories have been read by the actors, a discussion ensues: Does “The Office” take place in British Columbia, where Munro lived early in her career? Is “Dolly” set in Ontario, where she lives now? What are the implications of assigning the exposition to particular characters, how does it affect the meaning? What is the backstory of the couple in “Dolly”—when did they meet, how long have they been together? As rehearsals continue, the actors are sure to bring in new ideas; strong opinions and intense involvement in illuminating the text are an established part of the Word for Word process. “I don’t know where we’ll end up, but it will be an interesting exploration,” says Mullennix.

March 4 → April 12

Stories by Alice Munro: “The Office” and “Dolly”

Z Below

470 Florida St., 866/811-4111