Word for Word Celebrates 25 Years

by Jean Schiffman

Word for Word has, for the past quarter-century, transferred stories from the page to the stage, verbatim.

San Francisco’s stellar literary theater troupe Word for Word chose two short stories to mark its 25th year: Tobias Wolff’s “Deep Kiss” from his collection “Our Story Begins” and George Saunders’ “Victory Lap,” from “Tenth of December.” The double-header opens at Word’s longtime home base, Z Space.

“We talked about our favorite authors. We wanted to do something special,” says JoAnne Winter, who with Susan Harloe is the company’s cofounder and co-artistic director. “Toby Wolff kept coming up. He’s an amazing master storyteller and has been incredibly generous with us, giving us permission to do any and all of his stories.” Wolff, who is perhaps best known for “This Boy’s Life: A Memoir,” is in fact the author whose works Word has most often staged.

True to its name, Word for Word has, for the past quarter-century, transferred stories, or, less often, chapters from books, from the page to the stage, verbatim. The text is divided up among the actors in wonderfully insightful and creative ways, with results that can be unexpected, humorous, deeply revealing. “It’s like when you’re watching Shakespeare—it takes a moment to adjust to the language,” explains Harloe. “Even experienced actors sometimes say, ‘Oh, OK, I see—and who’s the narrator?’” And that’s the beauty of it. There is no narrator as such.

The pairing of these two stylistically and tonally different stories—Wolff’s poignant narrative of lost love, told in third-person, about a high school romance that has haunted a man for his entire life, and Saunders’ dark and funny tale that deftly interweaves three stream-of-consciousness monologues (two innocent teenagers and a stranger—a “Rooskie” in a hoodie) with an omniscient narrator—offers two different examinations of adolescent yearning, angst, moral challenge and coming of age. 

The two authors are in fact good friends. Saunders (author of the Man Booker Prize winner “Lincoln in the Bardo” and others) was Wolff’s pupil when Wolff taught at Syracuse University. Now Saunders teaches part-time there, taking over Wolff’s old job, and is based in Santa Cruz; Wolff lives and teaches at Stanford.

To choose two male authors to mark Word’s 25th anniversary could seem surprising for a company run by women and comprising a longtime all-female charter group of theater artists, and, says Winter, “We did talk a lot about that. But we’ve done tons of women writers over 25 years, from day one.” That includes everyone from Elizabeth Strout (“Olive Kitteridge”) to Lucia Berlin, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Amy Tan and many others. (Among the male authors are Octavio Solis, Daniel Handler and TC. Boyle, to name only a few.) Winter, notes that these two stories work together well, as they are both about “teenagers and turning points that affect you for the rest of your life.” The company has staged more than 70 stories altogether, and Wolff has said, “I wish Word for Word would do all my stories.”

In “Deep Kiss,” Joe looks back from adulthood to a time during high school when his father was dying, during which he himself found an escape: he became smitten with Mary Claude, a classmate from the wrong side of the tracks, losing himself obsessively, addictively, in her embrace. With one wrong move, he lost her forever, and feels that ever since he has lived a secret parallel life—"a phantom life . . . always with a kiss at the heart of it.”

“We walk around with these things inside us, and nobody knows,” muses director Joel Mullennix, who has worked often with Word. The story, he says, is about “what we carry inside us that continues to be both beautiful and painful.” He has divided the dialogue up among the actors (a cast of eight appears in both stories), so sometimes the lines are spoken by Joe’s mother, sometimes by his high school classmates or the high school principal, sometimes by the mysteriously alluring Mary Claude.

Word charter member Delia MacDougall, who is directing “Victory Lap,” says she was drawn to the story because it has what all good art has: “an expression of grace toward our humanity and its failures and attempts.” The two main characters, she notes—whimsical, imaginative Alison (“Is life fun or scary? Are people good or bad?” Alison wonders, pirouetting around the house as she practices her ballet steps), and the shy, insecure boy next door, Kyle, with a stern and controlling father—are faced with a life-changing moment, one that requires them to make instant decisions. “Structurally, it’s a perfect story,” MacDougall says, “and it’s hysterically funny.” All the characters, she points out, “are holding these strange stories that they’re telling themselves. . . . How we talk about ourselves and talk ourselves into things and out of things, how we deceive ourselves, how the truth bubbles up inside our heads and finds its way to the surface—that’s the brilliance of the piece.”

Looking back over the past 25 years, during which Word has, among other activities, toured regularly to France (they’re planning to take these two stories to France next spring), Harloe and Winter agree that 25 years in theater is like 100 years in any other realm. They’d never have expected, when they formed the company as a couple of lit-loving actors looking for work back when there were even fewer roles for women than now, that 25 years later they would have ongoing relationships with acclaimed authors and a group of dedicated artists who have become a family. “To honor the author’s voice is exciting,” says Harloe. “You want to have a lot of integrity about it. The deepening of our relationships with writers, bringing short stories to life onstage—I didn’t know it was going to be so great. You never know what can happen when theater forces are at work!”

Aug. 11-Sept. 2

Z Space

450 Florida St., San Francisco