In Word/Play, actors tell stories verbatim

by Erica Mixon / Beacon Correspondent • September 17, 2014

Twenty-one years ago, two women stepped into ZSpace, an artists’ studio that David Dower founded in San Francisco, and suggested that he stage a production in which actors tell stories verbatim. 

“I didn’t have a clue what they meant,” said Dower, ArtsEmerson’s director of artistic programs. “I said, ‘Give me a month and show me.’ At the end of the month, they did, and I said, ‘Oh that’s fun, let’s do it more.’ That group is now Word for Word, and has been meeting for 20-plus years.”

Dower, who will become ArtsEmerson’s executive director on Jan. 1, said he directed several Word for Word plays over the years. These became the inspiration for Emerson’s new take on theatrical reproduction of short stories, Word/Play. The production featured its first installment, an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Xingu, on Monday, Sept. 15 in the Jackie Liebergott Blackbox Theater. 

Seven Boston-based actresses, dressed in all black, read the words of Wharton’s text, including every “he said, she said.” While reading their lines, the actresses mostly remained still onstage, relying instead on inflections and hand gestures to convey a dramatic effect.

The 1916 short story features six snobby women who meet to discuss literature; they call themselves The Lunch Club. In one meeting, they bring in an established author named Osric Dane and attempt to impress her, even when a subject arises that they know nothing about. 

Meg Taintor, who played Osric Dane, said she worked with Dower in getting the project off the ground.

“There’s a delightful, delicious wickedness of getting inside these womens’ heads,” said Taintor, who is also the student engagement coordinator of ArtsEmerson. “Each woman has such a clear perspective of what’s going on in the room, and the narrative helps express those, even if it’s not in the lines.” 

Margaret Ann Brady, who played Mrs. Plinth, described the process of splitting up lines as very simple, even though the cast only had three rehearsals to bring it together. 

“We went through the script together, and [Dower] had ideas about who says what when, but we found it completely naturally,” Brady said. “It’s so beautifully drawn that it just fell into place.”

Dividing the lines was simple because each of the characters had such distinct characteristics, according to Brady. If someone was uneasy, she was likely to be Mrs. Leveret. If someone was pompous, she was often Mrs. Plinth. 

Both Dower and Taintor were pleased with the audience’s reaction. Several times throughout the 90 minute reading, the audience erupted with laughter.

“That was the kind of explosiveness that the story was greeted with the first time we did it in San Francisco,” said Dower, who added that many audience members approached him after the performance to inquire when the series would continue.

Taintor, who described Xingu as a trial run, said there is no scheduled date for the next installment yet, because she and Dower wanted to see if the Emerson community would be interested in the event. 

“It was a really happy audience,” Taintor said, adding that she was delighted at the number of students at the show. 

“I think a lot of times when people are adapting works of theater or film, they tend to feel like it’s not going to read well unless it’s severely adaptive,” said Lauren Scoval, who has a double major in performing arts and writing, literature, and publishing. “But this is a good example; you can just take it and make it fit on the stage using the words the author gave you.” 

Since the feedback was positive, Dower plans to lead a workshop for student directors in the future, which will show them how to work with adapting text to the stage.

“You can start doing it in the living room with your friends,” Dower said of Word/Play’s format. “It can take you into a world of stories and cultures, and provide an opportunity you wouldn’t get if you just waited in line at auditions every day.”