For nearly a quarter century, the actors’ troupe Word for Word has been staging narrative stories and chapters, with every word of the author’s original maintained and spoken by the actors. With several different productions each season, they’ve shown how such written-for-the-page as Edith Wharton’s short story “Xingu” and the opening chapter , “The Ride,” of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!. Contemporary authors are well represented as well, with Colm Töibín’s “Silence” on the boards this year and past performances of Dorothy Bryant, Angela Carter, Sandra Cisneros, David Handler, and Alice Munro among many others. Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambara, Bernard Malamud, Rudyard Kipling, and Armistead Maupin also have gone from page to stage with the every-word treatment Word for Word employs in its dramatizations.
When bringing any narrative text—short story, biography, novel, political history—from print to audiobook, actors must address the challenge of folding attributives into the aural environment without calling attention to what can, when poorly managed, sound like a list of he-said/she-said/she-called/he-shouted on tiresome parade. While good audiobook narrators of course lend passages of description, explanation, and other dialog-free text greater or lesser drama depending on the work and the point of each passage, to stage such a narrative piece so that each word belongs to the speaking role of one or another character—not to an off-to-the-side- narrator—takes exemplary finesse. It also provides a window into how authors do indeed polish each passage, even those that may offer setting or time, so that they advance the cadences, flavors, and pacings of the truly dramatic moments of dialog and action.
In a truly delightful—and effective—example of how Word for Word invests the actors with opportunities to speak descriptive lines, the omniscient lines written in Sinclair’s novel belong to an actor who supplies the performance of an automobile. That is, instead of a set that includes a vehicle or its mockup, or actors who mime the existence of an invisible vehicle, a speaking part—composed of the interweaving non-dialog portions of the original text—is also an acting part: this speaker performs as a piston in terms of actions.
Over the years, Word for Word has worked with schools and library groups to help spread both interest and insight in literary works and such performing skills as improvisation. Here, not only does the eye see a director’s and acting ensemble’s conception of a novelist or short story author’s created world, but exposure to the writing, in full, reaches the ear. Between the page and the stage, nothing is set aside.