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Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 18, 2011

On stage at Stanford

Stegner fellows see their short stories and poems turned into theatrical staged readings

by Rebecca Wallace

Kirstin Valdez Quade's short story "The Five Wounds" is set in a New Mexico ranching town. In 2009, the story made it to the big city in the pages of the New Yorker.

Next week, the tale takes to the California stage. The gritty story of a man playing Jesus in his town's Passion Week ritual will be performed by actors as a staged reading at Stanford's Dinkelspiel Auditorium.

The event is under the auspices of the San Francisco-based Word for Word Performing Arts Company, whose actors perform short stories and poems. The Feb. 26 staged readings highlight the Stegner Fellowships in Stanford's Creative Writing Program; all five fiction writers and poets are current fellows.

During the two-year fellowships, participants get to focus on their writing without curricular requirements, other than workshop attendance. "We just have the time to work," Quade said. "It's a tremendous luxury."

JoAnne Winter, co-artistic director of Word for Word, said she was extremely pleased when Stanford Lively Arts director Jenny Bilfield and Stanford faculty member Tobias Wolff suggested staging stories by Stegner fellows.

"We're really thrilled to have this opportunity to work with the cutting edge of American fiction and poetry," she said.

Besides "The Five Wounds," other works that will be on stage Feb. 26 are: "Love Poem" by Miriam Bird Greenberg; "Diagnosis" by Keetje Kuipers; "Never-Never Time," "Heritage" and "Seven" by Justin Torres; and several poems by Matthew Siegal.

Various directors have been enlisted for the project. "The Five Wounds" is led by TheatreWorks casting director Leslie Martinson, who has also directed several TheatreWorks productions.

Word for Word, which Winter co-founded with Susan Harloe in 1993, often turns stories into fully produced plays, with costumes, props, lighting, sound and so forth. The upcoming Stanford production will be more informal, consisting of script-in-hand staged readings.

"It's an exploration of these pieces, the idea being that perhaps if one or more of them works and is intriguing, we might take it to the next level," Winter said.

Regardless of the level of formality of productions, Word for Word always makes sure that actors speak every word of the text — which includes descriptions of their own characters, the "he said" and "she said," and everything else.

This can get pretty vivid in such cases as "The Five Wounds," in which Amadeo, who plays Jesus, is described in the text as "pockmarked and bad-toothed, hair shaved close to a scalp scarred from fights, roll of skin where skull meets thick neck."

"We've done stories that have had almost no dialogue in them. You can make dialogue out of narrative," Winter said. "The characters will say what's happening to them while it's happening to them. You also get to speak the subtext."

She added: "Some actors come to it really naturally, and some actors struggle with it. It's like doing a different language, or Shakespeare."

Word for Word has been to Stanford before. Past productions include several stories by Wolff, who is on the company's authors' council along with Amy Tan, Armistead Maupin, Barbara Kingsolver and others.

Still, this is the first time the company has staged works by Stegner fellows. Quade, for one, said she is very much looking forward to seeing her story on stage.

"As a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about the words that I put on the page," she said. "To have somebody look at it that closely, closely enough to perform it, it's sort of an honor."

What: Word for Word Performing Arts Company stages theatrical readings of Stegner fellows' short stories and poems, presented by Stanford Lively Arts

Where: Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford Lively Arts

When: Saturday, Feb. 26, at 8 p.m.

Cost: $20 general and $10 for Stanford students. Discounts are available for groups, other students and people ages 18 and under.

Info: Go to http://livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650-725-ARTS.