Word for word

 Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle brings books to life
Steven R. Lorton

Growing older onstage is no easy trick. But between the second and third acts of Book-It Repertory Theatre's production of Edna Ferber's Giant, characters Leslie and Bick fast-forward a generation or more with nothing but a change of costume and demeanor. No gray wigs, no makeup wrinkles, no canes.

"Our mission is to simply celebrate the narrative voice and force the audience to use their imagination," says Myra Platt, co-artistic director, with founder Jane Jones, of Book-It. Mission accomplished. As Book-It wraps up its 15th anniversary, Platt and Jones explain the concept of their company, which is the first of its kind: It turns great books into plays―not plays "based on" books but theater entirely from books. Practically every word spoken, every scene, every situation comes straight from the text.

Sunset: Why Book-It? Why plays directly from books?

Platt: We want to transform great literature into great theater through simple and sensitive productions, and inspire our audience to read!

Jones: As a company, we believe that reading can open people's minds and have a positive impact on the community's health.

 

Sunset: Isn't it an arduous task to get a book in its purest form onto the stage?

Platt: We read the books three times or so. Then we begin underlining.

Jones: We pick out what we call the "purple passages," things that must go into the script. Then we begin cutting it down to its essence.


Sunset: What about the sets, the costumes, and all the other props that conventional theater is built on?

Jones: We spend $2,600 for the sets on each show. That's nothing! Part of that is financial. Part of it is our artistic commitment to simplicity.


Sunset: Where did this idea come from?

Jones: I was in New York, working in theater. A group of us formed the 29th Street Project. We rented a space, and every member of the project could come and work on their vision of theater. Each summer I'd travel with my boyfriend. We'd go West. I began reading aloud to him in the car on the long stretches: The Grapes of Wrath, A Tale of Two Cities. I read so many beautiful stories that summer in our Volkswagen. I went back to New York and began a program of literature-to-theater at the 29th Street Project.

Platt: I'd completed a degree at Northwestern University in performing literature. I was in New York working at Circle in the Square [Theatre]. Jane and I never met in New York, but we probably passed each other on the street. Then about the same time, we both moved to Seattle.

 

Sunset: Why?

Platt: I wanted the outdoors, the appeal of a frontier town.

Jones: I made a lifestyle choice. I wanted to be near the mountains, the ocean, everything I'd been driving to all my life.


Sunset: And then you met each other and, Bang!, you started the theater.

Jones: Almost. We talked, a lot. I'd seen Starlight Express and Miss Saigon. I worried that the pyrotechnics of modern theater were replacing words and actors. We were asking less and less of our audiences to listen and respond. Don't get me wrong. I think the technological advances in theater are great. I just wanted to do it in a simple way. There's a place for both.

Platt: Early on we were both simultaneously exploring the same idea in different parts of the country. There's more than one way to tell a story. It does not have to be big and splashy.


Sunset: So you've been at this 15 years now, and it is obviously working. Ever get bored?

Platt: Never! There's a communal experience to live theater. Everything in our culture is oversize, overblown. The simplicity of sharing stories in a sensitive way becomes a group experience that unifies people.

Jones: The sense of excitement is endless. Although everyone in the audience has a different picture of what they are hearing and watching, somehow they are all united in a common place of imagination.

 

Sunset: You are wrapping up your 15th anniversary with two very different, very powerful, and, could we say, highly ambitious projects?

Jones: Cervantes wrote Don Quixote 400 years ago. Anniversaries seem like a good time to tackle great classics. Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is another kind of classic. There's a movement afoot to bring back the narrative voice when presenting stories. Audiences are hungry for a story well told in the old-fashioned way. These are stories with a strong narrative voice.


Sunset: When you leave Book-It, if you ever do, what do you want to be remembered for?

Platt: As there are different forms of music and visual arts, there are different forms of theater. I hope we have pioneered a new art form.

INFO: Book-It (www.book-it.org or 206/216-0833) will stage Don Quixote Sep 22-Oct 16 and Little Women (Part 1) Dec 1-23 at the Center House Theatre (305 Harrison St.; 206/684-7200).

 

6 great reads

What's in a book that makes it work as a play? We asked Jane Jones and Myra Platt. Here are a few books they've either put on the stage or plan to produce―books they feel everyone must read at least once.

Howards End by E.M. Forster. Compelling theater comes out of rich dialogue and strong characters: Here it's the language of upper-class Edwardian England in the mouths of two intuitive, smart women talking about an entangled inheritance.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Theater is about empathy. We feel sadness and joy as Angelou takes us with her as she grows up black and female in the American South of the 1930s and '40s.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. The ups and downs of growing up, and what it means to have a best friend, are universal experiences.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. The text brings the legendary commitment and power of the Hispanic family to life.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Strict manners, first impressions, and power struggles between women and men are always fuel for comedy. This is masked ambition at its best.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. To watch four people move through life from adulthood into old age gives readers―and audiences―a mesmerizing glimpse into their own lives.