Anthony Powell, artistic director of Stories On Stage, admits that his company’s mission can be a bit of a tough sell.
“You describe it to friends, even [those] in the theater, and they say, ‘You read short stories? I can read. Why would I go?’” he says, laughing.
But the company, now in its 13th year, has certainly won over audiences in both Boulder and Denver, as its longevity demonstrates. It’s a simple idea: Professional actors read short stories to grown-up audiences. The experience recalls centuries of oral storytelling tradition as well as bedtime stories as a kid. Appropriately enough, this time around the theme is “Because I said so” — that is, parenting.
The theme came about, Powell says, like themes always do for the company: He read a particular short story that struck him as a good fit for the company, and other stories soon fell into orbit, creating the show. This time, it was Alex Ohlin’s “Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student.”
“It’s the story about this mom who is essentially a single mom — the hus band is in and out,” Powell says. “The little boy wants to take piano lessons, and they are hurting financially, and there are other problems. She’s like a mother wolf. If the kid wants to take piano lessons, he’s going to take piano lessons. … That was the kicker and other stories start to come around.”
Selecting the stories and the performers who read them is the most time-consuming part of his job, Powell says. He has to find the sweet spot of a story that will translate well for the live story- teller as well as pair it with an actor capable of conveying the story’s emotion to the audience.
Take, for example, Chip Persons, a Colorado Shakespeare Festival regular who is reading two stories at Stories On Stage’s Oct. 19 show at the Dairy Center for the Arts in Boulder.
“[Persons is] doing one called ‘Lamentations of the Father,’ which is by Ian Frazier,” Powell explains. “He’s reading two, but the comic piece is that one. It’s telling the children that they can’t drink juice in the living room. But it’s all done as a phony biblical, ‘thou shalt not’ style. Chip is not only a fantastic classical actor, and it needed someone like that, but he has a little boy. So I went, ‘I think that’s going to be perfect.’”
Chip Persons will read two stories during the Stories on Stage performance, one comical and one more serious. | Photo courtesy of Abbe Stutsman
Persons will also read “Love in the Time of Coloring” by Harrison Scott Key. Joining him are GerRee Hinshaw, who will read Sandra Cisneros’ “My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn”; Mare Trevathan (of Boulder’s LOCAL Theatre Company), who will read Amanda Rea’s “The Silver Bullet”; and Candy Brown, reading Ohlin’s “Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student.”
Brown is a former Broadway dancer who worked with Bob Fosse on three separate occasions. She, too, was somewhat skeptical when she first heard about Stories on Stage after she moved to Colorado in 2000.
“It’s very interesting, because [originally] I really couldn’t grasp the concept,” Brown says. “People come out of their houses and they get dressed to be read to? Then I went to one, and I went, ‘Oh my gosh, this is fabulous!’ The stories that are chosen are really good literature, and they’re really eclectic. Anything from science fiction to mystery. There’s always something that’s evocative.”
She’s now a veteran of the format, guessing she’s done a Stories on Stage performance roughly once a year since the company’s founding. At this point, it’s easy to see the piece as an extended monologue, and she approaches the story much as she would approach any other piece of theater.
“It’s telling the story. You still have a beginning, middle and end, and something happens, and you always have a resolve. You’re still conveying a story,” Brown says. “I would say the biggest difference is that you don’t have to memorize it. Other than that, I think I would approach it in a very similar way. Who’s telling the story, who’s listening to the story, what’s the story about, is there a denouement? If there’s something tragic that happens, what is it? How can I take this group of listeners on a journey with me?”
Powell notes that some actors struggle with the format. Reading a story to an audience requires a strong stage presence as well as a finely honed sense of narrative timing. Some actors simply pick up on that quicker than others, he says.
Mare Trevathan will read Colorado author Amanda Rea's "The Silver Bullet" at the Stories on Stage performance at the Dairy Center for the Arts Oct. 19. | Photo courtesy of Abbe Stutsman
“One of the challenges I never expected was, of course you’ve gotta be a talented actor to pull off a 20-minute short story by yourself,” Powell says. “But just because you are [a talented actor] doesn’t mean you can pull off a 20-minute short story.”
“It’s a direct connection between the actor and the audience,” he continues. “They are reading the story, but they’re also telling the story. ... Some actors just don’t have that instant rapport without having the fourth wall.”
Brown sees the challenge as maintaining her own composure while juggling the difficulties of conveying the imagery of scene using just her voice.
She takes inspiration from her son, who she says used to sing the 20th Century Fox theme song whenever she would open a book to read to him. He saw the book as a movie in his head, and she tries to convey the same experience to the audience at the show.
“They still need to have a tactile experience even though you’re not moving about,” she says, noting that she does this with intonation, pausing and rhythm. “They still need to smell the cooking in the oven. They still need to see the plates with the delicate flowers on them and the gold trim. They still need to feel your heart racing if you run into a room. They still need to hear the door slam or the dish break. You have to really paint a good picture. That’s why it takes good literature, because a good writer will do that.”
And after a Stories on Stage show, just like after hearing a story from your parents, there are milk and cookies in the lobby.
Stories on Stage will perform at The Dairy Center for the Arts on Saturday, Oct. 18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $28. The same show will also run at Su Teatro in Denver on Sunday, Oct. 19 at 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $28. Visit http://storiesonstage.org for more information.