Say What?

Gloria Baxter on narrative theater and her company, Voices of the South.

| July 05, 2002

Movies based on novels always seem to lack something. Perhaps it's the rhythm of the written work's "he said, she said" or the detailed descriptions of the otherwise trivial. University of Memphis drama professor Gloria Baxter and the ensemble theater company Voices of the South have found a way to stage a novel without leaving out all the little things. It's called narrative theater.

"Narrative theater is the staging of material not originally written for the stage, usually prose fiction or creative nonfiction," explains Baxter. "When we stage material, we don't change the text into all-dialogue. When other people say adaptation, they rewrite the novel into dialect, but we use the author's actual language."

Baxter and the nine-member company are currently working on Places of Enchantment, based on Wapiti Wilderness by Olaus and wife Margaret "Mardy" Murie, published in 1965. The Muries founded a nature center in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, dedicated to defending the wilderness and stressing its importance to the human spirit. Their book is the field journals of each spouse, kept while following an elk herd. Olaus' journal focused on his scientific studies, while Mardy's deals with what it was like to raise children while leading such a nomadic lifestyle.

Voices of the South will hold only one local performance of Places of Enchantment on July 10th. They'll then travel to Jackson Hole to perform at the Murie Center in honor of the widowed Mardy's 100th birthday. The production will return to Memphis next spring for a full run.

Baxter has been involved in narrative theater for more than 30 years. She got her start in graduate school at Northwestern University, a breeding ground of the form. Her professor, Robert Green, was experimenting with the concept of staging novels in the 1960s. He believed "chamber theater," as he called it, could only be performed in stripped-down minimalist stage productions. Unlike Green, Baxter and company have since put on large multimedia productions based on the works of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Terri Tempest Williams, to name a few.

"Narrative theater opens up the range of stories I would like to tell. Sometimes, I feel limited by the classic repertoire of literature," she says. "The novel spends so much time with interior life. I love the challenge of trying to figure out how to stage the interior life of a character, how to stage their dreams and memories."

Baxter goes through a step-by-step process when adapting novels to the stage. The first step, of course, is choosing the book. "Generally, to spend this much time with a piece, it has to be material that I have a deep, emotional connection with and a real need to express something about," she says. "Wapiti Wilderness is a book I discovered in 1975, and it's been a guidebook for me during many, many summers in Wyoming. So it's been in my heart for almost 30 years."

Her next step is what she calls "seedwork," or familiarizing the company with the material. To prepare for Places of Enchantment, she joined cast members from Voices of the South at the Murie Center for two weeks. She introduced them to Mardy Murie and took them on walks through the environment to allow them to "internalize the rhythms and imagery" of the wilderness.

Next, she and the company hold workshops where the book is dissected and chapters are explored for theatrical potential. She creates a tentative script, and rehearsals begin. At first, the company creates imagery to go with the text. These early rehearsals show Baxter exactly what works and what doesn't. The script is then altered to include only the richest imagery.

"My job is kind of watching, editing, shaping, and altering the text to support the imagery because the relationship of language and image is like a tapestry," says Baxter. "If the company has given me an image of rippling pages, I've got to decide what phrase or what sentence goes with that action."

When the script is finalized, traditional rehearsal begins. Movement is extremely important in narrative theater, and actors are responsible for capturing the imagery they've created through emotion and stage action.

The actors must have total awareness of where the other actors are onstage. To convey an image, they must move in a way that suggests that image while other actors play off that movement. For example, if an actor is portraying a heavy wind, she might sway violently while others move as though being blown about.

Since these narrative plays are not solely made up of dialogue, they contain information that isn't usually read aloud during a stage adaptation, including descriptive paragraphs, the "he said, she said," and the internal thoughts of characters. As a result, members of the audience have to work their brains. "People love it when their imagination has to be powerfully engaged. The audience is creating what they're actually seeing," says Baxter.

And, says Baxter, when everything adds up -- powerful vocabulary, emotional imagery, rhythm, and tempo -- the performance almost attains the state of music.

"By the end of the play, I'm no longer an architect but a conductor," she says.

Places of Enchantment

8 p.m. Wednesday, July 10th

Buckman Performing

and Fine Arts Center, 323-0128

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