Lucia Berlin: A Word for Word Production at Z Space by Eva Whitney

Recently, The Creative Writing Department gathered at Z Space on the edge of the Mission to watch a Word for Word Performance of Lucia Berlin’s best short stories. We crammed ourselves in the small theater, eagerly watching the stories be presented as plays. It was a new experience for most of us to watch a story be performed theatrically, and to be performed word-for-word. This is the reading reflection I wrote in response to the performance:

On Thursday, the eighth of March, the Creative Writing Department attended a Word for Word production at Z Space. Word for Word is a performing arts company whose mission is to tell stories theatrically. The event consisted of five stories from Lucia Berlin’s A Manual For Cleaning Women, a collection of her best works. Nestled in the outer edge of San Francisco, Z Space theater proved to be an excellent location for a theatre production as its small size allowed for an intimate relationship between the audience and the performers. The performance was unlike any other reading I have ever attended as it was both a new take on theatre and in reading stories.

A Manual For Cleaning Women, published in 2015, eleven years after Berlin’s death, compiles the best of her work. The collection has gained massive popularity in the years after its publishing, something unfamiliar to Berlin during her lifetime. The stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women are all connected by the person who tells them and who has experienced them. Nearly all the stories are told in the first person, but, when third-person protagonists appear, they are a version of the first-­person narrator. What each story shares is their theme of extreme suffering. In “Here it is Saturday,” Lucia’s character visits her student in his prison cell, describing the cell with its “‘window broken, rain coming through. [It] stinks. The cells are so small and dark.’” In each story, the characters individually suffered, be it from imprisonment in a cell, imprisonment in alcoholism, or imprisonment in their life.

The Word for Word production was an entirely unique experience to me. The ensemble performed the stories word for word, hence their title. From reading the actual texts, it was apparent that they did not skip a single word. Characters would often refer to themselves in the third person, state the actions that they did, and, sometimes, a whole group of actors would say something simultaneously. While I appreciated how avant-garde the performance was, I found the odd way of speaking actually took away from the theatricality of the pieces. I was constantly being drawn out of the plot itself, hearing the men say “the men all laughed” as they laughed. Perhaps it is because I am used to seeing theatre productions where characters do instead of say, but the idea of performing the story word-for-word did not add anything to the actual production for me. It felt as if someone was reading the story to me as I watched a silent play, explaining every action. Though I did not particularly enjoy the formatting of the Word for Word reading, it introduced me to the many ways stories can be read and performed.

An aspect of the Word for Word performance that I enjoyed was the minimal use of props. A few boxes were used, laid out to make a bed, stacked to create a table, or set out individually to make seats. There were simple costumes and projections on the back of the stage that signaled where the setting was. I do enjoy elaborate sets, but I found it interesting to see how the group was able to create such a sense of place with so few materials. This proved to me how plays can be produced with a low budget and still be as vivid as intended to be.

As I watched the Word for Word production of five of Lucia Berlin’s stories, I felt my knowledge of readings grow. Never have I attended a theatrical reading of work before, and certainly not a play-like production that is done word-for-word. Though my immediate reaction was one of dissatisfaction, afterward, I recognized my feelings toward the production came only from a place of uncertainty from seeing something unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. While I may not use the word-for-word element in my own theatrical productions, I could appreciate the new take on readings and how it opened my eyes to genre-blending between prose and plays, a realm unexplored by me.

Eva Whitney, class of 2020

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