Among the many arts organizations residing at the Seattle Center, Book-It Repertory Theatre is unique not only in Seattle but nationally and perhaps even internationally.
Many theaters perform pieces adapted from literature. But every Book-It production is an original adaptation of a literary piece and employs a unique style that retains the author’s voice through inclusion of narrative text. Rather than employing a formal narrator, the characters speak the narrative lines, as well as the dialogue.
Originated by Book-It founder Jane Jones and refined over the last 20 years by co-artistic directors Jones and Myra Platt, this distinct style is trademarked and called the “Book-It Style.”
Book-It audiences often include readers of all kinds, especially book clubs. A recent example is a mother-son book club that plans to read the book, see the play and then discuss.
Book-It adapts a wide range of work from adaptations of classics by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen to works by contemporary writers. Last season focused on novels by local authors, including Garth Stein’s “The Art of Racing in the Rain” and Ivan Doig’s “Prairie Nocturne.” The 2012-2013 season continues the local tie-in with its season opener, Jamie Ford’s “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.”
Authenticity through collaboration
Ford’s New York Times bestseller takes place in Seattle’s own International District and depicts a once-vibrant residential community torn apart by the internment of its Japanese-American residents, as seen through the eyes of a Chinese-American boy in the 1940s and looking back as an adult in the ‘80s.
Adapter/director Annie Lareau collaborated with local organizations — including the Wing Luke Museum, the Japanese Cultural Community Center of Washington, Densho, the Seattle Asian Art Museum and the Northwest African American Museum — to tell the story as authentically as possible.
The season continues with Book-It’s annual holiday show, “Owen Meany’s Christmas Pageant,” by John Irving. According to Jones, “There is no other piece of writing on the planet that takes a traditional holiday story such as the birth of the Christ child and turns it into the chaos and mayhem John Irving spins into Chapters 4 and 5 of his genius novel, “A Prayer for Owen Meany.”
Next on the slate is Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” To condense the lengthy novel to play length, “the adapter has just stuck with Anna’s story,” Jones said. “Our hope and intention is to firmly land with what is going on in Anna’s world — in her oppression and in her courageous struggle for happiness — as many of these issues are metaphors for Russia itself at the turn of the 20th century.”
Spring brings Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” uncensored. About politically correct Seattle’s possible reception of the N-word, Jones replied, “Well, we will just have to wait and see! Truly, this will be a challenge for us all, but our feeling is that the removal of it is a rewriting of history — a ‘correction,’ if you will — of a time in America that none of us are particularly proud of…. What we are looking so forward to is firmly placing Jim as the moral compass of Twain’s story…. He sets Huck on a moral journey of redemption.”
The season closes with Jess Walter’s “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” which, besides being humorous, is, per Platt, “…incredibly current in addressing the very real shift of American ownership…[of] our houses, our jobs, our marriages….”
“We all secretly love disaster stories,” Jones added, “and Matt Pryor faces true disaster in ‘The Financial Lives of the Poets.’”
Compelling characters, strong narrative
Book-It looks for compelling characters and a strong, interesting narrative voice in selecting literary works for dramatization. However, novels that already have a high percentage of narrative passages provide a challenge.
According to Platt, “We attempted ‘Cannery Row’ and found that there was simply too much description of starfish and not enough story to tell….”
Once a selection is made, the adapter determines what approach to take by examining, according to Jones, “…the arc of the novel, the number of main characters involved and the basic plot…. We always try to honor the ‘Purple Passages’…the quotable quips, the scenes that just slay you when you read them…. I mean, you would never dream of doing ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and not end it with ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do….’ That line is royalty, and we would never tangle with it.”
Book-It aspires to honor the author’s words with simple productions that keep audience imagination actively engaged, not unlike the process of reading. Meanwhile, Jones and Platt continue to refine and distill the “Book-It Style.”
“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” plays Sept. 18 through Oct. 28 at the Center House Theater. For more information, visiti www.book-it.org.