Over nearly 25 years, Book-It Repertory Theatre has dramatized enough classic works of fiction to fill a standard English Lit 101 syllabus several times over. They’ve converted Melville’s Moby-Dick into prime stage fare. Likewise Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Add Howards End by E.M. Forster, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and nearly the entire Jane Austen canon, from Pride and Prejudice to Persuasion.
But in recent years, this ambitious Seattle company has also specialized in contemporary novels displayed in the “local authors” or “bestsellers” sections of area bookstores. And an unusual, mutually rewarding rapport has developed between Book-It and the Northwest scribes whose books the literary-minded troupe is regularly and stylishly adapting for a growing audience.
“We’ve been told that a local novelist hasn’t really made it yet until they’ve been ‘Book-It-ed,’” declares Jane Jones, co-artistic director of the company, along with Myra Platt. “It used to be that we had to knock on a writer’s door and convince them and their agent to let us adapt a novel. Now some are coming to us.”
No writer in the region has received the Book-It treatment more often than Jim Lynch. A former journalist who is based in Olympia, Wash., Lynch’s three eco-conscious novels are rooted in the Northwest, but have earned national praise and readership. And all have been brought to the stage by the company. The latest is Lynch’s much-praised 2012 tome Truth Like the Sun, which revisits the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and traces its future civic impact on local politics and culture. Book-It’s version (in an adaptation by Jones and her writer-actor husband Kevin McKeon) premieres at Seattle’s Center Theatre this month. The run continues through May 18.
Lynch acknowledges he felt “a little trepidation” the first time Book-It asked for theatrical rights to his novel The Highest Tide, a coming-of-age fable about a precocious 13-year-old amateur biologist who makes an alarming scientific discovery in Puget Sound. “I had never seen Book-It’s work before,” he recalls, “but Jane and I met for coffee and she was so gracious and charming. She won me over in about 15 seconds.”
Lynch had no interest in scripting The Highest Tide, which debuted successfully in 2008. “I just put it in their hands and hoped for the best,” he concedes. “When I saw a rehearsal later, I immediately felt flattered that so many good actors were doing the characters justice.”
Other prominent novelists report similar experiences with Book-It—initial skepticism, then relief and gratification. Examples of writers who have delighted in the page-to-stage transformation include Western Washington–based Ivan Doig, with his sprawling Montana novel Prairie Nocturne; Bainbridge Island’s David Guterson, with his widely read World War II–era story Snow Falling on Cedars; Stephanie Kallos, with her Seattle-centered tale Broken for You; and Spokane, Wash., resident Jess Walter, whose satirical take on America’s imploding suburban middle class in The Financial Lives of Poets was a recent standout.
Book-It’s body of work with Northwest ties invites audiences onto familiar geographic and cultural terrain. Along with plenty of rain, dominant high-tech and airplane industries, a café or coffee roaster on every corner, and one of the highest rates of book-buying in the country, Seattle and environs have an evolving literary and theatrical culture which both mirrors and departs from the rest of the nation.
The company is providing a kind of theatrical panorama of local history and concerns via the prose of some of the area’s most popular, most eloquent chroniclers. The company also still tackles Western-lit classics, most recently Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as well as books by living authors from other parts of the country, like Wally Lamb (She’s Come Undone) and Michael Chabon (the upcoming The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay). But there is a special sense of occasion and connection when the backdrop of the story is your own backyard—a yard that extends from Washington to Idaho to Oregon, and, in a stretch, way north to Alaska.
While granting a midsize non-profit theatre production rights isn’t a big payday for novelists, to say the least, many appreciate the Book-It treatment as a refreshing contrast to their dealings with Hollywood producers. “The shows are a sweet little treat compared to the manic-depressive nature of trying to get a film or TV series made,” declares Lynch, whose second book, Border Songs, set along the northwestern U.S.–Canada border, was faithfully staged by Book-It. A planned TV series based on the novel, on the other hand, once seemed to be on track but was suddenly cancelled.
Authors also don’t have to fret about the theatre altering an ending, or making other major changes in their story. “A writer knows right away that the mission of the Book-It folks is to recreate the themes and ideas and characters of his book,” says Garth Stein, a Seattleite whose international best-seller The Art of Racing in the Rain inspired one of the company’s biggest box-office hits. “Yes, they may change and modify and adapt as necessary. But they are always doing so with the goal of representing the book faithfully to a theatrical audience. And that purity of intention really shines through.”
“Purity of intention” was a credo for Book-It when a collective of literature-loving theatre artists, including Jones, established the company in 1990. At first they performed strictly verbatim versions of short stories, including in the script all the “he saids” and “she saids,” and every line of exposition and description.
Back in the early ’90s, this critic found Book-It’s stubborn and absolute fidelity to the original text, and its refusal to weed out verbiage extraneous to live theatre, sometimes cumbersome, often distracting and, as even Jones now admits, occasionally ponderous.
But the dynamic dedication to actor-centered theatre gleaned from top-shelf prose could also be inspired. And Book-It’s commitment to using drama as a catalyst for literacy by taking shows to libraries, schools and community centers has been a laudable community service. “Part of our mission has always been to get people to read more,” notes Jones.
Novelist Guterson considers Book-It productions especially useful to students who are trying to get a handle on what they’ve been made to read by teachers. “The Book-It experience can make a text more accessible for them—open the door, so to speak, to the written word,” he allows. “Of course it can work the other way, too, wherein one’s experience of the text is broadened by seeing the play based on it. The two are symbiotic, enhancing one another.”
Early on, short stories by Chekhov, Eudora Welty and O. Henry shared the same bills with prose works by leading Northwest authors like Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher, as well as Nicholson Baker, Pam Houston and others. But it wasn’t until Book-It began tackling entire novels, and by necessity cutting and tailoring a text to fit into a roughly three-hour stage format, that the company came into its own artistically. There were fumbles. Book-It’s first adaptation of a full-length book by a Seattle writer, Jonathan Raban’s Waxwings, stayed true to the published story about a rapidly changing city caught up in the Internet boom, but struggled to convey the novel’s keen sense of people and place, and its ironic wit.
But as Book-It widened its pool of like-minded actors, writers and directors, and refined its scripting techniques, the work became more organic and consistent, the reviews more enthused, the audiences larger.
The first Book-It rule of adaptation, relates frequent adapter-director Platt, is “preserving the author’s voice.” Not an easy task, points out McKeon, who also crafted the script for Truth Like the Sun and Snow Falling on Cedars. “I have to be the most egregious editor on the face of the planet. There has to be a dispassionate disconnection with the material so I can cut what’s necessary and streamline the story.”
In McKeon’s script based on the Guterson book, he ditched other plot elements to focus tightly on the trial of an Asian man accused of murdering a fellow fisherman, and a poignant interracial romance cut short by the U.S. government’s removal and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The art of placing prose narration in the mouths of stage characters is also critical to the process. According to Jones, “It’s all a matter of choosing the right point of view.”
Which third-person observations, opinions and lines of description in the authorial voice will be retained, to enrich the theatricality and preserve the texture of the prose? Which characters should deliver them? In a sense, McKeon says, “We have to turn everyone onstage into the storyteller.”
It can be disconcerting, at first, to hear a character “thinking out loud,” but it mostly works—and it can create an interesting dialectic between what people are thinking to themselves and saying to others.
Spoken narration “can also be incredibly liberating, because you can change an environment without changing the set,” says McKeon.