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Mar 11, 2009

Against a tide of digits, pixels and tweets, theatrical and literary stars align in support of the American short story and the written word.

By Donna Sapolin

On a cold Sunday afternoon in March, an audience of literary enthusiasts pours into the library of the Soho House in Manhattan for an event sponsored by WordTheatre, a nonprofit group created in 2003 by L.A.-based director Cedering Fox.
She and her partners enlist well-known actors to read stories by accomplished authors on stages in Los Angeles, New York and London. “My mission is to keep alive a threatened literary form—the short story,” says Fox, “and to showcase the majesty of the written word through oral storytelling.”
Today, Julianna Margulies, an actress best known for her role as Nurse Carol Hathaway on “ER,” reads aloud from “Jesus is Waiting,” a story by Amy Hempel. Actress Lynn Whitfield, an Emmy Award-winning actress who performs in films, made-for-TV movies and Off-Broadway plays, reads John Edgar Wideman’s “Lamentations.” Finally, James Franco, who just won an Independent Spirit Award for his role in Milk, reads Jim Shepard’s “Minotaur.”
A board member of WordTheatre, Franco brings both an actor and author’s sensibilities to the task. He is pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing at Columbia University, and Scribner will soon publish a collection of his short stories. “WordTheatre provides a much richer, more colorful experience of a written piece by approaching it from a variety of angles,” he says.
The dazzling transformation that happens when actors enliven literary characters stuns everyone in attendance—and no one more so than the authors, all of whom are present. While listening to Whitfield’s rhythmic reading of his character’s lines, Wideman’s long fingers drum to the cadence.
“When I write I don’t read the sentences out loud,” he says. “I hear the voices clearly in my head. And so it’s both astonishing and a great privilege to witness what actually happens as I give my creation up to an actress and watch it become hers.”
The $25 admission seems a very modest price for such an intimate gathering with top-flight actors and writers.  After the staged readings, the authors take questions from the audience and sign copies of books brought in by Mobile Libris.
The WordTheatre library now holds recordings of 200 short stories that are sold online through the group’s Web site for play on MP3 players and other portable devices.
WordTheatre’s actors and authors also participate in fundraising benefits for other nonprofits, including Autism Speaks, PEN Center USA, the Pushcart Prize Fellowships and NARSAD, which supports mental health research.
The enterprise that most excites Fox these days is a pilot program the group is developing for Berrenco Middle School, a Title I school in Los Angeles. “We’ll give the kids a new perspective on reading and writing by bringing actors and authors together for oral performances in the school library,” says Fox. “We’ll also help them write and perform their own short stories. At a time when people break up relationships with a simple text message, WordTheatre is there to share words that create bonds.” 

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