The New Short Fiction Series, a monthly fixture at the Federal Bar in North Hollywood, reputes to be a spoken word performance that champions the author's text above all. But there is a twist – the New Short Fiction Series wedges a partition between the author and his or her words by delegating the role of reading the author's work to professional actors.
Sally Shore, creator, director and an actor of the series, selects a featured West Coast short fiction author for each month from voluntary submissions and then adapts four to five of their pieces to be performed individually by one actor. According to Shore, each piece runs about 15 minutes and is meant to be simple enough to ensure the language's primacy, but sufficiently engaging to be considered a performance.
“It's almost like when a novel is taken and it's adapted for the screen,” said Shore. “You can't have it be exact because it's not the same formatting, it has different requirements. If it's done well, it can be another way of looking at the material.”
If the premise of the series stirs a paradoxical chord in your heart, then you are right on the money. After all, what is better guaranteed to preserve an author's words than their own voice and presence?
When I found out that March's featured author was Saehee Cho, a vaguely familiar name bred in the CalArts experimental literary scene, I decided to go and appraise the apparent disparity.
As a one-time regular of the Federal Bar, I know the general lay of the land: two floors, dark overtones and a pubby, neighborhood feel not quite in sync with the large crowds that flock to find shelter in the booze. But somehow the New Short Fiction Series cast a new light on the familiar space.
Held upstairs and barred from public entry by door and price (it costs $15), the organizers managed to create a fancier, almost romantic vibe for the event.
Then the show began. Actors David Bickford (True Blood, Xander Cohen), Reena Dutt (Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Criminal Minds), Matthew Lange (The Bold and The Beautiful), Sally Shore (Suddenly Susan) and Shaun Shimoda performed short pieces from Cho's collection, We Are Bodies, Bodies Break, including “Puppeteer,” “Search Party” and “The Crane Wife.”
True to the objective, the actors simply read selections from Cho's work without the song-and-dance. There was a sprinkling of pantomime, but the actors never rose from their seats. Of course, that was point: to convey the author's words purely, without a lot of “hammy” distraction. But this point destroys itself. It still beckons an answer as to why, with that singular goal, the author does not read her own work.
I didn't find the reading particularly enjoyable or thought-provoking. Cho's words were delicate and deliberate, but somehow this was slightly obscured by the actors' upbeat, stagey delivery. Having spoken to Cho before the show, I knew she had a demure demeanor and that she generally reads her work with little intonation, which probably skewed my perception of the evening.
Perhaps because of my bias, I enjoyed Shimoda's rendition of Cho's piece, “The Crane Wife” best. Shimoda spoke with an understated fervor, and the words truly seemed to resonate with him. The story recounted a man's love and loss of his wife – a mythical creature, who gracefully shifted from avian to human.
According to Shore, the prevailing format – actors in lieu of author – was also instituted to make literary work more accessible to a word-phobic public, who might shy away from a traditional reading: “When people hear the word 'literature', the word 'fiction' – those can be very intimidating labels for folks. I think this is the kind of format where somebody who might be intimidated by some high-falutin labels really says, 'Oh yeah, I'm digging this,” she said.
I was still unconvinced, given the minimalism of the actors' performances.
After talking at length to Shore and Cho and the actors, it dawned on me: the New Short Fiction Series is more provocative and enjoyable for the participants than the audience. It's an interesting thought-experiment for the authors and actors involved; it is both their respective crafts skewed to some extent. The actors, who all seemed collectively jaded about the superficiality of TV and film writing, get to read complex text without the pressure to prance about the stage.
“I'm a working actress. I get paid pretty well to show up and say, 'Mr. Smith will see you now,' and all this stuff,” Shore said. “So the artist in me wants to do something interesting.”
“You don't get to do stuff like this as an actor where the writing that you're presented with is good to start with,” echoed Shimoda. “Usually you're trying to invent, make stuff up, fill in blanks. But with a lot of the writing that Sally gives us... it's clean and everything's there already so you don't have to really fill in blanks.”
The author, in novel turn, gets to be an audience to her own work; she gets to see her characters living in 3-D, crucially for Cho, beyond her control.
“An amazing thing about this experience has been to realize that, no, that's exactly what's happening when I put out a story in the world,” Cho said. “People are going to read it and interpret however they want to read it, and to actually have it orally performed like that was a good representation for me and just an exercise in letting go of control of the work.”
I like Cho's appraisal of the event as an experiment, because that's exactly what it felt like – an exercise in role reversal and power subversion. Which, at least in theory, sounds pretty cool.
Now in its 17th year, the New Short Fiction Series is held every second Sunday of the month at The Federal Bar at 7pm. For program information and tickets visit www.newshortfictionseries.com.