Some of the best works of literature just don’t translate to the stage.
That’s why, despite attempts by the most well–intentioned dramatists over the years, the fiery fiction of Georgia’s most famous short story writer, Savannah–born Flannery O’Connor, hasn’t been adapted for theater.
The late author’s family, in Milledgeville, has never permitted it. The O’Connor estate fears — and rightfully so — that her rich, Southern gothic prose would somehow deflate if changed into strictly 2–D scenes and dialogue.
This weekend, Sharon Ott directs a SCAD production of two classic O’Connor stories, Greenleaf and Everything That Rises Must Converge, in the Arnold Hall Auditorium.
“Karin Coonrod, who is a New York–based director and writer, who teaches at Yale, got in touch with the folks in Milledgeville,” explains Ott, the artistic director for SCAD’s department of theater.
“She convinced them to allow her to essentially ‘arrange’ three of the stories for stage presentation. They passed muster with the estate. And that was done at the New York Theater Workshop about five years ago.”
It’s a process known as narrative theater.
“It’s a kind of theater that very, very frankly, and right in your face, incorporates the narrative voice directly into the performance,” explains Ott. “And allows the audience a different way to experience the full text of quote–unquote non–dramatic literature. That turns out to have a lot of drama in it.
“So instead of just trying to ‘make it into a play,’ we’re allowing it to be what it is, which is a different kind of event. But obviously both these stories have real dramatic action to them. As well as just a beautiful narrative voice — if you don’t use that with her work, you lose half the beauty of the work.”
Like so much of O’Connor’s writing, Greenleaf and Everything That Rises have strong religious undercurrents — the author’s Catholicism was deep–rooted — and each includes the other hallmarks of her work, humor and deeply symbolic violence.
In Greenleaf, religious sincerity is the issue as farm owner Mrs. May clashes with her employee, Mr. Greenleaf, and his wife. It was the O. Henry Award winner (for exemplary short story–writing) in 1957.
Everything That Rises Must Converge, dripping with bitter Southern allegory, sends a racist old woman and her writer son on a bus journey across town in the early 1960s. She refuses to ride alone because the bus has recently been integrated.
O’Connor, who died in 1964 at age 39, won another O. Henry Award for Everything That Rises.
Says Ott: “It’s more mythic to me than Catholic. I think the mythic elements of it, especially Greenleaf, are very, very clear. To me, she’s very mystical. I mean, the de Chardin quote that Everything That Rises is based on is certain more mythic Christianity than dogmatic Christianity.
“There’s a line in Greenleaf: ‘She had a great respect for religion, although she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.’”
For the audience, narrative theater “gives you the perspective on the characters, as well as the characters themselves. So sometimes they’ll say something as the character, and then do the narrative comments on the character. So it has a little bit of a Brechtian effect.”
The stage is essentially bare. There is no fourth wall. Sure, there are actors, but it’s almost as if they were walking you through O’Connor’s story. “It’s great, because the audience’s imagination can function the same way it does when you read,” Ott explains. “You hear the words and you imagine it all.”
The company consists of eight SCAD actors, taking on all the roles in both stories, and all the narration. “We have girls playing men, we have women playing little boys,” Ott says. “It’s a wonderful, challenging thing for the actors. It brings out the kind of Greek tragedy nature of the work. A lot of scholars of Flannery O’Connor talk about her stories having a kind of Greek, mythic feeling.
“The characters have that feeling of their destiny being right around the corner, but them not being aware of what it is.”
Everything That Rises Must Converge
Where: Arnold Hall, 1810 Bull Street
When: At 8 p.m. May 17–19, at 3 p.m. May 20
Tickets: $15 general admission; $10 with valid senior, student, military or SCAD ID; and $5 with valid SCAD ID for May 17 performance only
Reservations: (912) 525–5050