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February 24, 2011

Writing of Stegner Fellows will be performed on Feb. 26 – word for word

The acclaimed Word for Word Performing Arts Company will perform a word-for-word version of tomorrow's best writers – without eliminating a single comma.

By Cynthia Haven

Hungry, cutting-edge writers sometimes become major authors. But how does one find them early, before they hit the New York Times Book Review or the Barnes and Noble bookshelves?

You can scour bookshops aimlessly or comb the blogosphere or, sometimes, you can go to the theater. Try 8 p.m. on Saturday (Feb. 26), in Dinkelspiel Auditorium, when the Word for Word Performing Arts Company presents an evening of staged readings featuring writers and poets who are Wallace Stegner Fellows in Stanford's Creative Writing Program.

The prestigious Stegner Fellowships, named for author Wallace Stegner, are among the most competitive writing honors in the country: only 10 poets and writers were selected this year from 1,793 applicants.

When Jenny Bilfield, the artistic director of Stanford Lively Arts, and author Tobias Wolff, a professor of English, approached Word for Word with the concept for Stegner Shorts on Stage, the company's artistic director Susan Harloe said the group was "intrigued and excited."

"We loved the idea of having a creative exchange with writers who are on the cutting edge, to have a glimpse into their process and to share our process with them," she said.

The award-winning Bay Area phenomenon known as Word for Word says its mission is "to tell great stories with elegant theatricality" and that it "believes in the power of the short story to provide solace, compassion and insight into our daily lives." But its mandate is a distinctly offbeat one: It performs every word of a short story – that's right, including "he said" and "she walked to the window," and "he got in the car and drove off."

A decade ago, when the company approached Wolff about performing his short stories, he admitted he was a little puzzled about how the performers would pull it off. "Wouldn't it sink the story to have it performed literally word for word?" he wondered.

He became a convert, saying the performance was "just brilliant – I was blown away."

The company is "very inventive in movement – it's almost a kind of a dance," he said. "It's influenced by dance, by drama, by literature, in an odd way by art installation, because the staging is very ingenuous."

The group worked with Wolff again in 2008, for another round of short stories, presented by Lively Arts.

Wolff thinks the Stegner fellows are a worthy way to continue the Stanford collaboration. "They're such fine writers – so many of them go on to glory. It's very interesting to catch them at this point in their writing careers."

The works to be presented on this program have been selected from current Stegner Fellows and include Miriam Bird's "Love Poem;" Keetje Kuipers's "Diagnosis;" Justin Torres's "Never-Never Time," "Heritage" and "Seven;" Kirstin Valdez Quade's "The Five Wounds" and select poems by Matthew Siegel.

Tickets are $20 for adult and half-price for those 18 years old and younger; tickets for Stanford students are $10. Call 650-725-ARTS (2787) or visit



Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,

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