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Chi Lives: Paul Edwards's theater by the book



Paul Edwards thought he'd become a big-shot director in Hollywood once he graduated from Northwestern's film school. Edwards, now 45, chuckles, "My naivete was quickly dispelled." Intimidated by the business side of showbiz, he began to feel his bookish ways were out of place in the school's Radio, TV, and Film Department. Then one day, "quite by accident," he wandered into a performance of a short story, adapted for the stage by Robert S. Breen. "That changed my life."

Breen, a professor in Northwestern's quaintly named Interpretation Department, had devoted his life to perfecting what he called "chamber theatre," a technique for adapting fiction to the stage in a way that preserved as much of the original structure--narration included--as possible.

Theatergoers will recognize elements of chamber theater in Paul Sills's "story theater" and in the flood of literary adaptations by Breen disciple Frank Galati and many other Northwestern University graduates, like Mary Zimmerman, Laura Eason, and Mark Richard.

"What made chamber theater style exciting was that Breen was so excited by literature. He didn't start out with a book of rules but with a couple of books," Edwards says.

Breen, however, never considered chamber theater to be anything more than a tool for literature teachers, a way to show students the hidden rhythms and depths in prose. "Chamber theatre is a technique, not an art," he states firmly in his 1978 book Chamber Theatre. But Edwards and many others saw the potential for something more in Breen's work. Edwards performed in a number of literary adaptations by Breen and Galati and discovered that chamber theater combined his three great loves: literature, film, and theater. "In a strange way putting a novel onstage has some of the edited quality and fluid movements through time and place that film does."

Fascinated by a form he came to think of as a "stage movie," Edwards bailed out of film studies and "bailed into" the Interpretation Department and "a lot of Breen's classes."

After a brief fling as a stage actor--he tried and hated life as a non-Equity "jobber" in Washington, D.C.--Edwards returned to school, got a doctorate, and became a professor in Northwestern's Performance Studies Department (Interpretation's name since 1979).

Edwards has spent the last 16 years experimenting with chamber theater, trying to stage plays that present not only the dramatic scene of conventional drama but two simultaneous scenes--"the drama of someone telling a story and the drama of that story being told." He's produced 35 stage adaptations, most of them ranging in length from 75 minutes to four hours, though he's staged multievening adaptations of Dickens's Dombey and Son, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

In these experiments Edwards has consciously tried to extend Breen's ideas by taking narration, character, and dialogue from fiction without rewriting it completely as dramatic dialogue. Edwards's latest work, an adaptation of Geoff Ryman's Was, began modestly as a staged reading of several chapters. But the deeper he got into the book--about a gay scholar who's dying of AIDS and searching contemporary Kansas for evidence of the woman L. Frank Baum based his character Dorothy on--the more he became convinced that Was was made for chamber theater.

Was, staged by Roadworks Productions, opens Sunday at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets range from $15 to $18. For more information call 871-3000.

--Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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