This article originally appeared in Westword.
In Lawrence Osborne’s short story “Volcano,” a divorced woman searches for meaning and identity on a trip to Hawaii. Anthony Powell, director for Stories on Stage, describes it as “funny — a strange, crazy story.” It’s one of three he has chosen for What Goes Up Must Come Down, a program in which Powell matches up literary discoveries with the right actors to bring them to life in a staged reading, and who could be better for this tale of a strong-willed, eccentric woman than Mare Trevathan? Her passion and power have electrified local audiences for years, though not nearly often enough.
The entire show, Powell says, is designed to create comedy from the fickle workings of fate. “We’re not directly addressing the world head on right now,” he says, “but we are addressing the problems of the world obliquely. All the stories are about life challenges.”
Powell also chose “Birthmark,” by Miranda July, which explores the meaning of beauty as the protagonist finds herself questioning her life. The reader here is Ilasiea Gray, another strong and intriguing stage presence. Gareth Saxe, who had audiences roaring with laughter in Plaza Suite at the Arvada Center two years ago, will read “Kellogg’s,” written by B.J. Novak, known for his writing and acting for the American version of The Office. It describes the adventures of a little boy who wins a $100,000 cereal prize. The story is “sweet as hell,” says Powell, “but it’s got an edge. And it’s perfect for Gareth.”
Stories on Stage routinely has access to excellent acting talent. “We hire pros,” says Powell. “We’re so blessed in that what we do is for one or two nights and rehearsal doesn’t take a lot of time. People can sneak it into their schedule. The good actors are busy, but this allows us to get the best actors in town.”
The company managed a full season during last year’s shutdown because readers’ theater translates well to video, but “in some ways, this season is a bit more challenging and tricky,” says Powell. “Last year you knew what you had to do, which was not go outside. Now hospitals are in trouble, but people are going out a lot. What happens with theater? We’ve erred on the side of caution, but we’re going to go live in December with Making Merry.”
Powell took over as head of Stories on Stage in 2010, and found his new job a learning process. “I wish it were a science. It took me a while to learn that some stories you love don’t lend themselves to performance,” he says. “They’re so internal. Now if it resonates with me, I think, ‘How can an actor make this active?’ If so, I save the story.
“I’m looking at the next season,” he continues. “Sometimes I pick stories that don’t have a lot of literary merit, but they’re fun and I know an actor could have a great time with them. If something’s topical, I go with that. If I pick one story and think I can develop an evening with it, I go on the prowl and find other stories that fit in with the theme.”
Then there’s the challenge of casting. “Early on, I would hire actors I knew were terrific but they couldn’t necessarily put a story across,” Powell says. “It’s a slightly different relationship with the audience, very one-on-one, interactive, like a Shakespeare monologue that goes on for twenty minutes. Some actors can do that, some can’t. It took me a year to figure it out.”
Jamie Horton, much loved and remembered in town for his many brilliant years at the Denver Center, will return for Making Merry and is bound to delight audiences. Though given the ravages of the pandemic, there’s still a pressing problem: “Can we do cookies?” Powell wonders. “Should we do cookies?”
Powell has a long and successful history as an actor and director, beginning with John Houseman’s highly rated The Acting Company. He directed numerous productions over eighteen years as associate artist at the Denver Center Theatre Company, and has also worked with Curious Theatre Company, the Arvada Center and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.
“For lots of personal reasons, [Stories on Stage] arrived at a perfect moment in my life,” he says. “You don’t know you’re craving something until it arrives. I wasn’t a big short-story reader before — reading stories in the New Yorker at the dentist’s office was it. Unpacking the art form has been a joy. They’re these perfect little snapshots of life on earth. They generally don’t tie things up with a bow at the end. They often end on a dot dot dot or a question mark, and I love that about them.
“It’s so funny,” he says. “Two years ago there was the smallness of what we do — I thought it would be great to be bigger — and then our very smallness was what allowed us to survive the year of quarantine. Our size was suddenly our strength and gave me new inspiration for what I do.”
Powell’s memories, both good and bad, are resonant. He remembers actor John Rubinstein reading a story by T.C. Boyle, “Sorry Fugu,” about a restaurant opening night where everything goes wrong. He and Rubinstein both had restaurant experience and found the story tragic. But midway through the performance, there was laughter from the audience. “John, being the brilliant actor he is, you saw the lightbulb go off over his head,” Powell says. “He turned it on a dime. And that story was so touching and funny and brilliant then. It lasted five to six minutes longer because John had to stop for all the laughs.”
There was also the story by Don DeLillo, “Human Moments in World War Three,” with its pages-long run-on sentences, read by John Arp. “You’ve got clauses within clauses within clauses,” Powell remembers. “It was so good. He killed it.” But when Powell lined up at the cookie counter during intermission, “this tiny little old lady comes up to me and says, ‘What the hell was that?’ I was dashed to the ground.”
Apparently what goes up does come down.
Making Merry plays at 2 p.m. Saturday, December 18, at Nomad, and 2 p.m. Sunday, December 19, at the King Center in Denver. Find out more at storiesonstage.org.