Pulitzer Prize-winning author Adam Johnson’s novel will be brought to life by actor Kelley Ogden as part of Stories on Stage Sacramento
When novelist Adam Johnson arrives to hear his story featured at Stories on Stage on Friday, it will be the first time a Pulitzer Prize-winner has been the guest of Sacramento's fiction reading series.
But, given how successful it’s been, spawning two offshoots in other cities since its 2010 launch, it’s a reasonable bet that Johnson won’t be the last novelist with a Pulitzer to grace the series.
Johnson, whose best-selling novel The Orphan Master’s Son won the big prize for fiction in 2013, will be there to hear his story, “Interesting Facts,” read by Sacramento actress Kelley Ogden. The story, included in his recently published collection Fortune Smiles, tackles themes of grief and resilience in the voice of a woman with breast cancer.
Ogden says she’s delighted to do her part by reading.
“As an actor, you’re constantly interpreting writers’ words,” Ogden said, “and to get to do it in a room full of writers is a reminder that it’s not about you, it’s about letting the language go and allowing the story to get out.”
This Stories on Stage formula—inviting authors to attend, sign books and talk to readers, but leaving the story reading to area actors—has proved successful.
Valerie Fioravanti, author of Garbage Night at the Opera: Stories, founded Stories on Stage shortly after moving to Sacramento.
“I started it on a whim, really,” Fioravanti said. The catalyst: She’d been quite impressed with the way the poetry community in town had a variety of reading series, as well as workshops and events at the Sacramento Poetry Center.
But when she asked about a prose series, Fioravanti said, “I kept hearing the dispiriting advice that I’d have to go to Berkeley or San Francisco, and I felt that couldn’t possibly be true.”
Her favorite fiction series in New York had been the Symphony Space’s Selected Shorts, which uses Broadway actors as fiction readers. Given what she’d already learned about the number of area fiction writers—some quite well known, others just beginning their careers—and the number of excellent creative writing programs at area colleges and universities, it also seemed that pairing an established writer with an emerging writer would be a good combination.
Fioravanti credits Bob Stanley, who was Sacramento poet laureate at the time, with helping her to get the series off the ground.
“He volunteered the Sacramento Poetry Center as a venue,” she said, “and put me in touch with actress Cynthia Mitchell Speakman, who helped bring in several actors, including our first casting director, Victoria Goldblatt.”
And yes, when it comes to a reading series that works, a casting director is absolutely necessary.
The job, said current Casting Director Peggi Woods, is essentially about “matching the right persona, the right voice, to the particular story that’s being read.”
“We’re looking for someone with very good stage presence, because depending on the venue, they have to really hold the room,” she said. But that doesn’t mean the actor needs to be an exact match for the narrator of the story—or, for that matter, for the author.
Instead, she’s looking for actors who can bring more than just a voice to the story.
“They embody the story through mannerisms, gestures, vocal modulation,” Wood said. “A very talented actor will take you inside that story without you even realizing it, because they will bring textures and nuances that someone just reading off the page might miss.”
Naomi J. Williams agrees that the magic of the series is in the mix of stories and actors. Williams should know. The Sacramento author, who recently published her well-received debut, Landfalls: A Novel, was the featured emerging writer at the inaugural opening night for Sacramento Stories on Stage and is now featured as an established writer for the series. On October 30, Williams and fellow writer Elise Winn will be featured.
“Jodi Angel was one of our first established writers, and her stuff is pretty difficult territory,” Williams said of the You Only Get Letters From Jail author.
Ben Moroski, an actor who is now based in Southern California, but who previously did well-received work in Sacramento with Kolt Run Creations and Resurrection Theatre, was tapped to read Angel’s story of a young man in difficult situation, at least partially because of his own choices.
“He was so good at embodying the struggle of this feckless young man that it brought out the wit of the story,” said Williams. Despite the difficult material, there was laughter from the audience, which Williams said surprised both the author and the actor.
“When there’s latent humor, it will come out of the actor,” she said.
And, she said, “It’s also great to see a piece that starts out kind of funny and then gets darker, but the actor builds trust, so you’ll go there, and it gets so quiet you can hear a pin drop, and that’s a different sort of wonderful.”
Davis’ Stories on Stage thrived right away, which was no surprise to director Jeri Howitt.
“I know this town and felt certain it was ready for this event, but there is a moment when you have to make that leap into the wind and fly,” she said. “It sounds corny, but it hasn’t gotten old yet when each month our audience fills the room nearly to capacity.”
Julia Halprin Jackson, who earned her Master’s degree in creative writing at UC Davis, had been a fan of Stories on Stage, and drove over from San Jose to hear a friend’s story read in 2013.
“I turned to Valerie and said, ’I really wish we had something like this in San Jose,” she said. Fioravanti told her, “You should start one.”
Halprin Jackson said it hadn’t occurred to her before that moment that she could build her own community of writers around the events, but with Fioravanti’s encouragement, that’s exactly what she did. She enlisted the aid of writer Nicole Hughes and playwright-performer Melinda Marks to start Play on Words in San Jose.
The series has received grants from San Jose Downtown Association, in partnership with The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for two shows.
Once the Sacramento series was solidly established, Fioravanti turned the job of coordinating it over to Sue Staats in the fall of 2013.
“I knew my labor of love would be in good hands,” Fioravanti said.
Staats, along with a stable of dedicated volunteers, has kept the focus on literary fiction, and the format sometimes even features two writers—one established, one emerging—with a brief intermission and a raffle.
But there’s also been a concentrated effort to tap into the wealth of established writers in Northern California, which has meant more famous names—Anthony Marra, Ann Packer, Tobias Wolff and now Johnson—and has also meant that the usual venue at the Sacramento Poetry Center isn’t quite large enough.
“We knew they would draw more people than the Poetry Center could hold,” Staats said. “Verge Center for the Arts has been a most generous partner with us in providing a bigger space for some of these better-known authors.”
What’s best about Stories on Stage, Staats said, is how “it has become a kind of hub in Sacramento for writers, actors and people who just love good stories.”
Davis coordinator Howitt would agree. “Good writing, surrounded by good art in the Pence Art Gallery, and good actors reading,” she said, makes for a well-rounded evening.
And there’s always a draw in meeting a Pulitzer Prize-winner.