'A master of the human soul': This theatre company is giving Alice Munro's stories new life on stage

Victoria's Belfry Theatre is adapting two of the Nobel Prize-winning author's short stories for the stage in the city she called home for years.

Belfry Theatre is adapting two of the author's short stories in the city she called home for years

Michael Scholar Jr., Caroline Gillis, and Arggy Jenati in Alice Munro Stories (David Cooper)

Alice Munro has never written a play. She's also never penned a novel. Instead, the Canadian literary legend has dedicated her life to the subtle art of the short story. Over five decades, she's published more than a dozen collections of her work to critical acclaim and popular success. Her pieces have spawned numerous film and TV adaptations, including 2006's Away From Her (by Sarah Polley) and 2016's Julieta (by Pedro Almodovar). She even captured the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013 — the only time it's been awarded exclusively for short fiction.

Now, a Canadian theatre company is bringing Munro's words to life on stage.

"Theatre in its essence is often a spoken art form based on text," says Anita Rochon, who helms the production. "We get information from what is being told visually. But the story lives in the words that people speak. Munro's writing is radically efficient. She's able to fit an entire world — often spanning decades — into very few words, jumping in and out of different people's understanding of events. So taking her work and speaking it out loud didn't feel like a departure. It felt like a natural fit."

The project was catalyzed by an unlikely source: an American theatre company. In 2015, San Francisco's Word For Word approached Belfry Theatre artistic director Michael Shamata about bringing their piece based on Munro's stories to Victoria.

Gerry Mackay in Alice Munro Stories. (David Cooper)

Shamata was interested but felt the idea deserved an all-Canadian production — particularly in Victoria, where Munro lived for many years and where Munro's Books, the store she founded with ex-husband James Munro, still stands.

The production would be new, but Rochon wanted to follow Word For Word's original approach. This meant a theatrical adaptation that included every single syllable on the page — not an easy feat. Literary works often exist entirely in the mind of a character or the eye of an omniscient narrator, while conventional plays are composed mostly from dialogue. But following this methodology turned out to work exceptionally well for the material she was tasked with adapting.

Munro's writing is radically efficient. She's able to fit an entire world — often spanning decades — into very few words, jumping in and out of different people's understanding of events.- Anita Rochon, theatre director

"Rather than tinkering with the stories and stripping out the description, doing them word for word is a way to honour them," Rochon says. "There's not much to be improved on in Munro's work. Leaving them intact allows us to come in and meet them face-to-face. I think our great achievement will be if we can do something that can match the imagination of the reader — not necessarily exactly what they imagine when they read the stories, but an interpretation that is just as compelling."

Caroline Gillis and Jenny Wasko-Paterson in Alice Munro Stories. (David Cooper)

Choosing the specific works to adapt was simultaneously exhilarating and daunting. Given the breadth of Munro's catalogue, there was immense pressure to find the right stories for this production. Eventually Rochon settled on 1990's Differently, which looks at a dramatic affair that destroys a friendship, and 1998's Save the Reaper, a comedic horror story from the perspective of a grandmother. Though published relatively close together in time, the pairing demonstrates Munro's incredible stylistic range at the same as it shows her keen ability to understand what makes people tick.

"Munro is known for being a master of the human soul," Rochon says. "She presents us with these characters that are mysterious and complex; at the same time, they're familiar and real. There was this great attraction in taking on her writing in a theatrical form because she has this incredible understanding of humanity, and theatre is a live examination of humanity. It's been such a gift to try to put this on stage."

Alice Munro Stories. Text by Alice Munro. Directed Anita Rochon. Until May 4. Belfry Theatre, Victoria.