Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre is like the "Little Engine That Could."
“I rattle, I shake sometimes,” says Book-It founder and co-artistic director Jane Jones when you ask her about how her company has managed not only to survive, but thrive and grow over the past 25 years, even as other arts nonprofits have fallen victim to the bad economy.
It's all about sticking to the mission, she says.
Book-It's mission is to make books come alive.
It’s almost impossible to describe the “Book-It style”of plays to people who haven’t seen one of the company’s productions.
Every play Book-It produces adheres to the text of the original book.
The actors actually perform the words verbatim, often referring to themselves in the third person, describing their inner emotions, the scenery around them.
Jones came up with the idea that became Book-It in 1985, when she was working as an actor in New York. She noticed that theater audiences weren’t as interested in the words being spoken as they were in the stagecraft they saw.
She and a former boyfriend had spent the summer on a long road trip, reading two long novels to one another. Jones remembers thinking how theatrical it was. It was her "a-ha" moment.
She recalls thinking, “Why don’t we just use the words to evoke the scenes?" And that’s where it all started.
Two years later, Jones moved to Seattle, where she attracted a group of like-minded artists to join her in this experiment. Among those artists was Myra Platt. She’d just finished a degree in the analysis and performance of literature, so she says Book-It was right up her alley.
In 1989, Jones and Platt formally established Book-It Repertory Theatre.
Over the company’s quarter century in Seattle, Book-It has adapted and performed everything from Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” to John Irving’s “Cider House Rules” and Garth Stein’s “The Art of Racing in the Rain.”
Co-artistic director Myra Platt says Book-It wants to “excite and inspire audiences’ imaginations.” She says using the actual text gives audiences a window into what the characters really feel, as opposed to what they say they feel.
Platt’s colleague Jane Jones says that’s been exciting for the artists as well. “One of the great things about the celebration of the narrative voice and putting it out loud,” she says, “is that you have the opportunity to hear a character’s inner monologue.”
In addition to a regular performance season, Book-It artists work in schools around the state, and now the company’s education department has developed a curriculum that’s being tested in one local public school.
Both women laugh when they consider their 25-year working partnership. Many of Seattle’s nonprofit theaters succumbed to the aftermath of the 2008 recession. Mid-sized theaters like The Empty Space closed down; larger companies like ACT and Intiman were forced to cut staff, shorten artistic seasons and cinch their belts for the long run.
Meanwhile, Book-It’s budget has grown, and although the company shares a small office suite in the Seattle Center Armory, its relatively healthy financially.
That’s not something Jane Jones takes lightly.
“Our heads are made of wood,” she laughs. “We tap them daily.”
But Jones confesses that sometimes she wakes up at night, worried about how they’ll keep their mid-sized theater afloat. “Sometimes I just have to believe. It’s like this great faith that comes through.”
Book-It Repertory Theatre celebrates its 25th season this year by revisiting some of the company’s best-loved productions. Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” will open Friday, November 28, at the Center Theater in the Seattle Center Armory.