Making a stand for soap

Heather Woodbury's Dickensian narratives attract the kind of devoted audiences normally reserved for soap operas.
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Given the number of times that both the novel and the theatre have been pronounced dead in recent times, an attempt to combine the two sounds like either artistic suicide or a near-death experience. But it seems to have done the trick for Heather Woodbury, whose "performance novel" The Heather Woodbury Report, or What Ever, has achieved near-legendary status across the USA. Devoted fans have written academic treatises on her Mode of Character Representation, while feverish critics have called the show "a creative tour de force and a stunning read on the American psyche", crediting Woodbury with "the stamina of an ox and the grace of a gazelle", calling her a "postmodern Scheherazade" and comparing her to Armistead Maupin, Joyce and (most frequently) Dickens.

Certainly What Ever is Dickensian in scale. Over 10 hours, spread across four evenings, the audience meets a cast of more than 100 people from all classes and conditions, all played by Woodbury: corporate CEO to crack- addled whore, teenager to octogenarian, in a rambling, panoramic narrative of modern American life. There is 16-year-old rave child Ezekiel Christian Frye, aka Skeeter, whose attempt to hitch from Oregon to New York is the core of the story. There is Skeeter's beloved, Clove, who is haunted by Cobain the Friendly Ghost; Skeeter's mother, Linda, a witch of the Wicca persuasion; Linda's sister, Jeanette, a former hooker who has tired of "sucking America's corporate dick" and become a crystal healer; Jeanette's lover Paul Folsom, a successful businessman who has been seized by doubts; Paul's wife, Polly, who lives for her children and her kitchen garbage disposal unit... the list goes on and on.

There is something Dickensian, too, in the sort of reactions Woodbury elicits from her audience. Crowds once gathered on the docks in New York to greet the mail-boat bringing the latest instalment of The Old Curiosity Shop, frantic to discover what was to become of Little Nell. Woodbury's fans developed a similar sympathetic attachment to her characters. During the original run of What Ever, when Woodbury was composing the story week by week, she would be approached by followers lobbying for their favourites: they would plead with her not to let anything bad happen to Skeeter, say, or the acid-tongued Violet, an 85-year-old East Coast patrician with a bohemian edge, who mixes memories of the Jazz Age with practical philosophy ("A conversation without profanity is like soup without salt").

Woodbury doesn't admit to any direct influence from Dickens (though she does say that, growing up in the Bay area of San Francisco, she read a lot of 19th-century fiction). If What Ever resembles his great serial novels, it is because it was composed in similar fashion, week by week over a period of months, and the narrative is responding to similar practical demands. The story started out in answer to a challenge from Woodbury's friend and collaborator Dudley Saunders (it's a measure of the tolerance of American society that a name like Heather or Dudley is no bar to practising avant-garde art). Woodbury had been active in the New York performance art scene for about 10 years, writing her own material - mostly at the very last minute, so that it was almost improvisation. Saunders suggested that she should try to write and perform a new show every week for a year (in practice, this was reduced to nine months: the same as a pregnancy).

Woodbury started out in September 1994, in the back of a bar on the East Side of New York, with no intention of creating a coherent narrative: "For all I knew, I would completely have dispensed with writing and just have started smearing chocolate on myself and killing chickens, I dunno." To begin with, she had a few "inklings" of characters she might use; she soon found that they developed their own stories and individual eccentricities, and a narrative began to evolve "organically". The plot progressed in something approximating real time. Woodbury began drawing on current events - Skeeter's cross-country odyssey took three months largely because Woodbury began steering him into the path of different news stories.

What Ever appealed to the original audience in much the same way that a soap-opera appeals, through continuing involvement with developing characters - "living in it", in Woodbury's phrase. But after that initial run, which added up to 20 hours of narrative (40 weeks, half an hour a week), it has had success in the abridged version, so there must be more to it than that. Since it hasn't yet been performed on this side of the Atlantic, it's hard to know what it is like on stage. Woodbury compares her performing style to children playing pretend - when she is performing dialogue she jumps about from place to place to differentiate the characters.

Woodbury does have an audio-tape of the entire novel, though (made for radio but as yet unbroadcast - something the BBC might like to ponder); from this, what's apparent are her vocal agility, and the wit and verve of the language. Each character has his own vocabulary: a moderated corporate- speak for Paul Folsom, which disintegrates into inarticulacy when he attempts to discuss his personal feelings; dude eloquence for Skeeter ("Most appreciated" for "Thank you", "Most assuredly" for "Yes"; "We got slithery" for "We engaged in sexual intercourse"). Not all of it works. Some voices are strained, some characters are less plausible than others, but overall it arouses, well, let's turn to Dickens again: Great Expectationsn

`What Ever' is performed Tues to Fri, Purcell Room, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)