Cedering Fox knows good actors, and isn’t afraid to ask a favor. Her query is simple, and the actors almost always say yes.
It’s not like she wants them to be part of a hot new cable drama or a comedy Web series gone viral. Instead, she’s asking them to perform the decidedly pre-21st century task of reading stories out loud, from actual books.
The vivacious founder of WordTheatre, which features popular actors reading great works of contemporary short fiction, has a Rolodex worthy of a Hollywood agent and a book collection that would quicken the pulse of any bibliophile. What’s more: The actors work for free. Fox says she appreciates that impulse.
“WordTheatre brings people together to share stories of what it is to be human,” Fox says. “People say that when they leave a WordTheatre performance they feel more compassion for the people they pass on the street.”
On Sunday Fox will stage a WordTheatre performance featuring the stories of the celebrated and prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates in West Hollywood. The cast includes Bill Pullman (“Independence Day”), Philip Baker Hall (“Magnolia”), Gethin Anthony (“Game of Thrones”), Maggie Siff (“Sons of Anarchy”), Chris Bauer (“True Blood”), and Danielle Panabaker (“Necessary Roughness”).
Fox founded WordTheatre in 2003, and turned it into a nonprofit in 2007. James Franco serves on the WordTheatre board; and Tobias Wolff, T.C. Boyle and Pullman pinch-hit on the honorary board. Actors including Julianna Margulies, Jeff Goldblum, Ben Foster, Minnie Driver and Angela Bassett have performed stories over the years by such acclaimed authors as Raymond Carver, Ian Frazier, Susan Orlean and James Salter.
“Prose fiction is neutral in effect — but the spoken word is fraught with meaning,” Oates wrote in an email, a few days before the performance, which she will attend. (She plans to read a short excerpt from her memoir). “I’ve written plays and it’s always wonderfully rewarding to discover how actors will interpret roles and interact with one another.”
Oates says she has also had wonderful experiences with Symphony Space in New York City, which does a similar thing for the East Coast. WordTheatre also has a U.K. branch, which is run by a woman named Kirsty Peart, who helped put together a WordTheatre writer’s retreat on her lush English estate.
Novelist Richard Bausch says that Fox’s love of words along with her extensive acting and directing experience (she is an accomplished voice-over actor and was the announcer for this year’s Academy Awards) sets WordTheatre apart from other types of dramatic readings.
“She did three of my stories, and it’s the most amazing thing, the feeling is always, ‘My God, that’s a better story than I thought it was,’” he says. “She did another performance featuring Tobias Wolff’s work, and during the show Toby turned around to look at me and there were big tears in his eyes and I wanted to say, ‘I know, that’s how it feels.’”
In advance of Sunday’s show, Fox hosted a gathering of the participating actors in the colorful Studio City home of her boyfriend, Brian Loucks, a senior music agent at Creative Artists Agency. Art adorns every wall; musical instruments, books and magazines spill off of multiple shelves.
In the age of the Internet, with attention spans noticeably dwindling, taking time out for words is more important than ever, says Pullman.
“I’m chronically behind with my reading, I can’t get around to reading short stories and novels,” he says. “I’m addicted to periodicals — the New Yorker is one — but I don’t even read the short stories in that.”
“And those are really great stories,” pipes in Baker Hall, who has been performing for Fox for nearly a decade. “It’s a great cultural service that Cedering performs doing this, and luckily she has a great trove of actors.”
Siff says that performing fiction is almost musical in nature with Fox serving as the conductor. Panabaker agrees with the sentiment, adding, “punctuation is very important, I’ve learned.”
“She has such a pure passion for what she does,” says Siff. “She also knows how to match a voice with a story.”
“She surprised me with the material she picked for me,” adds Anthony, wrapping his arms around Fox’s waist as she stands next to him at the table. “It’s exciting to have someone hear you in a different way.”
Fox, her long brown hair setting off the thick black frames of her glasses, gives him a maternal squeeze and smiles.
“I think everybody feels like a great actor after they do these shows,” she says.
Fox inherited her passion for literature from her mother, the award-winning Swedish poet and author Siv Cedering, who died in 2007.
“This is only a third of my book collection,” says Fox, standing in a hallway full of books on the second floor of Loucks’ house and picking up a small, yellowing paperback. It’s an original printing of the poem “Howl,” signed in Allen Ginsberg’s childish hand to Siv. “I said, ‘Mom, you used to have a picture of him in your study,’ and she said, ‘Yes, it’s of him sleeping and I took it.’”
Stories like that fostered Fox’s unshakable love of language.
“I think of words as very active, dynamic, living creatures,” she says. “They have a lot of power and meaning, and these great writers have the ability to put the human experience into words.”