UC Irvine theater professor’s new production tells a story through physical movement

Annie Loui, a UCI theater professor, is adapting the book "She" for a physical theater production, which uses dialogue and physical movement to tell a story.
Annie Loui, a UCI theater professor, is adapting the book “She” for a physical theater production, which uses dialogue and physical movement to tell a story.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The runaway wanders the cold streets of Los Angeles grasping for meaning in the uncompromising urban sprawl.

Fleeing a life of evangelical conformity, the girl hopes to find something valuable hidden within the city’s outer husk.

The perennial theme of the directionless child’s search for identity is told in the book “She” by author and UC Irvine English professor Michelle Latiolais.

The 2016 book has been successful, receiving rave reviews from various outlets, and the tale will unfold in a new medium Jan. 25 through 28 with a free theater production adapted by fellow UCI professor Annie Loui.

The production will showcase an atypical kind of performance art called physical theater, which is characterized by a combination of traditional theater with spoken dialogue and a reliance on physical movement to tell a story.

“People act as the architecture, scenery, forces of nature, all of those things,” Loui said.

Loui’s organization, Counter-Balance Theater, will be heading the production. The group, officially formed in 2012, adapts works of great literature into physical theater.

Counter-Balance has performed renditions of the “The Iliad,” “Odyssey” and “Jane Eyre,” among others. For each of these, Loui, 63, of Silverado reads and analyzes the book, identifying the essential elements of the narrative, which she uses to outline the imagery and music to be used in the performance.

Then comes the difficult part.

Loui condenses the dialogue to about 35 pages, which can be quite a feat considering brevity isn’t in the DNA of the epic tales she usually adapts.

Within physical theater, any object in the story can be “physicalized,” as Loui said. For Homer’s works, performers can be seen acting as waves or sinking boats.

Though Counter-Balance is an independent nonprofit, Loui uses students in the initial stages of developing a production. Students will be featured in the upcoming performances.

Adapting “She” is a departure from those classic works of literature, but the book touches on similarly deep, resonant themes like loss and a search for identity.

The story focuses on an unnamed teenager who left her small rural town on a bus for Los Angeles. While searching for a job and a new home, she becomes acquainted with the varying players in the stratified urban environment, from the homeless to an art gallery owner.

Through her encounters with these Angelenos, the girl comes to explore the culture of the city and its promises and dangers.

Loui said the book had a profound effect on her after Latiolais gave it to her to read last year.

“I read it and said ‘I can’t forget this,’ ” Loui said. “It feels totally cinematic when I read it and it’s about a Los Angeles that I understand. From the perspective of this very naïve person, it is very interesting watching Los Angeles unfold before her eyes.”

If You Go

What: UC Irvine professor Annie Loui’s theater adaptation of the renowned book “She” by UC Irvine professor Michelle Latiolais.

Where: Experimental Media Performance Lab at UC Irvine at Contemporary Arts Center, Claire Trevor School of the Arts, 4004 Mesa Drive, Irvine

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 25 through 27 with additional matinees at 2 p.m. Jan. 27 and 28

For more information or to register for the free event, visit