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Book dramatist brings literature to life

What the heck is a “book dramatist?” Read on.

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2004-08-30


Barbara Rinella’s biography is clear enough. It says she’s a book dramatist whose popular one-woman shows have earned her rave reviews.

Okay. Sounds good. But when I get the opportunity to interview Rinella about her upcoming performance in Fort Wayne, my first question isn’t hard to formulate, even for me: what the heck is a book dramatist, exactly?

“I take a book, read it, write my own script, I memorize it, and then I become the character, or characters,” explains Rinella.

Rinella has been doing this for over 20 years, and has amassed quite a following. She delivers a dynamic performance, portraying a wide range of historical greats, fictional characters, and public figures with humor and wit, everyone from John Adams and Amelia Earhart to Harry Potter. She tells the story in first person, adapting her own scripts from the source material.

A former high school English teacher who had left teaching to raise her family, Rinella fell into her unique career when she was asked to give a book talk at the Woman’s Athletic Club in Chicago. “I did it as an English teacher,” she says. “I talked about characters, plot development, etc.”

The problem is that students need to know about plot development, character development, and how to tell their similes from their metaphors. An adult has to know why they should pick up a particular book when — after working a full day, picking up the kids, shopping for groceries, changing on the car, preparing meals, cleaning the house — crashing out in front of a re-run of ER sounds like the easiest entertainment option.

“My late, great mother-in-law was there,” Rinella says. “She came up to me afterward and said ‘now my dear’ (and every time it was ‘now my dear’ I knew that this was going to be constructive criticism) ‘you’ve assumed everyone is just going to run out and read the book. They won’t. Why don’t you just tell the story? And pay attention to what you wear.’”

That began Rinella’s career as an academic entertainer and book dramatist. “The next program I gave, I decided to tell the story, and why not do it in first person? Become the character,” she says. “I had notes the second time I spoke. I hated the notes; they were a barrier between me and the audience. The third time, I memorized my story.”

Apparently, there’s quite a market for what she does. Rinella says she’s booked solid through 2006.

She’ll perform a program called “Celebrating Heroes” in Fort Wayne at a benefit for Erin’s House on September 14.

Rinella estimates her current repertoire at about 24 programs; she keeps a few audience favorites, but keeps her focus on the latest book releases. “I choose four books a year,” she says. “In order for me to do a program on a book, it has to be in hardcover. I’m trying to do the new, new thing. But because of the teacher in me, I also have my standards. (The book) has to be a work of merit.”

Rinella alternates between fiction and non-fiction, but says she really enjoys history. She recently played John Adams, and is now starting an adaptation of Alexander Hamilton from Ron Chernow’s biography. “John and Abigail Adams referred to Alex Hamilton as ‘that rat,’” she says. “Obviously, Aaron Burr felt the same way. Some of those historical figures are in my mind better than fiction.”

Adapting characters from fiction offers another set of challenges. “I did a program on Snow Falling On Cedars, “ she says. “It’s difficult for me to create the atmosphere of a novel as opposed to creating the story of an historical figure. With history, it’s pretty easy when you say ‘hello, I’m Barbara Bush. I was born in…’ as opposed to something like Snow Falling On Cedars, where the snow is a great symbol.”

Memorizing her scripts is another challenge. She relies on a “tiny bit” of a photographic memory, and though she says she’s never had training as an actress, she’s devised a few gimmicks to help get guide her through her scripts, the same sort of tools that actors use. “For instance, with Margaret Thatcher, at a certain point, the word EGGS comes up,” Rinella says. “That means she had eye trouble; Grenada; one of her ministers whose name begins with a ‘G,’; and then the strikes were happening. I had to cover those four points, and I knew they spelled EGGS.”

“Celebrating Heroes” is a little different from Rinella’s usual program. For this show, she’ll be doing several characters from different sources — Winston Churchill, Erma Bombeck, characters from J. Nozipo Maraire’s book Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter, and others. Rinella rotates the “cast” of “Celebrating Heroes” depending on her audience or the venue. She performed one version of the program at the recent opening of the World War II Memorial in Washington DC.

And what do the authors of these works think of her adaptations? Rinella says that though sometimes there’s a little trepidation, especially when she needs to change the sequence of the book (“there’s this look of ‘oh my God, what is she doing?’”) overall she’s been embraced by all the writers she’s met.

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