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Zoetrope: All-Story

Bringing Literature to Life

The official blurb for Zoetrope: All-Story, the literary quarterly published by Francis Ford Coppola, says the magazine is "inspired by the Coppola heritage of independence and creativity." Toss in Coppola's enthusiasm for the pleasures of the palate and you've set the scene for a typical literary evening at Café Niebaum-Coppola, the director's three-year-old wine bar and Italian café in North Beach.

Zoetrope: All-Story left New York, where it was founded in 1997, for San Francisco last March, joining the café and Coppola's film production company, American Zoetrope, in the landmark Sentinel Building at 916 Kearny Street. The move not only afforded Coppola one-stop access to three of his pet projects, but also added a one-of-a-kind venue to San Francisco's spoken-word scene, thanks to the symbiotic relationship between the café and the quarterly. The café provides the magazine with a permanent place to showcase the talents of its award-winning contributors; the readings, in turn, attract new customers to the café.

And they're showing up in droves. The complimentary wine that's served at each reading (from the Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery in Napa) no doubt helps, as do the cooking lessons occasionally offered afterward by the restaurant's lively chef. But ultimately, it's the excellent writing that's packing 'em in. In its short lifetime, Zoetrope: All-Story has attracted a roster of contributers that includes Cynthia Ozick, T. Corraghessan Boyle, Rick Moody, David Mamet and Dale Peck. Last year, the young publication -- which is printed on newsprint and folded in half like a tabloid -- won a National Magazine Award for Fiction, beating out venerable heavy-hitters like the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly. This year, it was honored as a finalist.

At the moment, the café readings fall under three categories: poetry, fiction read by authors and fiction read by actors. All happen more or less monthly, and all are overseen by Zoetrope's three-person staff, headed by editor-in-chief Tamara Straus. "The events are, for us, some of the most fun things we do, because it's a way to interact with our community of readers," says Straus, who took over from founding editor Adrienne Brodeur not long after the magazine's headquarters switched coasts. "It's also a way for the magazine to create more of a home for itself in San Francisco."

The actor readings, called "Zoetrope: Live Story," are the most ambitious of the three events. They're brought to life on the first Tuesday of each month by casting director Jessica Heidt, who works with the Magic Theater, and director Lisa Steindler, artistic director of the Encore Theater Company. Local actors are recruited for each reading. In June, Pinckney Benedict's "Zog-19: A Scientific Romance" was read by Kenn Watt, a prominent Bay Area actor and director; on July 2, Live Story will feature "Emergency," from Denis Johnson's acclaimed collection, Jesus' Son.

"The idea is that an actor can bring to a story the kind of drama that sometimes the writer himself or herself can't," says Straus. "An actor can really summon up the voice of the narrator; a lot of the time, first-person narratives are chosen because they're easier to act out in front of an audience."

While the average literary reading might hit a couple of high notes, a Zoetrope reading amounts to this: a talented actor reads an award-winning story while very good wine and food are served in a café of exceptional charm. If there's a drawback, it's that the popularity of the readings leaves even standing room at a premium, and the atmosphere can get a bit close in a room that's shaped to sit on the wedge formed by the union of Kearny and Columbus.

It's a testament to the inviting environment that Coppola has created that people are not only undeterred by the tight space, but linger to soak up the atmosphere.

"What we really like is that after the readings, people hang around and they order pizza and they meet new people," says Straus. "Its very social."

Zoetrope: Live Story
Tuesday, July 2, 2002 @ 6:30 pm
Café Niebaum-Coppola, 916 Kearny at Columbus, SF
[email protected] or 415.788.7500 ext. 340