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Bloody Good Collaboration

Irene Ziegler marries art forms with "Virginia Arts and Letters Live.

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Irene Ziegler is still recovering from running through a graveyard, hanging drenched in blood from a ceiling fan and performing an exorcism — all for the six-part Discovery Channel series, "A Haunting."

This piggybacks on her just-slightly-less-morbid performance as a funeral director in the upcoming film "Premonition" with Sandra Bullock.

Although "The Haunting" is her first lead role in a cable series, actress Ziegler says that her performances are usually more about art and less about product, especially those she's created herself.

Perhaps her most dynamic creation, "Virginia Arts & Letters Live" (VALL) features the talents of writers, actors and musicians from Virginia. The actors give dramatic readings of the writers' works, which ideally bring something new to the pieces — new energy to a story that previously may have been read aloud only by the author, and in a much smaller space.

Ziegler had always admired the formats of similar shows, such as New York's "Selected Shorts" and "Texas Bound" out of Dallas. In 2004 she approached Bruce Miller, artistic director of Theatre IV at Barksdale, about staging the show in October of that year, in conjunction with the James River Writers Festival. She also went to NPR about airing it Thanksgiving Day. Both parties embraced the idea.

"I liked the idea of marrying — in a statewide, patriotic way — short stories and acting. It's the perfect marriage of my two passions," says Ziegler, who is thrilled with the way the show, moving into its fourth season, has progressed.

When considering the pairing of story and storyteller, Ziegler chooses actors she knows and spends a lot of time searching for stories that are varied in tone, theme and point of view. "Some stories lend themselves to performance better than others," she says. "Navel-gazing doesn't work. Keeping an audience's attention is different from keeping a reader's attention."

Ziegler hires working actors who often can't fly in until the night before the show, which, she says, heightens the effect. "Everyone's so scared, they're paying attention. No one is in a casual state of mind."

This year VALL moves from October to the less-crowded March season. Last year the show moved from the Barksdale Theatre to the Empire — the oldest operating performance theater in Virginia — in order to seat a larger audience. But the tradition has remained to reach listeners on Thanksgiving Day via radio station WCVE.

And in support of community literacy, VALL has partnered with the READ Center, which sends its students and sponsors to the performances and gives them the stories on hard copy and CD to complement the curriculum.

Ziegler met this year's host, Barry Corbin, in November when she played his wife in the film "Lake City," slated for release in the fall. Corbin, who's been in dozens of feature films and television series, including "Urban Cowboy" and "Northern Exposure," will read "Tastes Like Chicken" by R.T. Smith, a professor of English at Washington & Lee University and editor of the literary quarterly Shenandoah.

"Miss Morris" by Janet Moss, first-place winner of Style Weekly's 2006 Fiction Contest, will be read by Erin Thomas; "What Is Visible" by Kimberly Elkins, appearing in "Best New American Voices 2004," will be read by Jennifer Massey; and "Imaginary Birds" by Greg Bottoms, an English professor at the University of Vermont, will be read by Justin Dray.

Originally from DeLand, Florida, but a Richmonder since 1987, Ziegler sees "Virginia Arts and Letters Live" as her legacy to her new hometown. "It would be thrilling to me if this continues," she says, "and it certainly will as long as I have the energy. I hope it lives long after me." S

"Virginia Arts and Letters Live" will be held at the Empire Theatre Saturday, March 24, at 8 p.m., followed by a reception and book sale. Tickets are $25. Call 344-8040 or visit www.barksdalerichmond.org

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