The following is a near-total summary of Saturday morning’s conversation between John Collins, artistic director for Elevator Repair Service, the theatre company staging Gatz, and Mark Russell, artistic director for this year’s T:BA festival.
Elevator Repair Service began with John Collins and his friend James Hannaham in 1991, when the two were rehashing an old joke after moving to New York City after college. When Collins was nine, he took a career placement test which listed repairing elevators as one of his top job opportunities based on his personality and interests. Their joke was that he would use this name for any theatre company he founded in NYC, and it became the name associated with the group after their first performances.
Influenced by the Wooster Group, the famous experimental theatre company, ERS builds plays from scratch and utilizes multimedia in ensemble pieces. Initially, Collins worked with friends to do little shows, using an aesthetic based on what was at hand: here are the people and material we have in the space we can get. Earlier works were based on research, beginning with dramaturgy and ending in a play. Starting with material in which they were interested, they asked how can it become appealing on stage? Their 1993 piece about Andy Kaufman, “Language Instruction: Love Family vs. Andy Kaufman”, began this way.
Usually it takes the company 18 months to prepare a show, not 8 years, as it did Gatz. They stage performances through the process of creating plays, using them as drafts for further revision based on audience feedback. Otherwise, they can run into the problem of internalizing the show too much and including too many in-jokes that are funny for actors but not audiences, Collins said. ERS is an informal, porous theatre company. Gatz includes about 4-5 people who’ve worked with ERS for over a decade, several people who’ve been in ERS shows before, and some people who are new.
In 1999, ERS began discussing how to stage F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a book Collins never read in high school. We are not playwrights, Collins said, so we did not want to distill dialogue or insert stage directions. They were intrigued by the question, how do you put a novel on stage, the novel as a whole into a theatrical experience? Initially, they were going to say their production was “inspired by” The Great Gatsby, but as they read it over again, they wanted to preserve the novel itself as a form. Collins was taken with the contemporary language, the streamlined, efficient yet poetic writing, and he couldn’t find a single word that felt unnecessary. An editing venture felt like asserting an authority we didn’t have, he said. Besides, the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, is a convenient solution to the problem of how to read the novel. Interested in upsetting expectations of what theatre and adaptation are, they set to work.
Plans to begin production in earnest were soon derailed, however, by the 2000 TV movie version, starring Mira Sorvino. The Fitzgerald estate would not re-license the text for four years. In 2003, ERS began work anew, and began practicing regardless of the estate’s permission. Collins, actor Scott Shepherd (who plays the narrator), and actor James Urbaniak (who is not in the production) began rehearsals in the intern office at the Wooster Group’s theatre. This helped the creators decide to set the play in an office, with a man who begins reading the book, which is about a man overcoming class and re-imagining himself, moving from rural poverty to urban wealth. This mundane, white-collar office is a good background for the novel, Collins said. Other productions, such as the 1974 Robert Redford movie, are all about the glitz and period costumes, which make them less interesting. Once that falls away, you see the core of the novel. Similarly, ERS presents an ambiguous office space so that the novel’s center, a young man running away from his situation in life and reinventing himself, is emphasized.
The play is titled Gatz because that is Jay Gatsby’s real last name: James Gatz. It is, therefore, the core of the character. Also, ERS did not want to call it The Great Gatsby because it is not by Fitzgerald; rather, it is a theatrical production that includes the novel but that is really a work by Elevator Repair Service. It is also partly inspired by their play about Andy Kaufman, who read The Great Gatsby in a smoking jacket with an upper class accent in comedy clubs. Often he would be booed off stage or the club would empty out. Kaufman asked himself, what’s the most ridiculous thing you could do in that setting? ERS wanted to do something similarly crazy but make it work as theatre, to create gratification for audiences.
The Portland run is the 13th venue in which ERS has performed Gatz. [They have not been able to produce it legally in New York, their home city, due to licensing restrictions by the Fitzgerald estate, which hopes a more traditional adaptation, already written and performed elsewhere, will open on Broadway]. They’ve been performing about three shows in a row, but Collins says they could do four [the play lasts 6.5 hours, including two 15 minute breaks, plus a 1.5 hour intermission (enough time for a sit-down dinner)—8 hours total]. It’s hard on Shepherd, who is on stage performing the entire time (while other actors can rest for hours during the production). However, Collins notes that the actors are wired after the show, and that audiences experience time in a new way, having entered the novel’s internal clock.
Unlike “duration theatre,” where viewers are expected to come and go as the play rolls on for many hours (such as in theatre group Forced Entertainment’s productions), ERS wanted a coherent narrative, where the piece works because it is as long as it takes to read the novel. Gatz is not designed to punish audiences, Collins said. Besides, audiences feel a sense of accomplishment when the play concludes. We asked ourselves, Collins said, what’s too long or indulgent when creating this show? By being committed to the novel, ERS could bypass this question and use a different set of tools to keep audiences entertained.
The final chapter of the book, chapter nine, was the most difficult to stage. It’s why it’s a novel, not a play, Collins said. By then, the pace is already established and the audience is there to get the entire novel. Chapter nine is the most beautiful language in the book, he said, so they staged it mostly with one actor facing the audience intimately, no longer reading the book but reciting from memory. [Shepherd has memorized the novel and also knows all of Hamlet by heart. At ERS, they lovingly call him “the freak.”] Shepherd begins like us, reading the book rather dryly, though by the end of the play, the audience is most identified with him. What began as a reading becomes an orchestrated duet between the office world and the world of the novel. The production shows that ERS is aware of the audience and their energy level, and so audiences usually stay until the end.
Currently, ERS is working on staging Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. What’s more audacious after Gatz than doing another novel, Collins asked. A novel guarantees new ideas and a breathtaking scope, although there are already several staging difficulties (such a narrator, Benjy, who never talks) alongside the compelling text. We want to go where it’s most fearful, Collins said, adding that this is what keeps you honest. They already have the rights to the book, and the length will be more traditional; rather than read the whole work, they want to give an impression of the novel through performance. ERS also wants to work on Faulkner because they are intrigued by the challenge of translation, and because many ERS members are Southerners.
Posted by Dusty Hoesly