Walker Art Center

83° FFairVia Yahoo! Weather

Elevator Repair Service’s GATZ
Interview

By John Collins

Time, as the saying goes, is of the essence, especially when it comes to Elevator Repair Service’s theatrical production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. But unlike traditional adaptations of Gatsby, which pay painstaking attention to the historical authenticity of flapper dresses and Rolls Royces, their GATZ instead focuses on another aspect of time—how long it takes to read every word of Fitzgerald’s novel. Set in a shabby, contemporary office, GATZ begins when a desk-bound worker happens upon a copy of the book and starts reading; it finishes some six hours later. What happens in between—and what has kept audiences glued to their seats the entire time—is the topic of a recent discussion between Walker performing arts curator Philip Bither, GATZ director John Collins, and lead actor Scott Shepherd. In keeping with the “radical commitment” of speaking every word of this classic novel, the closing night of GATZ falls on the 110th anniversary of the St. Paul–raised author’s birth.

PB:

The Great Gatsby is a novel that’s been reflected by many failed attempts in film and theater to adapt it. Is GATZ partially an effort to finally do it right?

SS:

Yes!

JC:

Of course we wouldn’t be doing this to try and do it wrong. In that sense, absolutely we intend to do it right. We go into these things with curiosity more than we go into them with an agenda. I don’t think we started on this project with the idea that, yes, this is absolutely the only way to do it—or even the idea that it was possible to do it this way. We went into our rehearsals and our working process to find that out, and I think what we found out is, yes, it is possible to do it that way, and I think we found a great way to do it.

SS:

We certainly didn’t think of ourselves as in competition with the movie versions, or that we were even approaching the same problem. “How do we stage the story of The Great Gatsby?” wasn’t exactly what we started with.

PB:

There’s a sort of in-your-face kind of throwing down the gauntlet to the notion of adaptation. I wondered if that was conscious or not. Obviously it’s an art—there are awards given to the best literary adaptation—but in some ways you’re rejecting the whole notion of adaptation.

JC:

Yeah, but I think our ideas about this are confined to this book, and even to us approaching this book. We had a hard time—we hit a point where we said, “Yes, we could cut ‘he said’ from right there, or we could represent this description rather than reading it,” but it was a dilemma for us as to where you draw the line at those things.

SS:

Also what’s specific about The Great Gatsby is that a lot of its power derives from what Fitzgerald chooses to leave out or put in, and when adaptations are made, they usually fill in those blanks, or try to.

JC:

Or they make their own decisions about what to leave out. In this case, so much of Fitzgerald’s art is in two things: what, as Scott says, he chooses artfully to leave out or leave in, and also how the entire thing is told from this one character’s perspective. It just has to do with what that character’s experience is. The combination of those two things make the theater that is inherent in the book so complete, because it’s as much how a certain person relates his experience as it is about the things he’s describing. So as soon as you start to adapt, as soon as you take Nick’s story away from him and show it, it’s already a completely different story. It’s no longer the story of Nick’s very particular perspective and the beautiful and complete way that Fitzgerald represents that in the writing.

SS:

I think the most glaring thing about that Robert Redford movie, for example, is all those scenes between Redford and Mia Farrow where they try to depict the relationship that Nick never saw. Whenever you have those scenes where Nick wasn’t present, it really sticks out like a sore thumb.

PB:

Scott, after seeing GATZ, your Nick is just in my head. I can’t quite place anybody else there. You seem to have a great love of this character, and I’m wondering what you responded to in him, and also maybe what you didn’t respond to when you started—what you might have had a hard time with.

SS:

I love that position; the semi-detached observer is great: involved in the action, but on the margins of it.

JC:

And you get to start the piece by being a semi-detached observer of Nick, yourself, and then you become the semi-detached observer of the story of The Great Gatsby.

SS:

Right. The whole thing starts a bit like the hapless employee whose computer won’t work, and he finds this book. It’s not clear whether he knows it’s there or not when he finds it. Then it all begins to happen to him. And that reflects the way things happen to Nick in the book, too: he sort of accidentally ends up in this community of crazy people.

PB:

Sometimes there’s nothing duller than someone looking down at a page. How did you deal with the need to be reading on stage? That has a downward focus, into the page, but you have hundreds of people out there you need to keep engaged.

SS:

Well, it is a tremendous and continuing challenge. I’m still figuring it out. The setup helps because everyone there knows they’re in for a marathon; they’re in for some sort of special experience, so their patience is a little longer than it would be in a normal theater situation.

JC:

I think we did a few things with the production, too. It doesn’t all focus down onto that single point of the book right away. There’s an animated setting around it that at first—and we’re very deliberate about it—is independent of that reading.

SS:

The office world, you mean.

JC:

Right. You’re not just asked to zone in or zone out on the book. You’re watching the way it interacts with the world, with the way it insinuates itself into a world that doesn’t seem to want it at first, but then becomes all about it.

SS:

We do refer to that part as the Scary Section. The part where the audience gets frightened for a while.

PB:

Scott, are you reading much or do you go from memory?

SS:

Constantly. I get in trouble in rehearsal for not looking at the book continuously.

JC:

Just for fun sometimes, I’ll let Scott do a scene without the book. And the joke is, normally in rehearsal you say, “OK, you can be on-book, but you’ve got to be off-book for the performances.” But we give Scott the opposite note: you can be off-book now, but you’ve got to be reading when the performances come.

SS:

I didn’t deliberately try to memorize it; it just kind of happens when you read a book 10,000 times!

PB:

There’s also got to be a unique pressure for an actor: you’re literally onstage for 5 1/2 of the six hours or maybe more. That’s a lot of responsibility to sustain energy and intensity for an audience that’s focused on you. How exhausting is that?

SS:

It’s tiring. But I love it. I feel like David Blaine inside his little ice cube. You know, when he goes into the bubble of water for five days.

PB:

It must feel comparable to the Iron Man or something.

SS:

That’s also what’s great about it: you feel like John Henry at the end of the tunnel.

PB:

That’s an interesting reference. In a culture that runs at such a fast speed and when people are looking at their watches 37 minutes into performances wondering how quickly they can get to their dinner arrangements, there’s kind of an audacity around saying to people, “We don’t want you to come for 70 minutes; we want you to come for 6 1/2 , 7 hours.” Was that intentional?

JC:

We were very nervous about that. One of the things we have going for us is we’re not asking audiences to come and sit through a 6 1/2-hour experimental theater show. That’s not the proposal. The proposal is they come and listen to this entire, great, and very short novel. And so there’s a kind of contract there from the beginning, where they say to us, “OK, we’ll sit through this whole thing,” and we say, “OK, you’re not just in our hands; you are entirely in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s hands as well. The reason it’s going to take so long is because we’re not messing with his work. We’re going to give you his work unabridged, and it’s not just a time-tested work, it’s the Great American Novel.” What an audience is getting from us isn’t indulgence, but commitment. I think that’s what’s exciting to an audience. Something can feel long if it’s 30 minutes and it starts feeling indulgent after 5. That can be interminable, and we’ve all experienced that.

SS:

I feel more of a collusion with the audience in this show than any other show I can think of. Because of the book. We’re all going to go into this book together. Something makes me feel like I’m on their side, because I’m going on the same ride they are, rather than challenging them to like me, or whatever.

JC:

Or understand what we’re doing. We get such a great break from some of the normal pitfalls of doing experimental work. We’re experimenting with a kind of radical commitment, but also generosity, in a way. That’s a big part of it: the point of not adapting is to leave a lot of what Fitzgerald writes about to the imagination of the audience.

PB:

Do you think, also, that there’s something about the commitment on the part of the audience to give that chunk of their life to you? There is something about creating a punctuation for audiences that this is not just another performance. This is an event they’ll long remember, probably forever, not just because of the power of the performance, but also because they’ve carved out a lot of time. You’ve become part of their family for a large part of a big day.

JC:

Six hours is a fourth of a day. When I think about sometimes, I think, gosh, you get an awful lot of bang for your buck! You get this entire novel, this marathon theatrical experience—it is a special event, an experience, for anyone who gets through—in just six hours.

PB:

I wanted to ask you about your setting for the novel. People tend to connect the Jazz Age to glittery extravagance and the upper classes of that time, so your placement of the characters in this run-down, dumpy old office where everyone seems to be essentially lower middle class or striving to make a buck is a direct contradiction to what people expect.

JC:

Setting aside that it was a very intuitive choice on our part, I think it’s important that it has a kind of neutrality, that it isn’t asserting itself ahead of what’s being described, but is a great projection screen for it. We’ve talked about the “bookness” of the book, and I think one of the aspects of the book’s “bookness” is that you’re just having your imagination fed by it. So a dirty, messy office, something mundane and pedestrian like that, is a better way to watch people’s imaginations taking control of them. Because otherwise you’re just watching the director’s and the set designer’s imaginations. It’s just their vision of it; it’s no longer yours.

SS:

It also peels away a layer, because if you haven’t read the book since high school, then what overwhelms your memory of it is the Roaring Twenties setting. To be able watch without that veneer gives you a better view of the human story underneath.

JC:

And also the writing. F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t invent the Jazz Age or its whole aesthetic. It was just a backdrop. He wasn’t looking back like someone might today with a nostalgia for that period; it’s just what was going on. But that’s how the book gets regarded too often these days: “Oh, it’s the definitive story of the Jazz Age.” That’s not the power of the book. The power of the book is its literary power. You get better access to that without decorating it too much—or without decorating it at all, for that matter—with all the trappings of that period.

PB:

And what about the characters within this office? They suddenly become the characters in The Great Gatsby, and the audience is left to wonder: Is this really going on in the office? Is it in Nick’s head? Is there something about the ordinariness of the setting that allows for the transformation of the space for these characters?

JC:

I think what we’re doing with this setting and these characters parallels what happens in the book—and it’s also the reason why I like the title GATZ. It’s the character’s real name, and it’s a name connected to his mundane, lower middle-class background. It’s the truth of who that character is—and not just him. I think in the minds of the people in the novel, the East is a place where all this decadence and extravagance happens—New York and Long Island. In the end, Nick says, “We’re all Westerners. We’re not these people.” These characters are trying to be someone else, and in the end it all falls away, and they’re left just seeing themselves as Westerners (as opposed to Easterners)—and as Midwesterners. And that was Fitzgerald’s own experience, not being glamorous New York City/Long Island rich people, but being simple folk, Midwesterners. A parallel thing happens to our characters. You see Jim appear in a pink suit at one point, and it seems ridiculous against the background of that office. But for Gatsby, you could think of that as being against a background of who he actually is. I see it as a completely appropriate observation rooted in a truth we found in the novel.

PB:

What about those jarring sections of racism, the attitudes of the ‘20s that jump out of the book and slap you in the face? What’s your sense of where that comes from in Fitzgerald? Or how does it feel in the midst of what to me sounds like very contemporary attitudes?

JC:

Part of the project of delivering a novel of a certain period and status is that you have to experience it in its entirety, because you have to experience the way that it transcends those things. If we were to go in and try to clean that stuff up or try to avoid it somehow, I think we’d be saying, at everyone’s expense, “Well, this thing is flawed, but we can fix it.” Its flaws have to be part of its greatness.

SS:

We also couldn’t clean it up. It’d be a huge violation of the social contract we’ve set up for the whole show. But I think that’s very interesting, that thing. The two things I can think of are: “The negroes who roll the yolks of their eyeballs” from the limousine next to Gatsby’s car—

PB:

And Gatsby, in that scene, saying, “Isn’t it amazing” that even they can enjoy the fruits of—“

SS:

That’s Nick’s thought. He says, “Wow, anything can happen in New York.”

JC:

“Black people can have a white chauffeur! This place must be the land of possibility!”

SS:

You know, it’s not just ignorance, because in the same book you’ve got Tom Buchanan talking about that racist book at the beginning. So it’s not like Fitzgerald is insensitive to that.

PB:

That’s true. In fact he makes Tom look like a complete buffoon by having these attitudes.

JC:

Exactly. At a couple of critical points, where Tom is considered anyway—when he blows up in Chapter 7, he thinks that “things have gone so insane with people’s morals that they might one day accept intermarriage between black and white!” And those things are absolutely clearly identified with Tom’s ignorance.

SS:

It shouldn’t surprise us that it’d be a remarkable thing in 1922 to see a limousine with black passengers and a white driver. It’d at least be remarkable. It’s really just the yolks where I get uncomfortable—the “yolks of the eyeballs.” And they’re also described as “two bucks” and a girl. And Wolfsheim is introduced as a Jew and every description of him includes his nose. His nose takes over his whole presence. I recently saw a picture of Arnold Rothstein, who Wolfsheim is supposed to be based on, and his nose wasn’t that big.

PB:

In an article recently, John, you spoke about the awkwardness of live performance and how it’s an inherently broken endeavor, and that by taking this book and doing it full, you “blow away” theater with the strength of the literary. Can you comment on the place of theater in our times? Many people of our generations and younger generations consider it a completely irrelevant activity, to go sit in a chair and watch a piece of theater. Are you consciously trying to keep the form relevant, and does it have a different kind of relationship—ERS’ work—than perhaps more straight-up, kitchen-sink dramas?

JC:

What theater is is experience, and your experience in the world is always an awkward, imperfect and, through all of that, a beautiful and unique thing to represent in art. I think the line between literature and theater gets blurred too much, and that theater gets categorized as a literary art form where the playwright is the primary artist, as opposed to the theatermakers. I think that’s something I’ve always reacted against as a theatermaker, because I think theater has so much to say, has so much a language of its own, independent of literature—independent of words. I think it’s a language of real-time experience.

PB:

It’s interesting that you say that since this work has unadulterated literature at its center.

JC:

But we’re putting it forward as experience. For me, I’ve found—and ERS, in a way, we’ve collectively found—the best way for us to bring literature to our theatrical language is to bring it in wholly and make it an experience, as opposed to repeating it as literature, as a lesser literary achievement, or a condensation or an imitation or an impression of a work of literature. Make it something that is entirely an experience and something that is also complete and whole in it’s literaryness.

PB:

Do you find that this approach of emphasizing more of the performative aspects of theater, the aspects outside of the script, really does allow a way in these days for people new to the theater?

JC:

I think any medium survives through a constant renewal of a search for its own identity. I know before saying it that this is very naïve art history and theory, but I always think about the advent of photography and its effect on painting. You have a new medium that is so much better at photographic representation, and it began to open up more possibilities in painting. Painting had to understand more of what its essence was and that made painters experiment with what only paint could show you. And you end up with great paintings that could never be achieved in a photograph. It’s a narrow way of looking at it, but I think about theater, which at one point was the way of telling stories in real time with actors. Then along came the movies, which I think are infinitely better equipped to do that. But movies will never be able to create live in-person, real-time experiences between live audiences and live actors. So I feel that whatever we can do as theatermakers to try to find the vitality of theater in those unique properties, that’s how we keep it exciting. That’s how we keep people wanting to see it.

SS:

I also think that, if we’re talking about young people, they sort of specialize in detecting bullshit. For a while when you’re a teenager you get good at that and you carry that into your twenties. Theater that’s going to appeal to those guys has to deal with what’s really going on in the room, what the real experience in the room is. And when it fails to do that, it can turn them off.

PB:

Yeah, the pretense or the artifice is much harder to get over to people of a younger generation. Understandably, and I share it at times, there’s not much patience for the created world onstage that pretends it’s all real and happens in that way.

SS:

That’s the challenge, finding a way to drop the pretense without dropping anything else.

Elevator Repair Service’s GATZ

Photo: John Collins