You’d think that among people working in theater, two of the biggest control freaks would be an artistic director and a playwright. After all, the first is responsible for the aesthetic vision of a company, and given that theater pretty much starts with playwrights, it’s hard to imagine them not monitoring every last turn of phrase. But in listening to Elevator Repair Service artistic director John Collins and playwright Sibyl Kempson last winter as they talked about rehearsals for Fondly, Collette Richland, it was evident that rather than obsessing about control, both were exhilarated by the lack thereof. Instead, both had given themselves over to a collaborative process that sounded like it had taken on a life of its own. In fact, the pair came off almost as enthralled parents-to-be.
“The whole thing is just starting to live and breathe; it’s really exciting,” said Collins. “It’s so amazing,” added Kempson; and as Collins interjected, “It’s a little … it’s a lot insane.”
But their turn to collaboration over control makes sense considering that ERS had been touring for more than seven years with Gatz, a six-hour onstage reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that premiered at the Walker in 2006, and its follow-up works. By then, Collins said, he “wanted to leave the safety of these great American works of literature that everybody was so familiar with” and return his ensemble to its roots in experimental performance, which yielded works such as Total Fictional Lie, presented at the Walker in 1999. Collins described that piece as “a real exercise in making a bunch of material, letting the different parts start to speak to each other, and then shaping it into something”—a something ultimately described as “a hilarious morphing of theater and film that incorporates comically minimal dance sequences.” Kempson, meanwhile, had worn herself out with a longtime practice that included writing, casting, directing, and performing in works such as Potatoes of August, “a theatricalist fugue wherein four retirees encounter a sack of sentient potatoes,” or a “shamanistic cabaret” called Crime or Emergency.
So Collette Richland represents a dramatic (ahem) change for both. Kempson’s revisions to her script are ongoing, based on her periodic attendance at ERS’s rehearsals to see what they’ve done with her material. “I find out really quickly what’s important and what’s not,” she said. “The liberties that are being taken [with the script] are helping me to know what the connections are among different parts I’ve written.” In other words, she’d also given up control, in a sense, while writing the play: “I made decisions about what to put in that are completely intuitive and that seem random, but something tells me I should put this in. And I just have to have this faith that we’ll find out why later.” Collins takes a similar approach with ERS’s rehearsal process. “It has to do with going about things early on in a completely intuitive way—just throwing things out there, even if it’s material that doesn’t seem to belong. It’s almost like Sibyl and I have the same religion that way: we believe the material is going to start to form itself.” Bolstering that parental metaphor, he regards the play as “its own organism,” one created by Kempson’s writing and characters, but also by the research she and ERS did together and the ongoing input from actors in rehearsal.
“Everyone brings in source material and it sort of becomes a chain reaction within the group and with John,” said Kempson. “Tons of ideas are percolating that are exactly within the world of the piece.” By way of example, Collins ran down material from that day’s rehearsal, which included the 1930 film The Women; a “crazy documentary” about Swiss folk communities and yodeling; and “Cliff Hangers,” a classic game from the show The Price Is Right that involves a mechanical mountaineer yodeling his way up a mountain. Then, as the group watched “Cliff Hangers” segments on YouTube, they became fascinated by an agitated Price Is Right contestant and created a dance for the play based on her movements. “She’s incredibly nervous and high-strung,” noted Collins, “which has its own connections to the women in the play and a piece by Jane Bowles that we all read earlier.”
ERS and Kempson may be hop-scotching among cultural references both popular and rarified, but they have no expectation that the audience will do the same—nor is that desired. “Pop culture, for us, is not about references, it’s just tools,” he said. “I would prefer that it create a sense of mystery about the origins of everything rather than have everybody get the references. “We use pop culture because it’s all around us; it could just as easily be something obscure. Whatever it is, we’re synthesizing it into something that speaks to and elevates what Sibyl has written.”
Collins and Kempson are reluctant to reveal many details about Collette Richland, but the way they talk about it—and given Kempson’s penchant for delving into themes of the primordial and the supernatural, the grotesque and the uncanny—it stands to be at once deceptively simple and deeply weird. “It moves through time in a conventional way,” said Collins. “Some people are at home, then they go on a vacation and some amazing things happen, and they return home.”
“That’s the plot!” added Kempson, with matter-of-fact mischief. She also hinted at a surprise ending, albeit one she imagines will make the audience incredulous: “That’s what’s coming back to be tied up? That’s the thing that carries all this weight?” But it seems in keeping with her perverse, humorous, love/hate attitude toward endings in general, not to mention many other theatrical conventions.
Whatever strange organism-as-theater the two are fostering, they’re just trying to listen to it together as it evolves. “Sometimes I have questions about it that Sibyl can answer, and sometimes she has questions I can answer,” said Collins. “Then of course there’s just the environment—what happens in the rehearsal room.” Kempson pointed out that this room is a “cesspool,” clearly delighted by that fact. And judging from how frequently she and Collins dissolved into helpless laughter and jokes that only they understood, it was also clear that both are having the time of their lives.
“Everyone brings in source material and it sort of becomes a chain reaction within the group and with John. Tons of ideas are percolating that are exactly within the world of the piece.” —Sibyl Kempson