It's been over a month since we took in Gatz, Elevator Repair Service's ingenious adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and we still can't stop thinking about it. So we rang up the show's understated star, Scott Shepherd, to talk about this enthralling production, which brings Fitzgerald's masterpiece to life in a completely unexpected way: by using all of the novel's 49,000 words. (Shepherd has each and every one of them memorized.) The eight hour experience (with a break for dinner and intermissions) begins modestly, when Shepherd enters a shabby office, discovers the book in his Rolodex, and begins reading aloud in a deliberately faltering voice. But as the reader's co-workers begin to file in, they gradually and ever-so-subtly begin to morph into the characters in the book, and in an almost imperceptible way, the story comes alive on a level that no naturalistic adaptation could achieve.
Gatz's run at The Public Theater continues through November 28th and is completely sold out, but it's definitely worth trying for standby tickets. Ben Brantley at the Times calls it "this season’s great theatrical event... an idiosyncratic work of genius." And if it's not clear by now, we wholeheartedly concur.
I've seen Gatz twice; first when you guys did it at the Performing Garage in 2005 and then at the Public last month. How many times have you've performed it over the years? Yeah, actually we did our 100th show maybe two weeks ago. [Director John Collins] went back to the spreadsheets and figured it out. It was a little tricky because we've done it in halves, just part one and then part two on another night. Early on we would sometimes perform more part ones than part twos.
How does that work? All of it grew out of a paranoia when we first started doing it, that we wouldn't be able to get people to sit through the whole thing. Or we wouldn't be able to get everybody to do that. I was kind of against this, but when we first scheduled it in New York in 2005, that schedule included more part ones than part twos. We've done like ten more part ones than part twos. On some day, two weeks ago, I forget when it was now, we hit our 100th performance of part two so we counted that as the 100 times we've done the whole Gatz. And then sometime in the next couple weeks, we'll be doing our hundredth actual marathon, where it's the hundredth time that we've actually done it all in one day.
Both times I've have seen it have been the marathon and at the end, both times, I was completely transported, in an altered state. How do you feel at the end of this marathon? Yeah, I'm in an altered state. There's a simple of feeling of having spent that much time, having started so long ago that it feels like the beginning of the day. When I'm at the end I really don't have in my mind the beginning and when I'm beginning it, I'm not really thinking ahead towards the end. Occasionally it occurs to me, for just some random reason the thought will go through my head of a point later in the show and that'll seem like another planet to me, another lifetime. So I think there's just a sense, just because the show's so long, it feels more like something you've lived through rather than watched. Or even performed. And by the end, there's a certain feeling of having traveled and a feeling of exhaustion that puts you in a different place when you're finally bringing it home at the finish.
Usually in theater, after the show is done, the actors will go out and need to blow off steam to unwind. Do you still feel that way with this or are you completely spent at the end? I'm spent, but I can't go home right away. We always go out. I always need to go out and have a drink and wind down. But then at a certain point, I'm sort of like, "Wow, I've got so much energy." It's weird. I should probably be exhausted and then I go and have a drink and then that exhaustion hits me like a bag on bricks.
Yeah. The show's so long. In another kind of show that's shorter, you can just design your performance and just get better and better at executing it, and I don't know how everybody else in the show feels but for me, this show's too long to do that. I can't design every moment of it. Instead, you have to develop a way of being, like a way of living in it, and that is what gets more interesting and more sophisticated in a longer run like this where you get time to get the hang of it.
There's this great moment towards the end, where you've been reading the book, and you're still speaking the words from the book but you start flipping through it randomly. When did you realize that you had the book memorized? We worked for a while on the first half of the book and performed just the first half in, I think, 2004, I guess or maybe 2005. At that point, it occurred to me that, yes, I knew the first half. I mean the language of the book is so pleasurable that it's the kind of thing that, it's easy. I find it very easy to memorize and very easy to remember because the phrases are so good, you want to be able to repeat that. Like great lines from a movie or lyrics to a catchy song. When we had only done half of it, John started using the fact that I knew it all as a kind of stunt that we could do at benefits. It was a game called Stump the Freak, where people could volunteer to try to stump the freak. They'd be handed a copy of the book and could read three or four words in a row, and the freak would have to finish the sentence. At that time it was just the first half of the book; we hadn't even worked on the second half.
John [Collins] was already aware that this thing was kind of happening to me voluntarily, which is that the book was going and kind of sticking there. So when we got to the last chapter, it's a little different. It's almost like the book's story kind of finishes in chapter eight, and then chapter nine is a different thing. The book sort of lifts off. It becomes contemplative; it's suddenly all about Nick in a way, where Nick has been more off to the side, in the shadows before that. John came up with the idea that we would use the book. Carrying the book around, reading from the book, it been a central idea for him up until then. We've established this frame story of a guy reading in an office, so the book was a real anchor point for the whole piece. And so he imagined shutting the book as a real extreme act and I think it is. It feels like something extreme is happening when that finally happens in the sixth hour of the experience. It's silent. Every once in a while somebody makes a noise at that point but I just feel the silent reaction when that book finally shuts... I'm just talking.
Yeah. When we first came to it and it was only a memory of something I read in High School, I just remember having an idea. I remember the things I'd noticed in High School. I was taking Latin and I had read a lot of Virgil's Aeneid and I was aware of certain patterns that I was seeing them in The Great Gatsby. It's actually very interesting the way he, when he describes characters, each time he describes them, he uses kind of the same adjectives. The same descriptions keep coming back through the same characters and that's something that happens all over Homer. Because they originated as improvised oral history, these little metrical units that involved grey-eyed Athena or rosy-fingered Dawn, which was useful musically. And it happens in The Great Gatsby, where Jordan's always jaunty and Tom's hand is always broad and flat. This repetition where you're always talking about Daisy's voice or Gatsby's smile and then there's also the big catalog in Chapter 4, the catalog of the names of the people who came to Gatsby's house, which goes through back to the tradition of long name catalogs from The Iliad and from The Aeneid. I noticed those things as a deliberate way to mark your book as literature. I kind of loved it, the way he essentially had this kind of soap opera sort of magazine love story that we was lifting to a higher plane with these kinds of strategies.
I just remembered that little bit from where I'd read it before and I remembered it again when we started working on it. I had a more thorough understanding of some of the mechanics of how he marked his book as literature. The other thing that I see in it now is a real poignant expression of his own longing. A certain sort of obsession with the rich and upper classes. You always say that it's a book about the American dream and I feel like yes, it's a book about inventing yourself, and that's true but it's sort of a nice way of describing it. Another way might be to say it's all about wanting to get rich and fit in with the rich people. In some ways, it's a baser ambition, that Gatsby embodies. And I feel like that was something happened to Fitzgerald when he got famous in the Middle West and he moved out to New York and he moved to Manhasset Bay and he wanted to fit in with that crowd and it was the 1920s and people were going crazy with this glittering lifestyle and money. That obsession with money and wanting to transform yourself specifically into that freewheeling upperclass, materialistic, hedonistic lifestyle.
And at the same time, he really skewers them in the book. Yes, yes he skewers them but he has sympathy for Gatsby. He skewers the old money but he has sympathy for the upstart. But he also comes to the depressing conclusion that you can never escape your past and that we're all haunted by the green light, which is the idea of an orgasmic future that never comes but we always think is just around the corner.
That's really so American. A lowbrow question: You guys have been doing this so long, do you have any blooper stories? If there was a blooper reel of stuff that happened on stage, is there one that comes to mind? There are a few things, like some people have forgotten to come onstage entirely. That's happened a couple times. Luckily those were appearances that weren't too crucial and I was able to just say whatever the lines were. We just sort of bailed through it. There was another time when, people just fall right on their, Kate Scelsa comes running in, I'm shoving all those things off the table 'cause I'm about to go in the house and I want to make enough noise. The line is the book is, I went in after making every possible noise in the kitchen, and the last thing I shove, Kate Scelsa is supposed to come in and catch that tray. Well, she loves to make a heroic catch so she doesn't want to run in until the last possible second and one time she just slipped, collapsed on the floor. Things like that. There's always something that goes wrong. One time, in Lisbon, Aaron Landsman, who plays Wilson, has to go out the door stage right to chase Myrtle around before she gets hit by the car. He got to that door and it just wouldn't open. He jiggled and finally just shoved it. It opened out but he couldn't get it to open out so he just lowered his shoulder and broke through the door. Luckily, he got there in time for the car crash. The good thing is that that happens right before the intermission so we were able to repair the door during the dinner break.
I guess my last question is what's next for you? I know the Wooster Group has a show that I think you guys are doing in New York? We have a new one in LA at the Red Cat Theater, which is in that Walt Disney building downtown. We've been going there a lot. We have a special co-producing relationship with them. We've been going there like twice a year. Our newest show is Tennessee Williams's Vieux Carre, which is a rarely produced play of his from his late career. It was first done on Broadway in like 1978, but it's the story of the beginning of his career. It's an autobiographical piece about the first rooming house he lived in in New Orleans. So we'll do that in December in LA and then we'll be here in February and March at the Baryshnikov Arts Center.