Way back in the winter of 2005, we were fortunate enough to squeeze into the little "Performing Garage" on Wooster Street to watch an eight hour play. Well, the play itself was six hours—plus a dinner break and a couple of intermissions. But still, it was epic, even though it didn't start out that way—Gatz, Elevator Repair Service's enthralling interpretation of The Great Gatsby, begins modestly, when a man (actor Scott Shepherd) enters a shabby office, picks up a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, and begins reading aloud. Is this it, you wonder? Didn't Andy Kaufman already pull this stunt? Are we going to be read to for six hours? Well, yes and no. 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. By engaging the audience's imagination, the ensemble seduces them into Fitzgerald's world, with minimal props or costumes. Instead, the book's text—all 49,000 words are uttered in the play—is allowed to breathe and enchant at center stage.
The experience takes on the cumulative effect of slipping into a dream, and at some point you find yourself transported; you're not in a theater, not in an office, but drifting somewhere inside The Great Gatsby, with "the eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleburg" looming over your shoulder. After years of legal hassles trying to get permission to perform the show in New York, Elevator Repair Service has finally been able to stage it in their home town, at The Public Theater. (With the run extended, tickets are still available, but not many.) Earlier this week we spoke with the company's artistic director, John Collins, about Gatz.
Thanks for taking the time to do this, I'm guessing you're really busy right now. The good thing about doing Gatz is that though it's a big opening, it's a show we've been doing for five years so it's a little less stressful.
I was lucky enough to see the production at The Performing Garage. Wow! That's way back!
Yeah, that's sort of been my claim to fame. And now you've taken that away from me. [Laughs] Sorry about that.
I'm curious how it's changed since then, if at all? Well, it's changed a lot, actually. It's come into its own and what we did back in 2005 was very much an under the radar kind of workshop production. It was also that we had just finished work on what was our first draft of the whole show at that point. And after that, we had to stop doing it there because the estate did not approve of us having even our underground performances. During that time we worked out an arrangement with them and we have been doing the show on tour in lots of different venues. I think the Martinson theater [at The Public] is our 21st. So it's been much larger houses since January of 2005, and that's meant that it's had to grow and expand. I think, most importantly, the actors and especially Scott Shepherd have gotten so intimately familiar with the words of the novel that it's had a pretty profound effect on the performances and the show.
We interviewed Scott Shepherd when he did Hamlet with The Wooster Group; we love that guy. He had a big role in the creation of the show; besides the fact that he's the one reading the book. Would you ever direct this without him? It's really hard to imagine doing it. I mean, it's not an idea I have considered even. Scott's role in this has been as much of a dramaturge, co-director and co-author of this piece. He's so essential to what it has become. And even if he had only been a performer, what he brings to the performance is so specific. It's a skill set that I think is extremely rare in even the greatest performers. He is able to come to this text, that he is now so utterly familiar with, with a detachment that this piece requires in the beginning and then a complete immersion in the character by the end of it, which is also required. It's rare to find a performer who can pull of both off those things. So I don't really think about doing it without him, and there have been times when we could have done it but we didn't just because he wasn't available.
You've done it all over the world. Has the audience reacted differently depending on where you performed it? Yes. I mean, differently in that we've performed this in a lot of places where they don't know English as well. It obviously works better in English-speaking countries, but we were surprised and pleased at how well it's played in a city like Amsterdam; we had terrific audiences there. That has to do partly with just how well they do understand English. But also a city like Lisbon, where we had very small audiences for this because we didn't do any subtitles for it. As a result of that and the length we weren't able to draw a very large crowd there, but the response was fantastic!
Next time we took a show back to Lisbon it sold out immediately just on Gatz's reputation. It's done surprisingly well in foreign countries where English is not the first language, but I think the best reaction we got to it anywhere was in Minneapolis. Not only because there you find an American audience that has a relationship with the book already, but it's a mid-western audience. Physically as a Twin Cities audience, they really feel an ownership of the book. And I remember noticing that the audience in Minneapolis got every single reference to a place and person that Fitzgerald dropped in the book. So that was fun and gratifying.
Is this run at The Public sold out? Just about, yeah. I was with Oskar [Eustis, the artistic director at The Public] the other night and he said he thinks that as of Monday there were 200 tickets left. And that's for a 10 week run. I mean, there are going to be opportunities for people to see it, I know that for example that today there are going to be rush tickets available. Although it's technically sold out, there are still going to be ways for people to see it on a given night. But it is thrilling and frustrating to think about how more people are going to hear about it and not get tickets.
Are you surprised by people's willingness to go to a 6 or 8 hour performance? It's 8 hours beginning to end and about 6 of those hours are spent watching the show. There's an intermission and dinner break. I am and I'm not; I think that because we have had experience in other cities with it up till now, we've seen how well it can work. I'm not surprised that people make it all the way through. It does surprise me a little still, always, that people are willing to make that leap with us. I think they're always satisfied when they do. But yeah, it's exciting to see that it's selling as well as it is. I think that, believe it or not, the audacity of it explains some of its appeal. It's not just 8 hours of indulgence, it's 8 hours of commitment. There's this very familiar and very well known text at the center of it. I think people understand that they're not just putting themselves in the hands of some downtown experimental theater company, but putting themselves in the hands of this great author at the same time. So I think that helps explain how audiences are able to make that leap.
Related to that, and you're probably tired of this question, but you could explain the choice to include every single word, including the "he said" and "she said"?
Sure. When we first picked up the book in 1999, the first time we thought about doing this, we didn't think we were going to do every word of it. That decision came about very organically and from spending time trying to edit it. We were going to do an abridged version, that was our original idea, and as we tried to make that version of it we started to discover how well-crafted this novel is. My earliest impression of the novel when I read it—I didn't read it until I was an adult—was that this was a novel where every single word was necessary. That decision came about partly in response to what we thought was great about the novel.
It's also a decision that we made because it's always been our process as a theater company to give ourselves interesting problems to solve. If we were going to allow ourselves to cut it, that took away one of the more interesting problems to solve. We have worked on other novels where we have allowed ourselves to edit and that has been the right decision for those novels. This was the case where it seems like the right challenge was to try to put every word of it on stage. There was a sort of exciting ridiculousness of that choice that suited us, I think. The process of making the novel was a big experiment in seeing if that would work. We didn't really have total confidence that it would until we had seen it all on it's feet and then we were sure.
Do you feel in some sense this is like a ritual or incantation? It does kind of feel that way for us. Having seen it as I have, 80 some-odd times now, I think it does have an effect that way. It's partly the way we stage it too, the show itself is a kind of gradual process of the novel becoming real much the way it does when you read something you love. It's not at all real to you when you're hit with its first few pages. There's a kind of overwhelming reality that takes over as you become immersed in a great novel. And so the act of staging Gatz is about that reality coming into existence over the course of the performance rather than, like with a lot of theater, you try to get the audience in suspended disbelief the moment the curtain goes up. I'm more interested in the audience witnessing the actors become the characters. There is an almost ritualistic aspect to it.
I just think it's so masterful. The vivid memory I have is when it got towards the end and you know that final sentence in the book is approaching and you can feel it. And when it happens it's just riveting. I can't even articulate in words, it was magical.
That is something, I still get a chill every time I hear that last line no matter how many times I've heard it. That last chapter especially is some of the most beautiful writing. It's simple and it's straightforward but it's just so moving. It was my goal in a way to have the production begin to ride on that writing without getting in its way and yet still hold the audience. That's where Scott Shepherd is at his best, he really holds the audience through that last chapter. I mean, that chapter comes after all the action is over, the title character has been dead for pages! But he manages to hold it. I love doing that part; we turn every light on full blast and the entire room is full of light with just one guy sitting alone on stage.
Yeah, to me it's like the full potential of a theatrical moment is fully realized there. Yeah, it's humbling to work with writing that's that good. And it's such a special project because so many people come to it with a relationship to the book already and the fact that everyone is familiar with that last line gives it that much more power on stage. It's daunting to create a kind of parallel theatrical experience to this great novel, but it's also satisfying.
I think what is also is so extraordinary is that when you read a book you take so many breaks. You put it down, you come back to it a day later. This is such a rare opportunity to fully immerse yourself in it. Right, we only give you three breaks! Again, it's a rare opportunity that way in this novel. We've worked on other novels and I've love getting inside of literature through theater. And this particular novel is a really special opportunity that way because you can take it all in in one day. It's a short novel and the way he crafts it really makes it feel like you need to hear every single word of it.
So what's next for Elevator Repair Service? Well, this is in some ways almost an old show for us at this point because, as you well know, we picked it five years ago. Since then we've done two other novels. We worked on The Sound and the Fury which ran two years ago at New York Theater Workshop and we have the last of this trilogy that's going to be coming up about a year from now, which is Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. So we've got a little bit more literature left to get through and beyond that I'm not sure. I think we'll probably take a break from literature, though that's going to be hard to do. But I don't want to be pigeonholed. I don't want to be thought of as a director who just does novels so we'll do something else. But this has been a very comfortable place for us.