For a talk about “The Future of the Book,” the Historical Library within the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library — part Victorian study, part evil-Swiss-scientist chalet — with high wooden ceilings, dark velvet curtains and a balcony of dusty books, acts as a room of speaking corpses. In the evening of Monday, Jan. 30, John Collins ’91, founder and artistic director of Elevator Repair Service Theater Ensemble, talked to Yale English and theater studies professor Marc Robinson DRA ’92 about Collins’ extensive experience with “Staging the Imaginative Act of Reading.” Named tongue-in-cheekly after a career placement questionnaire that suggested the menial job to Collins, Elevator Repair Service Theater Ensemble is one of New York’s most acclaimed experimental theater companies.
Collins may have produced his senior project in a “forgotten storage room [that felt] 110 degrees all the time beneath the dining hall” in Pierson’s basement pre-renovation, but since then he’s gone on to win numerous awards (including the TCG Peter Ziesler Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a US Artists Foundation Fellowship) and was named best theater director by the Village Voice.
Even at Yale, Collins was already drawn to working in unusual spaces with nontheatrical and unconventional texts that were cleared of the playwright’s presuppositions for the stage.
The ensemble researches the complexities of a subject matter, incorporating the problems of the creative process along the way, to rehearse and produce an original piece of theater. This means that part of the joy of live theater, Collins says, comes from accepting that the play is never done. Even when his show is in production, Collins sits in the audience during virtually every performance. Which is sometimes very long.
The ERS’s “Gatz” put every word of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” onstage in a marathon six-and-a-half-hour reading. “Gatz” opened at the Public Theater in 2010, selling out last season to rave reviews. “Gatz” is part of a narrative performance trilogy that also includes “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Sound and The Fury.”
Although “Gatz” was the only show in the trilogy that did not change a word of the original text, all of ERS’s shows involve a considerable amount of theatrical interpretation to build “around the world of text and beautiful language.” The authors, in addition to their ubiquity on high school reading lists, all had historical elements and connections in common apart from the fact they were selected by ERS.
“I didn’t just want to become the theater company that does out-loud readings verbatim,” Collins said. As such, he views pieces of theater as parallel structures that “exist in concert with the book but don’t purport to give a version of it.” Throughout the discussion, Collins reiterated the importance of choice and creative freedom when staging literature, while at the same time, doing something to the texts that isn’t destructive.
The best examples, of course, are ERS’s own productions, which are a testament to the way works open up many possibilities for directorial choices.
The set of “Gatz” — a drab ’80s office space — has nothing to do with the novel, but one experiences the work much like one would reading it at home or at work or on a train. After all, most readers of “The Great Gatsby” live a far cry from East Egg. It’s in this context of the reading space, Collins explains, that you “begin to see [the book] where it isn’t.”
In “Gatz,” ERS preserves the original text and the conditions for reading while also calling attention to the book as an object along with the performative act of narration. The narration of the lonely office worker, who in some ways becomes Nick Carraway’s character at the play’s end, is continually subject to disruptive moments that play with the idea of reading onstage: someone flips on the lights. Enters the room. And at the end, “Nick” puts the book down, reciting the last pages by heart. The book becomes a “radiant thing” onstage that is passed around and shared — charged with a theatrical energy no other script could have.
“Having something read to you is different than reading,” Collins pointed out. The musical quality of all three authors, and how particularly with Fitzgerald “every word feels absolutely necessary,” suggests the way in which “narrative attribution [becomes] tied up in the poetry of language.”
Specifically, the way “The Great Gatsby” treats memory, which Collins described as an elusive and “elegiac form,” resonates deeply with the real-time unfolding of the text onstage. As such, “Gatz” yields interesting moments for rupture in the production’s rhythm, lighting and sound design. Even in a staged performance, Collins characterizes the texts he works with as constantly overflowing with life. And though he’s seen the play hundreds of times, Collins remarked that he constantly finds new insights both about his own adaptation and Fitzgerald’s work.
“The language of these writers,” Collins said, “is kind of amazing and magical to hear as though people are saying it again right now.”
“What role should theater play in a physician’s life?” a faculty member from the Medical School audience asked.
Collins responded that theater helps you get outside of yourself and be more present. And in the more pragmatic and perhaps more morbid walls of the Medical School, the celebration of a book giving life is a comforting thought.