Talking to John Collins of Elevator Repair Service

For the second installment of our “Starting a Theater Company” series, I spoke with John Collins, founder and artistic director of Elevator Repair Service. Called “The best experimental theater group in town” by New York Magazine, ERS uses quirky choreography, slapstick comedy, found text, lost furniture and an intense collaborative process to create imaginative and intelligent performance pieces. Since its founding in 1991, ERS has created over ten shows and performed them at P.S.122, The Performing Garage, HERE, The Ontological at St. Mark’s Church, The Flea and Soho Rep. The company has also toured extensively through out the United States and Europe. Their newest show, GATZ (Gatsby), will premiere at The Performing Garage from Jan 7-30th. They will also be hosting a benefit party at P.S.122 on Dec. 6th to help fund their new production.


Why and how did you start your company?

I started doing shows with the founders of the company before we decided to form an official company. I preferred working with people I already knew rather than holding auditions, so some of it was laziness or timidity. We got together, 4 or 5 of us, and did this midnight show at a tiny little storefront theater and we did another one after that. It was pretty early on that we started thinking of ourselves as a company and a lot of that had to do with wanting to emulate the Wooster Group and their ensemble process. Starting an ensemble company also seemed sexier, more like a rock band. But I definitely idealized their process at that time.

I think the reason a lot of people form “companies,” non profit organizations to produce their work is because that’s how you can raise money for it. But we didn’t do that for a long while. We incorporated in 1993, but it wasn’t until 1997 that we even started to apply for grants. We were just content to hold a fundraising event every now and then and we were doing shows for almost no money, and that worked fine because everyone wanted to be doing it.


Can you talk about working as an ensemble?

The idea of a company or an ensemble is a lot more complicated than saying, “Okay, we’re going to be the kind of theater that’s made by ensembles.” It’s interpersonally complicated and has been for us. I think very few small groups like ours are a set group of people who continue to make work together. There are some. But our company has gone through probably four or five distinct constellations of people. There have been four or five people who’ve been there the whole time and always work on all the shows. But I think it’s been good to stay loose. Sometimes people confuse the desire to make ensemble work with the desire to keep an exact grouping of people in an exact configuration for years and years and years. The work is made well when you’re making it with a group of people who all want to be right there at that exact moment.

The closest thing I know to a company that’s exactly consistent in that way are my friends in Radiohole. There were four of them making shows together for a while. One of them left, but those three people do everything. And it gives their work a very specific look and sound. Though I think it’s a really really hard thing to do. I think it’s hard for them to have all the responsibility and always have only just the three of them. But they pull it off.

What’s your process like?

There are certain things that we do consistently. And there are sort of patterns and habits that we have. But generally we try to look at everything as a brand new idea and we try not to approach any work with a predefined process. There’s usually some decision up front about whether we’re going to work more on the narrative arc or the formal arc. A lot of times, pieces start out without a narrative; they start out as little bits. It may be that we have a series of speeches that we think would be good monologues and we have to figure out how to string them together to make them watchable. There’s usually some single inspiration it grows out of. Otherwise, it’s pretty free associative. we start out with just questions. we look for interesting problems to solve.

We’ve worked a lot with found text. In our last piece, we were looking to strengthen our narrative and ended up working with The Turn of the Screw. By the time we came to that narrative we already had a skeleton to the piece and we brought the story to it so the story had to bend a bit to fit it, which made the preexisting work take on new meanings. We let the two things inform each other. Some of the writing we do just to adapt an existing text.

We don’t always have to get all the important ideas right up front. Sometimes we find things as we go and if we find a new idea, we let it form around what we’ve already done. It’s a guided evolution we try to nurture. But you get to a certain point when you stop free associating and just try to solve specific problems.

Usually it takes us 18 months working on and off to finish a piece. For a while, it was part of our routine to have a couple of work in progress showings. Recently, I’ve decided that that’s not always the best way to go. One thing that I’ve learned is that the best work and the best ideas really happen in about ten minutes. When you hit on something, it can take a long time to polish, but what really matters is the work you do just right then in rehearsal. But you can always hit something a second time and make it better.

We still rehearse on a part-time schedule. When we started, everyone had other jobs, mostly daytime jobs, so we had to. Now, we continue to follow that schedule partly out of habit and partly so that we can do other things as well. Following a part-time schedule sort of insures that there’ll be more of a diversity of perspectives because people work in other fields and have rich lives outside of the company. As we get older it makes it harder to do because people feel differently about their time. We want to be able to take more vacations and cook at home and things like that. You just get tired of the exhausting schedule. But we still do it. And it’s meant that I could work with the Wooster Group as a sound designer and travel with them. One of our main actors is a school teacher. She teaches 2nd grade out in Brooklyn so we’re still able to work with her. Steve who co-directs some of the shows is a writer for The Daily Show.

Sometimes we spend a lot of time doing research, finding things we can perform. We’ve also done a lot of dance work in the past. A lot of our choreography is created from video source material. When we were working on Room Tone, we watched The Shining and we allowed ourselves to become obsessed over little bits of the movie. We liked something physically about it. We took the performance and translated it into choreography.

We spend a lot of time translating things from another medium into performance. We don’t formally improvise but we try things out in a loose enough way that it requires the actors to do a lot of filling in. We’ll often let some sort of mistake or accident become part of the piece. One thing that I spend a lot of time doing is taking the material and figuring out ways to organize and structure it. We’re always trying to take two separate things and make them into one.

What interests you about dance and using dance in a theater context?

Dance is more theatrical. It’s always been sort of a shortcut to the kind of activity and engagement I want to see onstage. It’s something we sort of took for granted that we’d do, probably just my conscious or unconscious desire to imitate the work that I liked. We used it a lot as a way to get a piece started. The early interest I brought to the process was a fascination with these old cartoons from the 1930’s and this edgy weirdness in the way they moved. I wanted to do something with that. Someone else in the company was interested in Indian movie musicals and we started to watch a lot of them. As soon as we have a few things we’re interested in, we get together and look at it. It’s really about what people in the company are into. Making dances was a way of getting all those elements together really quickly.

Sound and sound design plays an important role in you company. Could you talk about that?

There’ve been shows where we’ve really made scenes from a single sound idea. What I always liked about sound is that it’s a cheap way to bend reality. You can always really accurately reproduce a sound and re associate it with an action and create logic that way. I was never really attracted to the kind of theater where you’re sort of given a proposed setting and you’re supposed to imagine the rest yourself. With sound, you can get the exact sound and the exact timing. It’s a way you can exploit film techniques in live theater. It’s something film and theater have in common; they can both benefit from the use of sound and music. Like anybody, I’ve seen a lot more film than theater and I think there’s a lot more good film out there than good theater. Sound is a way of participating in the slightly richer universe of film–there’ve been more interesting things done with it.

How do you see your role as director in relation to working as a ensemble?

One big part of that role is to be the person that organizes and pulls together everybody else’s work. You can see that as very dry, technical work and I think for some directors it is–when everything has been planned out in advance. On the other hand, those same responsibilities can be extremely creative and something that requires a lot of personal inspiration. Even though performance theater is intensely collaborative, I think there has to be some singular force pushing it forward. And I think that has to take the form of a single person making decisions, or if it’s two people it has to represent a single vision.

I think that theater has to be used and the elements and the form of live performance has to be the medium. It can’t just be a platform for some other medium because I think the rest of the theatrical medium gets wasted. There’s a sort of potential I’m always looking to see fulfilled in performance. Those things that I’m interested in are the tools of the director. I’ve also always held that the work of the director is a kind of writing. You’re composing a performance. You’re making choices with the material you have, which might be writing or visual design. When you sit down and watch a play you’re not reading; you watch it happen over time. The director is an artist who creates events over time.


How do you fund your work?

It comes from a variety of places. I think we always wish we could have more earned income by making more money from box office and touring. We traveled four times this year; we did a workshop in Wales and three tours in the U.S. We make some money doing that kind of thing. Those things unfortunately will never pay our way so we do have to spend a lot of time fundraising. Every year we have some kind of benefit. They’re fun but inefficient compared to grant writing. It’s a constant pain in the ass. You have to deal with these foundations and their big bureaucracies. But it can be interesting and it’s not all bad. The grant writing forces me to do a lot of writing which is good. It forces me to articulate what we’ve done and what we plan to do and I spend a lot of my daytime hours doing that kind of thing. Unfortunately, there’s no single source of support that can do it all. We’ve had some grants that are ongoing. We had ongoing support from the Jerome Foundation and that was great. NYSCA will keep you on their rolls once they’ve funded you. We send out a letter every year asking for donations. A lot of it goes towards just paying for our space. Our shows are not expensive. We still make the shows the way we made them when we had no money at all. We make them out of things we find. But we do try to pay the actors more.


Do you have a board?

Technically, yes, although it’s not very active right now. The board of directors is a requirement for a non-profit. It turns out that the way non-profits are set up on paper, it’s all based on the foundation model. But it’s not necessarily an effective model for a small producing company. It’s the company itself that’s really responsible for making the decisions. The board, in a practical way, is really more like a group of advisors. Occasionally the board helps with fundraising. People always tell us that that’s what a board is supposed to do but we’ve never had one that’s worked like that. I don’t know if that’s because we don’t know enough rich people. If we weren’t required to have a board, we probably wouldn’t.


How do you promote your company and your shows?

It can depend on where we’re performing. When we play at P.S.122, they do a lot of that work for us. We’re doing our next piece at the Performing Garage and since they’re not really a presenting venue, we’re doing a lot of the promotion on our own. It’s really just the Wooster Group’s venue and they let people associated with them use it from time to time. But usually we’re performing at a space that’s a presenter or a festival . In fact, for the upcoming show, Mark Russell is organizing a kind of group show at St. Ann’s and we’re going to be under his umbrella for that. It’s always best when there’s a third party promoting you. P.S.122 is always great that way. HERE too. We rely on a lot of word of mouth really. We play small enough venues that we can usually fill them with people who already know our work. Working at the scale we do, we can be pretty successful with marketing the work as long as we get the word out to the right small group of people. So we do mailings and we have a web site.


Have you guys hired anyone to help with promotion or management?

Not as such. For a while, we had someone in Europe who would take our stuff around. But honestly we have a small administrative staff, made up of me, one other person and an intern, and we do the leg work. Other people in the company help out with different things. We’ve remained sort of a part time operation; we work show to show.


When did you establish your rehearsal space and why?

In a way we’ve always had a space. After we’d been working together for not even a year, we decided that we would get some of us together and we’d rent a loft that had space for rehearsing. We got a place in ’92 in Soho, which would be impossible now, and four of us lived there. We rehearsed there. We had a place then where we could keep all of our stuff. After we left that place, we got another loft in a different part of town. That accounted for about seven years. And after that time, I didn’t want to live in a big rehearsal space anymore. And at that time we were getting some more money so we decided to look for a space. There was a brief period of time when we rented a rehearsal space and that was hard because we were used to having our stuff with us all the time. Then I found this place in the East Village. I had a commercial real estate agent working with us and I looked at so many garment district loft warehouse type places and finally we found this in the Village Voice. It’s become a big responsibility having a space. We moved in here four years ago. We have a great landlord who doesn’t raise the rent much and is very patient when we need to be a little late. Still, I wonder if we shouldn’t be doing something else that isn’t as much of a burden. We operate on about $120,000-140,000 a year and that place costs us $40,000 a year.


How do you arrange a tour?

The way it usually works with the kind of touring we do is you have to get invited. We try to keep in touch with the presenters. We’ve toured some in Europe. If you can get one presenter excited about a piece, they’ll get others involved to share the cost of bringing you over. Performing at P.S.122 helped a lot. When presenters would come to town, they’d often ask Mark Russell what he had going on and they all trusted his taste and judgment. A couple of times we got a National Dance Project grant from NYFA and when you get that grant, the presenters you work with get a subsidy–so that gave us touring opportunities.

We work with a certain network of presenters in the states that’s probably 6 or 8 presenters altogether– presenters that present this kind of work, dance theater /post-modern performance. If I go somewhere with the Wooster Group I try to meet with whatever presenter we’re with and give them our press and a DVD. The main thing is if you just get people to see your work. Most people won’t book something sight unseen. Unfortunately it’s a little like the weather. We have to hope we get the touring opportunities but we just have to concentrate on making new work


How do you think your relationship with the Wooster Group has influenced you?

When I was in college and just out of college, their work influenced me a lot. Nothing will influence you more than those early things. In some way, I’ll be trying to mimic those things that I loved that I saw in their shows at that time probably for the rest of my career, which is fine. They end up getting translated into completely different things.

I’ve worked for them for 11 years and it has been an ongoing education. It’s huge to be able to work for someone you really admire. It’s been helpful for me in a lot of practical ways to be around the wooster group as an organization and Liz as a director to see not just what kind of choices she makes but how she deals with her impulse to work. She’s an amazing editor and critic of her own work. She’s really, really tough on herself and will not let anything slide through that she’s not absolutely satisfied with. She’s incredibly courageous that way and a fantastic example.

It’s also been helpful to understand over time that I don’t look at things exactly like she does and I shouldn’t be making work that looks exactly like hers because we have very different personalities. So you learn over time that if you want to make great work on your own, it has to be personally truthful. I think that’s why her work is great. She’s able to be so personally truthful. IT’s really hard in theater sometimes, where as a director you depend on other people, it’s very difficult not to compromise. It takes a lot of courage to be truthful and to acknowledge when things are not working. But I don’t know if I’ll ever be insane enough to live up to what she does.


What’s been the most challenging thing?

The first really challenging thing we had to deal with was when we recognized that we were doing things the same way every time. Whenever we were stuck, we tried to use the process we had used before and it was deadly; it made us hate ourselves. So we deliberately challenged ourselves to do something we thought we would never do. Doing something this literary [they’re currently working on a project using the text of The Great Gatsby] has been a real departure for us because we’ve tried in the past to attain a kind of speech that wasn’t like writing and now we’re doing nothing but writing.

Otherwise, as a company the most challenging thing is doing this kind of work–which is not the least bit lucrative–while getting older. It’s an easier thing to do when you’re younger. To maintain the same kind of innocence about making work gets harder and harder. You want the work to be successful. If you’ve had some success, you feel like you have something to live up to.

We also worry a lot about money. We have our space to pay for. A lot of our money comes from grants and they operate in a very different way than we do. They want to know what we’re doing a year and a half ahead of time and you have to be able to write about it in a very articulate way. Whereas with our actual process, we pride ourselves on not knowing what we’re going to do. It gets hard to resist all the those outside pressures to make your work a repeatable success. The consequence of failure seem to grow greater and greater as you build a career. But of course the work itself is ultimately the same thing. You have to have a strong impulse to do it and a lot of faith in your ability to carry it out. It should always feel like you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.

Is there anything you’d do differently?

I’d probably give the company a different name. Elevator Repair Service is a funny and ridiculous name for a theater company but if I’d named it something else, I wouldn’t get as many phone calls from people looking for someone to repair their elevator. I’m half joking about that. But 12 years ago when we were deciding to the name the company, we chose that name in the spirit of a joke or a prank, a contrarian and silly name. But if I could change anything, I’d give us a more neutral sounding name. But i don’t really care about that so much any more.

You learn things as you go along so I certainly don’t go about things the way I did ten years ago. But it’s hard to say I would do it differently because all the things I do differently I learned through the process of making other shows and I don’t know of a better way to learn those things. Some of those things have been lessons that had consequences at the time that I wish I could have avoided. We agreed to premiere a show at a really big festival in Europe one time and in retrospect now I know there’s no way we could’ve finished the show in time. We ended up showing something that was short and not very well finished, and I think looked unfinished, and it kind of killed our European touring for a while. But at the time, it was like, they’re offering us a lot of money, they want two shows, how could we turn that down? And the show ended up great, about four months later.


Are there any ways you’d like to expand or grow in the future?

We’re in a kind of interesting transitional state right now because a lot of people who were core members of the company at one time are less and less available. I know for me personally, I really need to assess what I need to do as someone who’s committed to it long term. I’d like for the company to be on more stable ground financially. I think one thing I need to do is make more work. Because we come from the idea of an ensemble that’s about a group of people deciding to work on something, it’s meant that doing the work can get kind of stalled when the group isn’t coming together to make the piece. I need for the group to be less reliant on a specific configuration of people because there’s a lot of drift going on, people having other work opportunities. I think the company is having to become more about what I personally want to do. That has to be better reflected in the organization of the company.

I don’t necessarily want the company to become a lot bigger but I think it should. We shouldn’t be a $120,000 per year company but a $200,000 per year company, which is not much bigger. I think that’s a reasonable goal. I would be better supported by the company. It’s hard to pin those things down when your main task is to do what’s necessary to make the work. I have to make sure the organization is serving the work and not vice versa.


Is there any advice you’d give someone who wants to start a company?

I guess I’d say, don’t be too quick to start a company. It’s very tempting to set up a company and create legitimacy for yourself by organizing that way. A lot of people get to New York and the first thing they want to do is start a company and establish themselves among the ranks of New York companies. I think it’s really important to identify and refine the impulse to make the work. It’s better to have a few shows under your belt before you organize a company. There are good impulses behind wanting to make a company, you want to raise money and you want to organize, which is all good. But a theater company quickly becomes something that makes the wrong kinds of demands on you–something you have to live up to. It’s a kind of commitment and you shouldn’t make it lightly. Make work first and then start a company to support it, once it looks like it’ll be going forward. I think people find that they need to make a certain kind of work because they’ve already proposed that they’re a group of people devoted to a certain aesthetic and I think it’s hard to know that without first trying to make work.

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