An Irresistible Problem: John Collins on Adapting “The Sun Also Rises”
I sat down last week to chat with John Collins, the director of experimental theater company Elevator Repair Service (ERS) about the final installment in their accidental literary trilogy, (The Select) The Sun Also Rises. A quick summary of the first two productions: Gatz (2006), ERS’s verbatim staged adaptation of The Great Gatsby, brought the company a tremendous amount of attention. Everything about that production has a whiff of the epic, from the task of taking on what is undeniably one of the great American novels, to the length (just shy of eight hours, including a dinner break), to wrangling with the literary estate for rights to perform the play (there was a potential conflict with a nebulous Broadway musical, and despite performances around the world and other places in the U.S. for several years, Gatz only made it to NYC last fall at The Public Theater). ERS next tackled the first chapter of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury: April Seventh, 1928 (2008), a stream of consciousness narrative from the perspective of a mentally handicapped man. (The Select) The Sun Also Rises, a stylized adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, premiered at The Edinburgh International Festival in August 2010, and is playing at New York Theatre Workshop through October 9 (tickets $70).
Why did you choose to adapt The Sun Also Rises, and how does it fit in with ERS’s previous two literary productions?
Choosing to do The Sun came out of the idea that we would make a trilogy of literary works. There was no thought early on that this would be a trilogy, and it wasn’t that I had decided ERS was going to go into this literary phase. With Gatz, I was looking for something new, something that was unfamiliar, that would give us this great big problem to solve. We needed something that would shock us into new ideas. Choosing a book and making ourselves read every word was ambitious and difficult and exciting in its newness to us. I almost always go at a new project by coming up with a new problem for the company to solve. [After Gatz], The Sound and the Fury was a kind of perverse take on that process. What would we never do? The answer was “We would never do the same thing twice.” I wanted to prove in some way to myself and everyone else that there wasn’t just one way to put a novel onstage. So we chose a book that would give us very different problems to solve, narratively and structurally, in the translation from book to piece of theater.
When we got together after The S&F [in fall 2008], we were sick of words, and our first impulse was to make a silent piece of theater—no more books. We played with that idea for a little while, and somewhere in there I realized I wasn’t quite done with literature from that period. There was an arc that we’d started with those other two novels that needed completing somehow. I mean in terms of my experience with them—I don’t mean to suggest that these three shows represent some kind of completely comprehensive look at how you should do literature onstage. I got interested in the idea of making a larger project out of three pieces of ours. Or maybe that was just a rationalization because I wanted to do another book.
At the same time, some other impulses had been building up. Towards the end of The S&F, I was allowing myself to cut a little bit of narration. In terms of a new project, I wanted to try something we hadn’t done yet, which was to take on a whole book and tell the whole story without having to do every word of the novel. This was us working our way towards a conventional approach, but for us to take a more conventional approach, we had to go at it in a perverse way.
How did you settle on The Sun Also Rises?
Once we were looking for a book, I sent an email to Scott Shepherd, and he said we should do A Farewell to Arms. We read it, but we didn’t feel an entry point. That got us started on Hemingway, but I can’t remember how we got to The Sun Also Rises. We had so much fun reading that book aloud—the actors instantly took to the dialogue, and I felt like I was listening to this group of people I knew so well. There were parts that sat so comfortably on the actors that I thought it was a good enough impulse. That’s usually what I’m looking for at that stage, something that gives me a good feeling. Because I’m also looking for problems: I don’t ever want to take a project where I can see the end of it when I first look at it, I don’t want to know where we’re going to end up or how we’re going to do it. I want that to be the thing we have to make ourselves do in rehearsal.
What were the problems with the book?
We realized pretty early on that we weren’t going to be able to do this as a verbatim reading. There seemed to be two Hemingways in the book, the one everyone knows that existed in the long, dry descriptions, but there was another one, an unexpected Hemingway that was in the person of Jake (the narrator) and also in the psychological complexity, the sadness, the wit—there was something that felt different from the image of Hemingway we’d all come to have.
So that, and a desire to throw off what we’d been doing with Gatz and S&F, made me feel we can find a play inside this book. We can lift the dialogue out, and we’ll have to edit and arrange it. That will be a brand new task for us. In some ways, even though Gatz was the most ambitious of the three projects and the longest, it was the easiest to make because Gatz was about this religious adherence to the entire text.
The Sun was hard to make because we had to make a lot of decisions. We had to exercise muscles we hadn’t been exercising in the other two shows. As an ensemble, we all act as a big group of dramaturges. We had to really develop that skill for this piece, going through the text. We’d always had the full text to fall back upon in the previous works, and it was daunting, especially after Gatz—it got so much attention for this all or nothing approach, and I didn’t want to get trapped in that.
How do you develop this work?
We always take about 18 months to get something finished. We work on it intensely for six-to-eight weeks, and then go away from it for a couple of months. We make drafts, we work our way through the book, and we start to develop a vocabulary for that show. If you’re going to give yourselves the amount of time we take to develop shows, you have to have real deadlines. The workshop premiere at the Ringling Festival in Sarasota [October 2009] gave us that deadline.
It was a mammoth task to cut down the text. I was working really hard to find the length that it wanted to be, so there was constant tension between what rhythm this needed to be, theatrically, and the info we needed for the story to make sense. The book became this great primary source for the play, it was our Bible, and sometimes we found that we couldn’t do anything but put some of that text back in. We don’t write plays as a company—we assemble them, or we really give ourselves a task with the faith that the completion of that task will make good theater. Our task here was building the theatrical incarnation of this book, without rewriting it. I never wanted to do the kind of adaptation where you completely retell the story in your own voice. I wanted this to be in Hemingway’s voice. I trusted the rhythm of all that dialogue. But it was a huge task between that and something that would fit into a reasonable length onstage.
Does The Sun… mark the end of ERS’s literary adaptations?
I think we are done with this phase. These three pieces together constitute a major phase of our development as a company. The next thing we’re going to do is an original play, which is brand new territory for us. We’re going to work with Sibyl Kempson, who has been with ERS for years, and she’ll write it with us. It’s a writing process the company will be involved with, but she’ll be the ultimate voice. It’ll be a big departure for us.
I really don’t know what will come after that. I may decide that we’ll finally work on some classic plays—maybe there is some Shakespeare or Chekhov in our future. And the idea of working with one of those plays is kind of terrifying. But I don’t think we’re done with literature. I’ve enjoyed so much working with all the different aspects of the problems of translating a book to the stage. In some ways, it’s the perfect situation. The writing has such tremendous integrity and gives us so much to live up to, but is totally problematic for the stage. But that’s good for me, I like to have a problem, a puzzle we have to solve.
The inevitable question: what is ERS’s relationship with The Wooster Group?
I worked for The Wooster Group for 14 years doing sound, and developed a lot of the ideas of how I wanted to use sound in my own shows. It was also a de facto apprenticeship with Liz LeCompte, and gave me a feel for what it took to make original work. Just for the record, I gave her Scott [Shepherd]—not the other way around. At one point they were looking for a replacement for Paul Lazar, and the rest is history. Now one of our biggest administrative challenges is scheduling our performing and touring, although everyone is very cordial about it.
Do you have a preferred term for the type of theater ERS does?
I used to like “devised theater” because it seemed like a neutral term that referred to the process, although that is starting to wear on me. I have a certain comfort with “experimental theater” as a term, even though it has all kinds of horrible connotations—to a lot of people, it means “abuse the audience.” I think we conduct genuine experiments, but we want it to be successful and enjoyable. It’s no good for me if the audience is bored or alienated or infuriated. But I learned from being downtown that there is a real value to being part of a community of people who trying things that are mostly failing. It’s the only way you get the most interesting work to happen.