Experiments, Jokes, and Choices: Elevator Repair Service’s The Select
On January 6th, 2016, Kyoung H. Park interviewed John Collins in Santiago, Chile.
Kyoung Park: Why is your company called Elevator Repair Service?
John Collins: When I was about 11 years old, I was visiting a relative at work, and what she did for work was to create these surveys that helped unemployed people figure out what type of job would be the right job for them to apply for. I took the test, and the computer asked you things like: “what do you like to do? How do you like to work? Where do you like to work? Who do you like to work with—do you like to work with people, with your hands, with technology?” and then it gives you some good options for a career. One of mine, I don’t remember all the other ones, was: Elevator Repair Man.
This was a running joke that I made in college and James Hannaham, who was one of the early members of the group with me, he was the one that said: “well, if we’re going to start a theater company, we have to call it Elevator Repair Service. We have to make this come true.” That was a very James Hannaham kind of joke, not mine, I thought the name didn’t make any sense, that it was too long. I went about a year being very uncertain, and not convinced that we should call ourselves that, but before I could really object, it had stuck. Some people have theories, that it’s like about lifting things, or using technology in some way, but it was just a stupid joke that stuck.
How did you decide to stage Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES and what was your process putting it up on stage?
Well, we call this a trilogy, although it didn’t start that way. We had very different reasons to choose THE GREAT GATSBY, which started the trilogy in 1999. After we did GATSBY verbatim, we decided to do something radical for us—to do two very similar projects, one right after the other.
Usually, we choose to do something different, throwing out the old ideas to start with something scary and unfamiliar. But we thought we’d do something crazy, so we did THE SOUND AND THE FURY right after GATZ. After that, we were starting to think about doing poetry next. We were looking at poems and even looked at the Bible, but then somewhere in that early decision-making process, it occurred to me that it would be nice to turn this into a trilogy. I wrote to Scott Shepherd, one of the company members, and I said: “What should we do now? If we draw a line through Fitzgerald and Faulkner, where does this point?” and he said: “Well, Hemingway, I guess.”
It’s funny—these decisions are not written in stone in the beginning, it always starts with a question. We started to get together at New York Theatre Workshop’s kitchen, sitting around a table, and we read Hemingway’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS and we read THE SUN ALSO RISES out loud. This novel was too long to do verbatim, and I didn’t want to do that anymore. We had done that absolutely with GATZ, and we’d done it mostly with THE SOUND AND THE FURY, and I was ready to let go of that. All I knew from the beginning was that this had to be a different way of putting a novel on stage, and as we read it, it was the dialogue that was so exciting to us. We had landed on something that hit on some character-actor relationships that were kind of perfect and we tried different things with it for a little while.
Eventually, we decided that we would pare it down to the dialogue. We’re still using Hemingway’s exact words—just not all of them. But otherwise, it’s extremely faithful to Hemingway’s language.
Do you still find yourself editing?
Well, it was a long process to get the edit done. We first performed THE SELECT in Edinburgh in 2010 and it was a lot longer than it is now. We were rehearsing scenes and cutting them, right up until the first performance that time. When we brought it back to premiere in New York in 2011, we were trimming it here and there. The next year, 2012, a producer came to us and said: “I think I can put this on Broadway if it was a little shorter,” so that inspired me to take another look at it. I knew it was too long—it’s probably too long right now, but I don’t have any new ideas on what to cut. In fact, we put it through a whole process in 2012 where we probably cut 30 minutes, and then ended up restoring things here and there, but I did put it through some tough love in 2012. (By the way, it did not get produced on Broadway.)
Are you cutting out characters or chapters?
We cut one character—the Concierge—in the last round. There were other characters that were also briefly there. And we cut a whole chapter without attempting it.
The most famous casualty of the show is when the two guys are on the train, heading to a fishing trip, and they meet an American family on the train. It was a fun thing to stage with Susie as the kid, we even invented a name for them—The Fussings—and we were all in love with it for a while. But everyone knew it was going to go—there was a betting pool going on when I was going to cut it—and that scene was gone before Edinburgh.
In the staging of THE SELECT, I was struck by the visual interpretation of the novel, and it made me wonder what your process was creating that physicality from source material that is literary?
I like to have the set be pretty singular, and to present a kind of obstacle course that we have to go through to stage the scenes. I think I got this from GATZ, where we decided to set it in an office, and that the office had to stand in for everything. It’s not real interesting to me to figure out how many different sets and set changes we can cram into a show.
The set designers that I’ve been working with lately are great with details. So we picked the starting point, which would be the cafe, and that was partly because we were reading a lot, sitting around these four tables at New York Theatre Workshop, and we were drinking a lot of wine and accumulating empty bottles. So we started to create the set because we were working on these four tables and we had empty bottles and we just shoved them into a new arrangement and it worked. But the need to make staging choices meant that we had to use it somehow, so it became about what it meant to clear all the tables and chairs away in one scene, or how we were going to move all the tables back on-stage. I also wanted both Matt Tierney and Ben Williams to be performing in the show, and to design sound and operate it on-stage, so we inherited that requirement for the set design.
The most radical, memorable choice we made was the bull-fight. We went through a series of decisions about the bullfight as we were watching a lot of movies and documentaries about bullfighters, and we noticed that they trained with a wheelbarrow with two really long handles, a wheel, and a pair of horns. The young guys would run around the corral and the bullfighters would train with them. I said: “Let’s see if we can find one of those—that would be great to use for the bull,” and as it always happens, there wasn’t one of those in the room, so we just used one of the tables as a temporary stand-in and we broke a lot of tables. Eventually, Ben designed for himself the bull-table, so now we have a table with rolling casters on the feet and a little cable apparatus that lets Ben pull it and collapse the front legs when the bull gets killed.
Does the show mean something different in hindsight, or do you still feel like you’re finishing your trilogy?
Well, the trilogy’s just the super-structure for a long period of work, but this show is much more psychological and emotionally complicated than the others. The psychological conditions of these characters are complex, wonderfully timeless, and the reason why it always appealed to us was because it did remind us of ourselves, a bit. We started working on this in 2009 and I think that year was one of our most intense touring years—we went to Australia, and straight from Australia to Europe, with two different shows, and then we went to Boston. We were really busy traveling at that time and we stay busy traveling, including with this show—and we could relate to this story: people drinking too much in foreign countries. I mean, that’s an oversimplification of the story, but there was something about the wit of these characters and their condition that still feels right for us.
What does the dance in THE SELECT mean?
The way that dance is often incorporated into the work is through a discovery of dance material separate from the material in the show. One dance was a Youtube video that a few people had found and they shared it with other people in the company. It was a French pop song and it had this ridiculous bad dance in it, so it instantly appealed to us, and it became a kind of found object that we looked to include in the show. We looked for opportunities where that dance could illustrate or advance things.
The bigger dance in the middle was more of a sensation that we needed to suggest when the fiesta “exploded”—there were people dancing everywhere. Ben Williams came across the footage when he was looking for music for marching bands; he found this home video on Youtube, a whole bunch of them, of a dance troupe that performed to the marching band’s music in the stands at a college football game. It was so intense and the dancers were so athletic and skilled that I thought: “oh well, let’s try to do this, because we will never be able to actually successfully mimic this.” We will try to recreate what these people are doing and this failure to do it will produce something that is unique, and the failure to dance it will be unique to each dancer.
In retrospect, it does mark a big change as things get wilder and more activated, and people are more exhausted as everything changes, and I think that the dance achieves that.
Do you think that the way you interpreted these videos as a found object is similar to the way you put yourself up against these novels with the company?
Yeah. Everything we do is like that. It’s the only way I know how to work: it’s to do things as a question, as an experiment. Try something that is doomed to failure and find something interesting in the failure. Try something that is impossible because I think that the one thing that keeps us going, and makes the work enjoyable, is that it’s a kind of a process of discovery every time. It’s not about some genius somewhere, coming up with an amazing plan, with images and drawings, and saying “We’re gonna’ execute this now and get it right.”
To whatever extent I have those kind of ideas, I’m usually hoping that they won’t work out. They’re just the thing that will cause a more interesting thing to happen. Of course, that makes it really difficult. It exaggerates how difficult things are in the beginning, because I know that we’re supposed to be stumbling on things, not making things up. And I think that, as a consequence, the plan sometimes does work out, but I usually don’t remember that it has. I will forget a lot of the times and I’ll ask myself: “how did we come up with that?” and usually, it’s: “well, you know, we were trying this and I don’t remember where things came from. They came up from this soup—this group-soup.”
Elevator Repair Service’s THE SELECT (THE SUN ALSO RISES) will perform in Festival Internacional Teatro a Mil in Santiago, Chile January 7-10, 2016. For more information, visit here: http://en.fundacionteatroamil.cl/obras/el-select