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Absolute Geography

By Sara Jane Bailes


It’s late afternoon, April 10, 2010, and I’m run­ning up the Bowery about to turn right onto East 4th Street in Manhattan’s East Village to a rehearsal space at New York Theatre Workshop. Theatre ensemble Elevator Repair Service (ERS) is in its first week of an intensive develop­ment period for the company’s new production, a show based on Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises. Written in 1926, the novel secured the author’s reputation as one of the great post-war American writ­ers. Through the eyes of its narrator, the war-wounded Jake Barnes, the book charts the adventures of a hand­ful of scattered expatriate socialites and writers living a bohemian lifestyle tinged with the melancholy of disillu­sionment and existential ennui as they roam south from Paris to Pamplona (Navarre, northern Spain) to witness the running of the bulls. The brutality of the bull fight underscores the listless and sometimes violent feelings that underpin the narrative.

The Select (The Sun Also Rises) is the company’s 14th production since ERS began making theatre in 1991 as a bunch of graduates from Yale and New York Universities. Over the years company membership has evolved organically with each show, deter­mined by the needs of the piece and the desire, abilities and availability of its members. Since 1997, when I saw my first ERS performance at the edgy and well-respected downtown venue PS122, their practice has developed in surprising but logical ways. Work has shifted from intensely physical performances—characterized by a montage of layered and fragmented texts drawn from disparate sources expertly layered together, vibrant oddball “dances” and comic-book characterization—to shows in which the architecture and dramaturgy is built through a deep engagement with classic American novels from the interwar period. In their staging, all ERS works flirt with realism, reworking and quoting some of realism’s more recognizable traits—we see snatches of full-blown character, dialogue and a world ostensibly reflecting everyday life. Yet often this world is fragmented and reassembled in such a way as to throw it into bold and absurd relief. The company always draws inspiration from non-theatrical sources: an eclectic variety of music and sound; gestural sequences copied from film or TV pro­grams; character behavior lifted from documentaries or from members’ day-to-day lives in New York City. Rather than a departure from their early work, the turn to literature seems to develop a preoccupation with how to stage things that don’t necessarily belong on stage; the intrigue (and fun) lies in discovering how to craft dramatic material out of this process.

As I enter the rehearsal studio something is being figured out. Ruddy brown café chairs appear randomly strewn across the stage. ERS are selective and resourceful in their pro­cess: mistakes and accidents might be integrated into the material; surrogate objects used in early rehearsals often become critical props. A long trestle table sits to one side. John Collins (Artistic Director, also playing Robert Cohn in this production) sits on stage facing outwards, pensive. Downstage center a performer (Ben Williams) lies on his back, an empty wine bottle and a copy of the novel by his side. He gesticulates with his hands while explaining something to Collins. Sound Designer Matt Tierney sits at a desk in front of a laptop, listening intently. He experiments with different sound pos­sibilities in appropriate (and as often inappropriate) combinations, every­thing from the humorous zingy noise of a coiled spring to a distant male choir, a babbling brook, or a deadening thwack resembling a hard-fisted punch. Sound defines the world of the piece as much as other components.

The discussion begins to focus upon a concern: how much work the audience is going to have to do. As experimental theatre-makers, prior­itizing the negotiation of meaning between audience and performers/performance remains critical to the development of material. Unbridled play is tempered by the need for material (and here Hemingway’s novel) to be interpreted and under­stood. Without a script the rules of the game—what feels appropriate or permissible on stage, what behav­ior can occur within the conceptual framework of the piece and the world it creates—are defined more slowly through structured processes of trial and error. A moment later Collins notes, “I feel like I’m having to solve some logic I’m not interested in.” What’s at stake in this moment becomes fundamental to the way that The Select (The Sun Also Rises) develops, for it concerns how much narration from Hemingway’s original novel is retained and how much can be discarded. After all, this isn’t an adaptation (that is, the conversion of the novel into first person dialogue and a script) but something more complex and hybrid that resembles an animated and exaggerated staged reading of the work. It’s an attempt, as with the previous parts of this trilogy Gatz (2006) and The Sound and the Fury (2008), to preserve and attempt to stage the encounter between literature and theatre. The objective remains to preserve the book-as-a-book by accommodating its narrative conventions within the predicament of live drama. As Collins later puts it, the challenge of this par­ticular show is the attempt to “find the play inside the novel rather than treat the novel as a play.” This approach makes sense when considering the earlier productions.

In the six-hour-long Gatz, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby (1925) is read aloud on stage word for word, though it’s not set within the time and place described by the novel. Instead The Great Gatsby seems to appear, gradually and quite literally, in the context of a shabby contemporary office where staff are simultaneously caught up in the mundane activities of their daily routines alongside the characters and actions depicted by the novel. The performers straddle two worlds at once: the (real) office and Fitzgerald’s (fictional) novel. It’s an ambitious and compelling theatrical feat which succeeds effortlessly in captivating its audience despite its marathon commitment to deliver the novel in its entirety. In The Sound and the Fury, set in a perfectly realized, large family living room in the American South, the audience are presented with the challenging first chapter of Faulkner’s novel (60 or so pages), the events of which are perceived through the eyes of Benjy Compson, a mute, mentally handicapped 33-year-old who cannot distinguish between past, present or future. The tasks and objectives that guide the creation of material are developed by Collins and the company to help determine both the logical possibilities and the world of each show. He describes such a task as a “radical commitment” to the material, which often implies devotion to the source material rather than a desire to alter it. Yet, as equally, ERS commit to the unruly playfulness discovered in the ongoing activities of problem-solving. This distinguishes their theatre with its characteristic blend of savvy intelli­gence matched by bold slapstick humor.

Currently this New York ensemble sits, amongst others, at the forefront of invention and the expansion of new vocabularies for theatre-making; they are now well-established and comfortably into their third decade. The trilogy of “literature works,” with The Select (The Sun Also Rises) as the final installment (it premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2010) brought the group international recognition. These works are distinctive and have invented a particular virtu­osity for the stage, one determined by the convention of reading literature out loud. Challenging conventions between reading and staging, these works search for alternative ways to construct and then represent narrative on stage by examining the traditions of other forms. Theatre-making is a potentially transformative craft, one that can accommodate or disturb our perception of past/present events and characters through the prism of contemporary experience. Theatre has both an immediacy (its liveness) and a naivety (its limitations because of its liveness). ERS remains committed to live theatre as the basis for exper­imentation even as they explore its encounters with other disciplines and with non-theatrical material. In this respect they advance the experimen­tation of their predecessors in post-World War II American avant-garde art practice through an interdisciplinary approach that combines high and low cultural forms, styles and genres. With each new show they return to the parameters of what theatre can be made to do, seeking to expand those limits, though as Collins observes of his company, “The thing we would never do is the same thing twice.”

Through mining the limits theatre-making imposes, ERS confronts its boundaries in the hope of discovering different ways to illuminate the expe­rience of staging as well as the thing being staged. It doesn’t matter how incidental or impossible an objective might seem: from translating a Betty Boop cartoon into a dance sequence (Cab Legs, 1997) to representing possession and haunting by perform­ing a show in half-darkness (Room Tone, 2002); to the reinvention of a Greek tragedy using domestic objects as characters (Euripides’ Bacchae in Highway to Tomorrow, 1999) or demonstrating the undercurrents of male desire in a trout-fishing trip up the Irati River (The Select). Consider for a moment the things theatre struggles to do well yet can’t quite manage because of its immediacy, its provisional conditions that work hard to conceal its labor as it faces the limitations of representation: temporal­ity, age, gender, the outdoors, fantasy, death and so on. It lacks, for example, the sophistication that film’s repertoire of techniques and facilities can offer and the effects it can convincingly produce. Instead, using four tables, a bunch of chairs, several false doors and walls, a wealth of sampled sounds and ten performers, how might one recreate the buzzing ambience of a 1920s Parisian café filled with smoke, booze and the promise of pro­miscuous liaisons? Or stage the fierce, ceremonial ritual of the Spanish bullfight? How does theatre achieve credibility rather than veracity? Rather than suspending our disbelief, what if, as an audience, we simply suspended our belief, settling in instead to enjoy the imaginative and absurd reality of the unconvincing yet believable solutions in front of us?

In this world wrought with humor at its own failings and the delight of the serendipitous accident, ERS begins to redefine both literature and theatre as they meet somewhere in the middle, without resolution. In this encounter both forms are compromised yet in that process of negotiation an unfamiliar territory begins to materialize. In their radical commitment to the expansion of form, Collins and the group discover what he describes as the “absolute geog­raphy” of Hemingway’s “play inside the novel.” This seems to expand the imaginary landscape of the novel, unearthing more of its potentiality by confronting the starkness of its writing and matching its bluntness with the awkward operations of the stage. In The Select (The Sun Also Rises), ERS quite literally, and perhaps inevitably, take Hemingway’s bull by the horns.


Sara Jane Bailes is a writer, theatre-maker and academic. She teaches Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Sussex (U.K.). Her writing on Elevator Repair Service is published in Making Contemporary Theatre (Eds. Jen Harvie and Andy Lavender, MUP, 2010) and more extensively in her book, Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure (Routledge, 2010).

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