With the opening of Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby this past weekend comes the familiar questions of book to film interpretations. People wonder if anyone hosting Gatsby theme parties actually reads the book, what the music of Gatsby would actually feel like in the 20s, and if the movie can be accepted on its own terms. What would happen though, if the extravagant costumes and sets were stripped and if the entire text was read during one evening?
In 2006, Elevator Repair Service brought Gatz to the Walker, and they succeeded in doing just that. The performance was set in a contemporary, slightly run-down office, and the entire book was read during the close-to 6-hour performance. The audience got The Great Gatsby in its entirety.
While at the Walker, John Collins, the director of Gatz, and Scott Shepard, the lead actor, took the time to talk with performing arts curator Philip Bither about their ideas surrounding the piece. They talked about adaptations of The Great Gatsby and discussed how Gatz isn’t technically an adaptation because it uses the text in its entirety, not adding anything or taking anything away. They talked about the duration of the piece, the commitment of the audience, and why they chose the setting they did.
Here’s an except for the 2006 interview:
I wanted to ask you about your setting for the novel. People tend to connect the Jazz Age to glittery extravagance and the upper classes of that time, so your placement of the characters in this run-down, dumpy old office where everyone seems to be essentially lower middle class or striving to make a buck is a direct contradiction to what people expect.
Setting aside that it was a very intuitive choice on our part, I think it’s important that it has a kind of neutrality, that it isn’t asserting itself ahead of what’s being described, but is a great projection screen for it. We’ve talked about the “bookness” of the book, and I think one of the aspects of the book’s “bookness” is that you’re just having your imagination fed by it. So a dirty, messy office, something mundane and pedestrian like that, is a better way to watch people’s imaginations taking control of them. Because otherwise you’re just watching the director’s and the set designer’s imaginations. It’s just their vision of it; it’s no longer yours.
It also peels away a layer, because if you haven’t read the book since high school, then what overwhelms your memory of it is the Roaring Twenties setting. To be able watch without that veneer gives you a better view of the human story underneath.
And also the writing. F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t invent the Jazz Age or its whole aesthetic. It was just a backdrop. He wasn’t looking back like someone might today with a nostalgia for that period; it’s just what was going on. But that’s how the book gets regarded too often these days: “Oh, it’s the definitive story of the Jazz Age.” That’s not the power of the book. The power of the book is its literary power. You get better access to that without decorating it too much—or without decorating it at all, for that matter—with all the trappings of that period.
The ideas the three of them discussed are just as interesting today as they were seven years ago, and are particularly relevant with the new movie adaptation. Of course movies and theater are different species, but it is worth thinking about how people decide to appropriate or adapt works in any medium. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m curious how Baz Luhrmann handles the adaptation, especially after seeing Gatz in 2006.
Elevator Repair Service is back at the Walker from May 16-18 performing Fondly, Collette Richland, a new work written by Sibyl Kempson.
Read more about Fondly, Collette Richland in Rachel Jendrzejewski’s recent blog post, Truthful Ambiguities: Sibyl Kempson and ERS at the Walker, or in Julie Caniglia’s Walker Magazine article, The Plot Thickens.