Staging Hemingway at the Edinburgh Festival

Larry Ryan

IN16879053The Sun Also Rise 300x200 Staging Hemingway at the Edinburgh FestivalIn today’s Arts & Books, I’ve written a short piece about the experimental New York based theatre company Elevator Repair Service.

In 2005 the comapny staged an adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Inspired by Andy Kaufman, they performed every word of the book in a production that lasted over six hours. The show, ‘Gatz’, has since toured the world to huge acclaim, though it has never reached the UK because of a rights issue. I saw it at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2008: it was a fantastic experience, certainly worth the eight hours (including intervals). I wrote about it for the paper – read that here.

Next Elevator Repair Service performed an adaptation of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and now they conclude a trilogy of modernist literary adaptations with The Sun Also Rises, which receives its world premiere at the Edinburgh Festival tomorrow.

They have adapted in different ways. For The Sound and the Fury they staged a single chapter. In The Sun Also Rises, like with The Great Gatsby, they are taking on the whole book but this time it is a heavily edited version.

For the piece, I spoke to Elevator Repair Service’s Founder John Collins. He also directs the company’s plays, and he spoke on the phone from Boston, where he was in final rehearsals for The Sun Also Rises. Here’s what he had to say.

Tell me a little about the genesis of the new show?

This show was made to be a part of a large project, a trilogy of three plays all based on American novels from right around the same time. I think they were all published within about five years of each other which started with The Great Gatsby. At that point I didn’t have an idea to do any more novels. When we did Gatz it was a big experiment for us; to work with literature. At that point I had no idea how we were going to do that or what that would mean. For 15 years or so prior to that we had been a company that worked with found texts or improvised, anything that wasn’t literature! It was a real departure for us. But it was such a successful experiment, and I would say it wasn’t just because it was successful; I realised I really loved the language of those writers from that period. So we wanted to do it again after Gatz and we decided to try The Sound and the Fury, which I knew would be completely different. In many ways it is a completely different novel from The Great Gatsby, although it did come from that period and had the same modernist flavour to it. It was while we were doing The Sound and the Fury that I decided I wanted to make this into a project. I wanted to kind of complete that larger gesture of trying to understand that period and understand a little better what it was that I liked about the writing. So we asked the question, If we were going to make a trilogy of novels from that period, where does the trajectory point us? And it was obvious it was pointing us to Hemingway. He was of that era, friends with Fitzgerald, of that same generation of writers and with The Sun Also Rises, it rounded out – you can’t say rounded out, something that is in threes, a triangle – it finished out a set of perspectives on American culture at the time, that made sense to me because, for me The Great Gatsby was all about going to the north east, going to New York City, participating in that very sophisticated, exciting exuberance of the 20s. All the wealth. And it was also about leaving another part of the country to go to this mecca. The Sound and the Fury was very much about the south and how isolated and distinct culturally that part of the country was. The Sun Also Rises was a group of Americans out of America, displaced, floating around cultures that weren’t their own. That wasn’t the only reason I chose it. That was a happy discovery. The real reason we chose The Sun Also Rises was that we took to the dialogue when we sat around and read it.

IN16879054The Sun Also Rise1 300x200 Staging Hemingway at the Edinburgh FestivalFor Gatz you performed every single word of the novel, how have you approached The Sun Also Rises?

This is heavily edited. What was important for me about repeating myself – we used to refuse to do that, every new show was all about throwing out the idea of the previous show, trying to push ourselves to some new place. For the novel I needed to prove to myself, that even though Gatz was a success and quite popular, I needed to prove to myself that we hadn’t just discovered a simple formula for adapting literature to the stage. Gatz had such simplicity to the approach that was very winning but I wanted to find other ways to engage literature and I didn’t want to impose that solution on another book. I wanted to have a new encounter with a new book. It didn’t seem right at all to take that massively inclusive approach to the Hemingway. The Hemingway as theatre has a way of backfiring on itself if you go too far with Hemingway on his expository indulgences. It’s part of what creates the soul of the novel but getting to that on the stage was going to require more of an interpretative effort. That made me nervous a little bit: I spent a lot of time talking to a lot of people about how right it was not to edit The Great Gatbsy. I think that’s absolutely the right thing to do because what I believe fundamentally with making theatre is you have an honest encounter with your material without bringing a process to the table – without saying ‘this is how we make theatre so we’re going to just shove the next novel through that same mold’. It wouldn’t work and would be a really dreary exercise to take something that was successful for one novel and just keep doing it over and over again. If that worked then we’d be done because we’d just do novels from here until eternity. There are tonnes of good novels. I’m excited to be going about this in a different way.

Being so long and ambitious Gatz sort of felt like event theatre. This doesn’t have that same ‘wow factor’. Did you feel in the end that this was more of a risk?

In the end, yes, it did. It felt like a bigger challenge. If we were to do all of The Sun Also Rises as a single evening of theatre with the whole text, you could say that was a riskier endeavour but it would be familiar ground. Also, if we had sat down and started reading this novel and our explorations had pointed us in that direction that’s what we would have done but they didn’t. We didn’t deliberately say ‘we’re going to do this in a different way’. We just came to this with the slate clean. In the end, yeah, realising that the right way to put this novel on stage was that it has to be distilled. We have to carve away a lot of this novel in order to find a play inside it. That’s been a more intense intellectual, dramaturgical exercise and it’s been more of a writing exercise. With The Great Gatsby, the approach we took was to just to leave the idea alone. We were relieved of a great deal of responsibility. We put forward one big idea and had to stick to it. Here we have to work a little harder. But it’s been more gratifying this way because it’s not so easy to look at the page and know right away what’s going to be said in the scene. We’ve had to wear our dramaturgical hat, our play writing hat. But it worked. What’s really gratifying is that we have found, what I think is a very compelling play inside this novel

What was your process for The Sun Also Rises? How did you start putting the show together?

For each one they start the same way. We spend a lot of time reading them out loud. It’s predicated on the idea that something is going to happen to these novels as they are spoken. It’s the first and simple and easy leap to make – that they become different as soon as they are spoken aloud. We start with that. And seeing what the rhythm of the words spoken aloud tells us. With The Great Gatsby we had some sense this very delicately constructed and restrained form still managed to be lyrical and that’s when it seemed like it just couldn’t be messed with at all. With The Sound and the Fury it came about from finding a solution to Faulkner’s very challenging structure, very opaque structure. And finding a theatrical solution to that in terms of how we assigned the various voices. Here, with this one, we had a revelation very early on that Hemingway created dialogue that had a perfect rhythm to it, and to begin to drop a lot of what was attached to the dialogue and let the dialogue do the all this work which was lifting the thing up and helping it to find a theatrical form. And it’s been great because then novel itself becomes a great primary source for this play we’re creating. And all the information we need is in there somewhere and get inside it and have some of it just telling an actor what to do or what to think while they’re saying something. We let a lot of the novel exist below the service.

Is there an overarching theme for you to the three plays?

There was a kind of personal arch for me. In that the exercise of doing The Great Gatsby was that it was the first time we had really allowed text to be so central to a piece of ours. It had always been something I had resisted. The idea that plays and playwrights are what theatre is all about is something I had always resisted because to me theatre was about experience and therefore it was about the people who had that experience and those were actors and directors and designers. So I had always made work that was about that. Over the course of these three shows, what I realised is what I wanted to do was allow myself to move towards something that I always regarded as more conventional. The way I allowed myself to do that with Iwas if I could treat it as a novel, absolutely. And treat it as something that was wrong for the stage, then I was comfortable with it. Then I knew I had problems to solve as director. I wasn’t going to let myself cut any of the narration or exposition that seemed on the surface that it didn’t belong in the play. I was comfortable with the wrongness of that. So for me the process of working through these three novels was partly allowing myself to go somewhere I hadn’t allowed myself to go before, which was to kind of to write a play. It was something that started to happen during The Sound and the Fury. As we went through we started to drop some of the narration, we began to drop some of the he saids and she saids. So this was a larger experiment for me in creating an adaptation and going to a place that for 20 years I wouldn’t dare go.

Do you plan to move away from novels for your next play?

I think what’s happened over the last five years is I don’t fear text! I’ve found away to embrace it. My priorities are still the same: I need to feel like I’m taking on problems that I don’t already have a solution to. In a practical way that means I’m not planning on working on another novel next. I may work on a play next…

How radical.

Yeah, I know. It’s been a long, five-year process of selling our soul!

Was there any resistance within the company to doing the adaptations?

No, I think everyone was pretty excited about it. The ERS ensemble shifts a little bit with each show, for example, not as many women that are a part of the company were able to be in this show because there are more and stronger roles for men. That happens some times. But no, I think it’s been something people were excited about doing. We make the decision together – we spend a lot of time doing other readings. We read other novels out loud before we got to The Sun Also Rises.

So you sat around reading other novels and then realised it wasn’t going to work?

Well before we made the decision that these novels needed to come from the same period we read a little Anna Karenina… We just thought, ‘let’s pick a really long Russian novel and do something we know is way too long that we couldn’t possibly do all the text for’, but that didn’t take. It’s a kind of luxury of time that we give ourselves; we get deadlines and offers to do things but we try to stay away from making any commitments until we’ve had the chance to get a kind of collective enthusiasm for something and that definitely happened once we read The Sun Also Rises.

For Gatz, you cloaked it somewhat in a modern setting [Gatz begins in a rundown office that appears to be from the 1980s or early 90s]. Were there particular modern allusions you wanted to make with that, and are there modern allusions you want to make with the new play?

Less so. I instinctively prefer a kind of ambiguity about setting. It’s something I recognise about theatre as a medium is that you’re always in one room. You’ll never change locations in the theatre no matter what you fly in, no matter what backdrop appears, or what light cue or sound cue you’re in. I’m always thinking in singular settings. Gatz, because it was going to be the entire novel, because I wanted the novel to have a kind of autonomy, even as a prop on stage, I needed something to distance the acting from the novel and let it sit against a backdrop that would let it standout. I did not feel that way for the next two pieces. For each of these I wanted a singular setting but I wanted settings that were more claustrophobic in a way. That could become a very realistic idea of where people were at a given moment but would also have a temporal and geographical fluidity that we wouldn’t have to keep asking the audience to imagine a new place. I like the idea of everything happening on a single set. For both The Sound and the Fury and The Sun Also Rises there are sets that emerge from the book that become the one place that everything happens. In this case it’s a cafe.

Where you hoping to shine a new light on a particular point with these adaptations?

There’s always a kind of underlying hope… I don’t think we would do this if we didn’t feel like we were breathing some kind of new life into it but I think that’s more what the whole act of doing it aloud is. There are ways where if you really steeped it in a lot of period detail, you could try really hard to make it feel like something from the past but it’s a live performance so you’re always going to be fighting that. I think that’s why I like to let the set be ambiguous. And it’s why I like these novels. It’s something specific that appealed to me about the early 20th Century modernists: this is language that sounds like it could be spoken today. I think people do forget that. I guess that kind of freshness is a starting point. That’s where these novels are. It does disappoint me to see other adaptations that are all about taking you away to the past somewhere. I think the power of these novels is that they don’t really feel that way. People on a stage only enhances that effect.

Have you seen other theatrical adaptations of these books?

We’ve seen movies. There have been some perfectly awful movie interpretations of some of the books we’ve done. We watch them out of curiosity because we want to mine whatever material there is and immerse ourselves in the idea of it beyond the novel itself. In each case there’s something to the setting of the novel that is kind of a red herring. Yes The Great Gatsby is the definitive novel of the Jazz Age but when you read it what’s powerful about it is not how well it portrayed the style of the 1920s. That’s very much the background. What’s beautiful about it is the very specific psychological narrative of the narrator. That really doesn’t have anything to do with the Jazz Age, that’s just when he happened to write it. With The Sun Also Rises, all Hemingway’s obsessions are in there: with the Spanish countryside, with bull-fighting, it’s all there. But there’s something more subtle and psychological that transpires among these characters that is the reason it survives as a great novel. I think our approach, because we’re very sparing – doing it in the theatre requires us to be very sparing with that kind of period detail. We can’t go shoot a scene in Pamplona, we’re going to be Edinburgh! So it leaves you more with the specific actions happening in front of you. It leaves a lot to your imagination but it also brings into the focus what I think is the best part of the writing, which is not just the places it references but the relationships between the characters.

Did you have any resistance from the estates of Fitzgerald, Faulkner or Hemingway?

One thing I’ve learned from doing this is that it’s kind of a commercial agreement you’re going into with the estates. These are some of the most famous novels, in this country anyway, and they are being dealt with by lawyers because they are valuable property. It sounds a little silly to talk about them that way but it’s also true: we can’t be naive about this world we’ve entered in to. The Great Gatsby makes a tonne of money for its rights holders in books sales and it attracts the interest of filmmakers like Baz Luhrman, who has bought the film rights. Early on I used to get frustrated that we had to talk about them in this way because I certainly didn’t see them that way, I just wanted an honest and simple and straightforward theatrical presentation of this thing. So with the other cases we had to navigate in a similar way: the Faulkner people don’t want us to ever videotape anything because there’s a movie in development. The Hemingway estate are also extremely cautious so we’re fortunate that we’ve managed to get an agreement with each of those estates. So as long as there’s not a major commercial consideration, as long as they don’t see us being a problem for another project that’s going to make them more money, then we’re OK.

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