As he graduated from Yale University in 1991, John Collins, director and designer of the experimental theater group Elevator Repair Service, found himself stumped with what to do with a degree in literature. And his backup was that even less promising major, theater. So, that same year, he just put the two together and started something new. He and a group of friends, some of them also from Yale, began to create theater performances that didn’t rely on a play script, but rather on material that was not originally intended to be a play. And Elevator Repair Service (ERS) was born, titled whimsically for the results of an aptitude test that Collins took when he was a young student.
This past season in New York City, the company garnered a lot of publicity, some impressive reviews, and a wide audience for their performance of “Gatz,” produced at the Public Theater. The production, an eight-hour experience (with a break for dinner) included reading and acting out the complete text of “The Great Gatsby.” Ah, ha: a use for a degree in literature. U.S. 1’s theater critic Simon Saltzman put the play on his year-end “10 Best List,” writing that it was a “dramatic feast of words with unexpected faithfulness to its source.”
Earlier, the company built a theater piece on the Benjy chapter from William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.” (Benjy is one of the three Compson brothers who provide their individual points of view in different chapters of the novel.) The 2008 production at the New York Theater Workshop led to award nominations and an extensive tour. ERS’s current project is “The Select [The Sun Also Rises]” drawn from the Hemingway novel “The Sun Also Rises.” The production, presented by the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton, takes place on Friday and Saturday, April 15 and 16, at the Berlind Theater at McCarter.
“This is one of the most innovative companies now at work,” says Paul Muldoon, chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts. “I’ve been a fan for several years and am thrilled to see their recent success with ‘Gatz.’”
Muldoon says that ERS will be coming in the next year or two to teach a workshop as part of the Lewis Center’s Atelier program.
The summer after Collins graduated from Yale, he worked as a sound designer at the Target Margin Theater, a peripatetic experimental group based in Brooklyn (and still in operation). Some of his college friends were also working there and they decided to put on a show for themselves. They selected a Dada play — Dada refers to a movement in the art and theater world that surfaced after the First World War and was often termed “anti-art” — that Collins had studied in college and performed it at midnight, with Collins directing. “It was short, but it got the ball rolling,” says Collins in a phone interview in which his enthusiasm for his 20-year-old theater company and its process tumbles out in energetic sentences — actually, paragraphs. From there, someone in the group suggested they take a look at a never-produced screenplay that Salvador Dali had written for the Marx Brothers. A vital part of their process came to the fore: research. First they had to find the screenplay. Then, “we watched a lot of Marx Brothers movies, and that was a lot of fun,” says Collins.
‘Our company grew gradually,” he says. “We got together to do one show, had a good time, got together to do another one. And another. Around that second or third show, we decided we should just do this as a company because the same people were showing up, and we were enjoying working together.” Collins had had aspirations for starting his own company ever since a stint working lighting for the New-York-based experimental theater the Wooster Group. “I got a wonderful opportunity to see how an older ensemble group works while I was starting my own. I learned a lot about the freedom you could have working as an ensemble while creating original work. That was like graduate school for me.”
Over the past 20 years, the company has added new members and some have moved on to other projects. “Some people who were on board for the first production are still with the company now. We have some very dedicated, long-time members.” One of the founding members, Rinne Groff, left to focus on playwriting. Her play “Compulsion” just completed a successful run at the Public Theater in Manhattan, where another of her plays, “Ruby Sunrise,” premiered six years ago. Another company member, Steve Bodow, moved on to become a director on “The Daily Show.” “We’re very proud of our alumni,” says Collins.
Over the years, they have developed more than a dozen theater pieces and toured throughout the United States and Europe.
Looking for inspiration for new projects led them to their recent works based on novels. “I realized that I liked working with material that was really great writing,” says Collins. He found himself particularly drawn to works that were written during the late 1920s. Collins speaks of these novels’ “clarity and lyrical writing that seemed to transcend their era. It sounded like someone talking today. It didn’t sound like someone pretending to be someone else.” After the company’s work on Fitzgerald’s novel, they chose Faulkner. “We wanted something different; we try to discover a new method for each project that we do, something that speaks to the specific material,” says Collins.
“Our best creative impulses are when we have a problem to solve,” says Collins. He remembers being annoyed back in college when the actors had to rehearse a script and “all sorts of unpredictable things happened, especially when people were still learning their lines and getting to know the physical space. I was frustrated because you couldn’t include those discoveries in the play because they weren’t in the script.” Alternately he felt a kinship with the Wooster Group’s process, which “focused on the joy of rehearsing and discovering.”
After Fitzgerald and Faulkner it occurred to Collins that ERS might make this a trilogy by adapting one more novel with connections to the other two. “If you draw a line between Fitzgerald and Faulkner, where does it point? Hemingway was an obvious answer after that.”
The company read aloud several Hemingway works. “When we read ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ we fell in love with the dialogue, so much great rhythm and wit,” says Collins. They selected pieces from the novel and included dance and stylized movement.
The work premiered at the 2010 Edinburgh International Festival. It was seen as part of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival last September, and more recently at ArtsEmerson in Boston. “Hemingway’s great sense of humor comes through and yet, at the same time, something subtle, sad, and very moving about the characters shines through,” says Collins.
“The Select [The Sun Also Rises],” Princeton University, Berlind at McCarter Theater. Friday, April 15, 7 p.m., and Saturday, April 16, 2 p.m. Drama based on the novel “The Sun Also Rises” presented by the experimental theater company Elevator Repair Service. 609-258-9220 or www.princeton.edu/arts.