New York stories: The Sun Also Rises and Vieux Carré hit Edinburgh 2010
Elevator Repair Service and Wooster Group head up International Festival
This article is from 2010.
Wooster Group and Elevator Repair Service are once again bringing their unique visions to two classic works of literature. Anna Millar speaks to the main players on how they keep breaking conventions
If the world of theatre was like a finely crafted china shop, then two very impressive bulls are preparing to charge at this year’s International Festival. As leaders of the experimental pack, Elevator Repair Service and the Wooster Group perform, not just out of the box, but in their own unique playgrounds, meshing speech, art, film, movement and music to create their own incomparable canvases. This year’s festival also brings two of America’s greatest writers to the stage with Elevator showcasing their take on Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Wooster bringing us Tennessee Williams’ autobiographical Vieux Carré.
Having walking through New York’s Lower East Side to meet John Collins, director of Elevator Repair Service, it seems strangely telling that we meet in a café just minutes from the Williamsburg Bridge. Famous for drawing no support from the cables above it and majestically unconventional, it’s not unlike Collins himself, who has seamlessly captured and cultivated ERS’ skill for creating the unexpected, since the company’s formation in 1991.
Their latest piece follows their smash hit interpretations of F Scott Fitzgerald, with Gatz, and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Classic texts they may be, but in Collins’ hands, traditional they most certainly were not. ‘It pays to come to our shows with no expectation,’ he smiles. ‘Some people expect us to be even more than we are because of our reputation; others have never seen anything like us.’
Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises – the tale of a group of weary, inebriated American expatriates searching for identity and redemption in Europe – finds ERS at their pared-down best, amidst the bullfighting and fiestas of Europe. Hi-tech and lo-tech design clash and complement in equal measure, as literary texts and objects, old music videos and choreography help set the pace for proceedings. A frenetic score accompanies a much-anticipated bullfighting scene, with only a table and chair as inspiration.
‘We wanted to think about how to show a bullfight on a very simple level,’ explains Collins with the table becoming a bull and the chair a matador. He admits that at ERS HQ, few furnishings escaped unscathed during rehearsals. ‘It’s fair to say we broke a lot. Theatre Workshop, where we were rehearsing, got same nice new tables from us.’ For Collins, creating the extraordinary from the every day is just part of his remit. ‘I have a consistent interest in dealing with the problems in theatre. I like the uncomfortable fits. It usually means I don’t know what it’s going to look like until we [the ensemble] are there. I don’t trust brilliant ideas beforehand.’
A dedicated, close-knit company, much of the ERS rehearsal process and initial idea-building comes from making works-in-progress. ‘We have habits as a company and consistent personalities. We try not to do the same thing every time. People may think we are simply working on a third literary adaptation but each of the three novels we’ve done have required a different process.’ For Collins, it’s about pushing and toying and manipulating theatre. ‘There are absurd limitations to the medium. We want to create a very specific environment that the actors have to navigate. We’re there with a table and a bunch of chairs and we have to show a bullfight or a change in location. How do we do that? We have to make those ideas soar.’
Sound, the use of speech and clever interpretations of music are often used as a character in the ERS landscape during The Sun Also Rises, while the company’s technicians will appear on stage as bartenders, manning a sound deck which doubles up as a bar. ‘Everything we do,’ explains Collins, ‘is in some way or another a process of translating material to stage that wasn’t meant for it. I don’t come into the room with a list of ideas. I need them to be game for trying a lot of things that fail. When we try things that fail, that’s when I see the solution. It requires a performer with a certain openness and energy and the prolonged exposure we have to each other helps us create an exchange. Sometimes we’ll get to the end of a rehearsal and I don’t know where the idea came from; we just know that we got there.’
Having worked as sound director for the seminal avant-garde Wooster Group early on in his career, Collins refers to them as ‘influential’ and ‘inspiring’, though notes that they both bring different things to the experimental party. Across town at Wooster’s base, at The Performing Garage in Soho, it’s difficult to imagine the collective being anything less than inspirational.
Indeed, as performers Ari Fliakos, Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk traipse in, slightly bleary-eyed but no less animated after a month-long run of their North Atlantic show, they look as at home as they would in their own living rooms, settling down onto two precarious-looking chairs and a knackered old sofa. Huge overflowing boxes, bits of set and old filing cabinets surround us, while a faint, lived-in odour wafts around the room. The only sign of order is a young woman using a laptop in the corner, but even she is surrounded by paper.
Trailblazers for over 30 years, you would not expect anything less chaotic. Boasting a highly skilled ensemble and maintaining a flexible repertory with radical staging of both modern and classic texts, they have simultaneously epitomised the avant-garde and defied its definitions. North Atlantic featured hula-dancing GIs, while their critically acclaimed and uber-hip Hamlet was turned into a multi-media event.
Under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, the troupe has produced seminal works from their early Rumstick Road to opera/sci-fi conundrum La Didone. Chekhov’s Three Sisters was given an overhaul in Brace Up!, Fish Story and Finished Story, respectively. Then there was their extraordinary reimaging of Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights.
The list of accolades and successes goes on and on. Stand-up, film, vaudeville and Kabuki theatre continually inspire their unique narratives. At Wooster’s heart lies their mentor and director LeCompte who, along with the ensemble, cherry-picked their latest opus.
‘Intuitively we knew,’ says actor Ari Fliakos, of Vieux Carré. ‘We read the piece once and we just saw something.’ The others nod. For financial reasons, the troupe can be rehearsing one show while touring an older work as part of their rep theatre roster. But every time a show goes up, it feels like the beginning again, they say. ‘I think it helps that Liz has impatience with anything feeling too much like last time,’ explains Scott Shepherd. ‘In that way, you are always throwing another wrench in the works. We don’t have a clear vision. It gets very muddy. The clarity comes out of hard work. As performers, we have faith and trust in Liz. We trust her to go the distance; to complete it. She spends a lot of time in the not-knowing. I think what happens is like a visionary or a psychic phenomenon. Liz gets a fast forward vision of the piece.’
LeCompte founded the company over three decades ago along with screen actor Willem Dafoe. Thirty years on, she’s still widely regarded as the Grand Dame of experimental theatre. ‘She’s like a magpie,’ smiles Shepherd. ‘She’s always out in the world, thinking how we are going to get something she hears, or something she sees in a museum, into the show.’
Written in 1978, Vieux Carré is one of Tennessee Williams’ most autobiographical plays. Set in a once-respectable but now dilapidated old boarding house in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the main character is a young man, simply called ‘The Writer.’ Like Williams himself, he is struggling with both his literary career and his homosexuality. More sexually explicit than some of his other works, tensions rise above the surface; it’s a story Wooster is excited about telling. As ever, old will marry with new; reality with unreality. The steamy improvisational films of Paul Morrissey, produced with Andy Warhol in the early 1970s, will help create tension in the piece. It’s the welding of the elements Wooster enjoys the most. ‘Sometimes, things crash up stylistically,’ explains Kate Valk. ‘Like with the Paul Morrissey films, we use them in different ways; they come up against the text or inform the story somehow. The technology, the video, sound, design and performances become part of a piece that is difficult to achieve without a long period of tedium that some companies don’t have the time, ego or real estate for. We do.’
Though, she admits, bringing something fresh and invigorating to each performance isn’t always easy. Stubborn perseverance, they all concede, helps. And of course, the lady they all do it for, LeCompte herself. ‘It’s her vision,’ says Valk. ‘Liz is at all the performances. When we’re making work we’re trying to entertain her. She’s our audience. When she’s not there, it feels pointless. With Liz, you’re free of actors directing themselves. You know when you go and see a play, and you like the concept but think he or she wasn’t very good? We come as an ensemble; a complete work. She’s always trying to take us to the next level; she pushes, and you feel liberated from yourself. Hopefully that works for an audience too.’
The Sun Also Rises, 14–16 Aug, 7.30pm; 15 Aug, 1pm; 17 Aug, 2pm; Vieux Carré, 21–24 Aug, 7.30pm. Both shows at Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, 0131 473 2000, £10–£27.