No Objections: John Collins on Elevator Repair Service's First Bay Area Hearing
Friday, October 31, 2014
By Robert Avila
Elevator Repair Service has been making wildly disparate new work since 1991, and developed a considerable reputation among the theatrical avant-garde. But the New York–based, ensemble-driven theatre company received worldwide attention relatively recently with Gatz, its acclaimed five-and-half-hour, word-for-word adaptation of The Great Gatsby.
Ben Williams, foreground, and Mike Iveson in Elevator
Repair Service's Arguendo. Photo: Joan Marcus
ERS's Arguendo, which premiered last night at Z Space, has its roots in the legal conundrum the company faced in securing the rights to The Great Gatsby, but emanates too from the company's founding artistic director, John Collins, and his longstanding interest in the law.
Like Gatz, Arguendo mounts a highly imaginative verbatim staging of its source text, in this instance Barnes v. Glen Theatre, wherein the US Supreme Court heard arguments for and against public nudity, in the context of an erotic nightclub, as artistic expression covered by the first amendment. The magic of Arguendo lies not only in the wonderful clash of cultures it reproduces, including the tortuous legal reasoning around pasties and G-strings, but in the meta-theatrical opportunities it affords and even demands as a work of art itself.
Arguendo marks ERS's debut in the Bay Area. It's a cause for celebration. But what made it happen? Collins, who has also worked extensively with the Wooster Group and others, went into the details last week at his "office"—a couple of high stools and a round bar table in a corner of Il Buco restaurant and market in New York's East Village. There he spoke about the collaborations that have made this trip to San Francisco, and so much else, possible.
Robert Avila: You were explaining how early critical success brought you some new audiences who weren't necessarily ready for the kind of work ERS makes. Is that something you would want to avoid?
John Collins: I think that something like that, even though it can be a bit of a shock, is healthy. It's good to be reminded of where you sit with a conventional audience. And who knows? You can get new audience in unexpected places sometimes. When we went from Off-Off-Broadway to Off-Broadway, we ended up with some much older audiences. That was, at first, terrifying. We were doing our production of The Sound and the Fury [at New York Theatre Workshop] and the audience, to us, seemed ancient. But I actually found that we reached some of those people. It surprised the hell out of me.
RA: At the same time, does having an audience already primed to accept and respond favorably present its own limitations?
JC: We want to make ourselves try new things. And so we don't want to be just performing for an audience that has a certain expectation. It's part of a larger process, I think—just always testing ourselves, throwing ourselves in front of an audience who hasn't seen us before. It keeps us honest.
Collins at an ERS event in May 2014.
Photo: Christopher Ash
RA: ERS has never been to San Francisco. How important is it for you to get out to other places in general and the Bay Area in particular?
JC: We've been very lucky to develop a number of relationships outside of New York, in places that we can take shows to and return to, like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, or the Wexner Center [in Columbus, Ohio]. The Walker [Art Center, in Minneapolis, Minnesota] has been a big partner of ours. But San Francisco was a point on the map that I always thought we should go to. There are great cultural institutions here, and there's good theatre that comes out of here. So I'm glad it finally happened.
RA: What has made it possible?
JC: I think in [Z Space artistic director] Lisa [Steindler] we found a kindred spirit. I have a really good friend, Gabe Maxon; Gabe was the one who first mentioned Lisa to me. I would say [the answer lies] between that sort of personal connection, and the New England Foundation for the Arts's National Theater Project, which is making a big contribution to this trip in financial support. What comes with it is the ability to support touring, especially to places where you maybe haven't had a chance to go before. Which is great, because you meet somebody like Lisa, and you just think, "Why haven't we been collaborating on things for years?"
RA: What is the importance for you of this kind of collaboration, contact with different artists, companies, presenters, producers, across the country?
JC: That's how we've been able to do our work at this level without our own theatre. We've never had our own space. I used to always dream of having my own theatre, as I'm sure many young directors do. But just out of necessity we made a lot of work by collaborating with people who did have theatres. And I would not change that now. We learned so much; we got introduced to audiences that way. That's how we have survived and thrived, by developing these relationships.
I still aspire to have my own rehearsal studio, where I could put on a work-in-progress showing, but I would never trade these relationships. And it extends to these out-of-town theatres too. On the Boards in Seattle is another one. REDCAT [Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, in Los Angeles] is where we will go from San Francisco.
RA: So did you dodge a bullet by not ending up with your own theatre?
JC: I guess I'm lucky that I didn’t acquire a theatre at a point where I couldn't appreciate what a burden that would be. I admire anyone who runs their own space, like the folks at Z Space. It's such a terrific place and they've such a big responsibility. We're lucky to get to benefit from that. And one thing that Gabe really impressed on me about it: They're not letting institutionalization make them too conservative. They're still adventurous. They've got this great spirit. To be able to do that and run a big building is an accomplishment.
Robert Avila is a theatre and dance writer and critic based in San Francisco.