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The Poetics of Elevator Repair Service

By Harriet Staff

If you haven’t heard of Elevator Repair Service, get your backpack on. A New York–based experimental theater ensemble that has performed all over the world, ERS originally “worked with found texts or improvised, anything that wasn’t literature!” as director John Collins told The Independent in 2010. These days, they’re known for their interpretation of classic American novels, like Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and famously, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which ERS performed, in a sold-out and extended run, as an astonishing seven-hour play called GATZ (wherein every single word of the novel was read aloud by Scott Shepherd) at The Public Theater last year. But novels aren’t the entirety of the impulse. In The New York Times yesterday, regarding the recent ERS performance, “Shuffle,” executed over the weekend for the New York Public Library’s centennial celebration, Charles McGrath wrote:

On Sunday afternoon John Collins, the founder and director of Elevator Repair Service, was on hand, beaming with pleasure at what was taking place, and he explained some of the mechanics of the performance. The script was computer-generated, combining together the three novels following some complicated algorithms devised by Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen, Conceptual artists who also created “Moveable Type,” a permanent installation in the lobby of the New York Times building. Behind their paperbacks the actors were holding iPhones, on which their parts were unscrolling, emerging newly minted from the computer even as they were reading them.

Each installment of “Shuffle” lasted 22 minutes, after which Mr. Hansen, upstairs on the periodical room balcony, would ring a bell, hit a button and prompt the computer to begin a brand-new one. No two versions were exactly the same, though certain phrases and passages recurred, but in different order, and the texts were interlocked, so that the computer moved through all three at the same rate. The effect was often baffling, intermittently lovely and frequently very funny. . . .

Each performance began identically, with the first line of each of the novels read aloud. “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton,” one actor said. “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since,” another said. And a third remarked, “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”

Then they usually began to speed up, zipping through the opening paragraphs like a tongue-twister until the algorithms kicked in. Sometimes the logic was decipherable—a series of noun phrases all beginning with “a” or “the,” or “he is” or “she is,” or passages mentioning body parts or the weather—and sometimes the text-generator seemed to be copying from the same program that generates a lot of contemporary poetry.

What program is that? Nonetheless, it’s not the first time poetry and ERS have been in cahoots, and there’s certainly much much more to be said about them (check out Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure, to start; or even just a small online search will do!). Heck, their show No Great Society was about the afterlife of Jack Kerouac as embodied by a shy poet (played by Susie Sokol) guest-appearing on The Steve Allen Show while “prone to sudden outbursts of lyric mania.” They’ve also used texts by Willa Cather, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville. Classic, as the term goes, indeed. Yet their work insists on upending linear logic once onstage. You can also see Elevator Repair Service perform at the Ugly Duckling Presse Art Auction and Party, happening tonight in Brooklyn. For more on the library’s exploratory centennial celebration, visit their site.

This ERS dance medley is also a must-see. And videos of their more recent work are here.


Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, May 24th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.