For the past several years, Elevator Repair Service has found theatrical inspiration in the strongly narrative novels of famous dead men.
Now, after wrestling with the brawny work of Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner, the New York theater collective has gone all right-brain and intuitive with the work of a living woman. This week at Walker Art Center, ERS presents a preview performance of “Fondly, Collette Richland.” Created in collaboration with playwright Sibyl Kempson, the work is described as mysterious and nonlinear.
“I’ve admired Sibyl’s writing and really wanted to bring her voice to more people,” said John Collins, ERS artistic director. “We’re trying to tap into what is exhilarating about her writing, and the madness of it. We want to magnify that.”
The troupe last visited the Walker in 2006 with “Gatz,” which created a parallel physical narrative — warehouse employees working through the day — while actors read the entire text of “The Great Gatsby.” It was a memorable experience that stretched six hours and never felt long. Kempson read the parts of Myrtle Wilson and Jordan Baker as ERS toured the celebrated production around the country. Also a member of New Dramatists, Kempson has written and directed work separately from ERS.
Collins and several actors founded ERS in 1991. The group typically develops its work over long periods with a democratic ethic involving everyone’s ideas — not all of which survive the process of refinement, of course. With “Collette,” Kempson wrote pages and pages of material — what Collins called “a sea of details.” Through readings, workshops, rehearsals and rumination, ERS and Kempson winnowed the writing, shaped characters and generally sought to provide a structure.
“We are normally the destabilizing force,” Collins said. “Here, we are the stabilizing force.”
Kempson likens the process to sculpture, in which her mountain of writing is chipped away to reveal a form.
“The whittling away is tough for me to watch,” she said. “But it’s interesting to see how decisions are made based on circumstances, casting, what’s practical.”
The work is not completed, but to this point Kempson and Collins have fashioned a piece that straddles realism and mystery. A married couple are about to sit down to supper when their local representative appears at the door with an important message. He is invited in and discovers that behind the pleasant, homey facade lurks something strange. Collins said he likes how the play refuses to explain itself.
“You’re having an experience rather than being told a story,” he said.
Influence of Jane Bowles
“Collette” has been described as an homage to Jane Bowles, a writer with a slim oeuvre. Bowles was overshadowed by her husband, Paul, a more voluminous author and composer, and her own personal issues. She had health challenges from childhood, drank heavily, suffered a stroke when she was 40 and struggled with severe bouts of writer’s block. In fact, Kempson subscribes to a theory that Bowles died (in 1973) from writer’s block. Yet, such luminaries as poet John Ashbery and playwright Tennessee Williams hailed her work as some of the best of the 20th century.
Kempson agreed with those assessments and said she has found a great atmospheric style in Bowles’ work.
“She doesn’t approach narrative in the accepted way,” Kempson said. “She frees herself to go all over. It’s a very feminine way of writing, very modernist.”
Kempson counts herself with Collins on the question people always ask: What’s the play about? Of “Collette,” she said, there are “a million different answers” and every one is legitimate. “I don’t like feeling that I’m being told how to feel about something — that’s the model advertising uses, and I don’t need any more advertising in my life,” she said. “My favorite experiences are when the show is over and there are many different versions of what happened.”
One certainty is that when this show is over at the Walker, it will sit for a while as ERS moves to another project and also looks for a “Collette” preview opportunity in New York. Getting some distance, Collins said, allows the group to regain objectivity. Kempson said she welcomes the time to reflect and ponder how her thoughts have evolved through this process.
“There are patterns now that I didn’t know were there,” she said. “To see connections emerge, it’s really nothing short of magical.”