If you were to ask most folks about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic “The Great Gatsby,” chances are most of those polled would have read the book in high school. Or rather, it was assigned in high school – whether the reading of it ever took place is a whole ‘nother story. The book is standard fare for curriculum above 10th grade and is on any short list of the greatest novels of all time.
One of the most consequential readings of the book was done by a gentleman named John Collins, the artistic director of the New York based theatre company Elevator Repair Service. He was not one of those who was given a copy out of his high school’s book room. His first reading wasn’t until he was 30 years old, and has shaped his artistic life in huge ways since.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre is housing ERS’s signature piece, “Gatz” through March 1st. Collins, who is also the show’s director, has done something extremely un-director like – he has seen every performance of every show since its 2005 premiere. His lead actor, Scott Shepherd, who picks up a grizzled copy of the book in the show and proceeds to read the whole thing, knows the entire book by heart.
The play, broken up into two parts, lasts more than eight hours. So how does Collins sell a play where an entire book serves as the text – a play that requires a dinner break?
“What we learned over doing the show in lots of different places was that the best thing to do is kind of market the show with the audacity of choice to do every word,” said Collins, 50, who now has 15 years of muscle behind the marketing. “Now the show has a reputation and lots of reviews and a history that can precede it. We can help market it from past success, but I do think people are still going to be skeptical.”
One of the show’s major selling points has much to do with the boldness of marathon theatre.
“The audacity of it itself is intriguing and makes people curious, and is perversely something appealing,” said Collins. “The notion that you can take in a novel, there is something intriguing and enticing about this insane proposition that we are going to give you the whole thing.
“The skepticism when an audience comes works in our favor, which contributes to the sense of reward at the end. The best way to market our show is with the complete audacity of the choice.”
The world premiere of the show took place in 2005 on a shoestring budget and has seen great reviews in major publications throughout the world. Locally, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Lily Janiak said it’s a show where “humanity shines anew” and the San Jose Mercury News’ Sam Hurwitt calls Collins’ staging “beautifully nuanced.”
Collins does not want to pretend he always knew the play would be as wildly successful as it has been. He admits that they got lucky in some ways. And despite the connotation of the book – something that teens read begrudgingly as an assignment, or even the various film adaptations that are in the public consciousness, the play’s approach gives a fresh take on one of the greatest novels of all time. There is no glamour or glitz in “Gatz” – it all takes place in the mundane banality of an office.
“What we do in our presentation of the book is so contrary to those images, and we sort of force the audience to clear their buffer and brain of all these images you may or may not have connected to as a student,” said Collins. “Seeing some guy reading the book, that sort of puts us on a level playing field to get started with it and we build out from there.”
This build out also gives the audience the ability to see a fresh perspective on Gatsby without having everything spelled out for them.
“One thing I always think about a lot of adaptations of the novel is they fall victim to a way of seeing Gatsby himself that only exists in the imaginations of the characters. People at parties all sort of excitedly speculate who Gatsby is, so that’s one of these subtle things that gets lost on high school students.”
A show that has run as long as “Gatz” has will inevitably reflect modern times even though it was written during the Jazz Age. “The Great Gatsby” has a strong, timeless quality to it, a common theme for any great work of fiction.
A book written in 1925 closely reflected the time when Collins first read the book around 1999. While those citizens in the 1920s were headed towards the stock market crash of 1929, the late ‘90s were all about new money in the dot com boom that was about to crash as well.
And in today’s political climate, some things are no longer simply a sign of a 1920s diaspora.
“When I hear Tom Buchanan talking about the white race in a way you still hear now, one would hope that would be the most anachronistic and historical, but it still feels contemporary. Fitzgerald at the time was making Tom a kind of a clown, a privileged and racist white supremacist. It’s exactly what we have to grapple with now especially in these last three years.
“The period detail has striking and horrifying resonance now, and describes a world where privileged people get away with things.”
All of these details, from elitism to class to power have been dissected many times over in the book’s 95 years on earth, with modern parallels continuing to shape societal discussion. Collins continues to be fascinated with the pure genius of Fitzgerald’s crafting of this classic, a book that still finds audiences flocking to the theatre to take in eight hours of marathon theatre.
Fitzgerald was only 44 when he passed away after battling alcoholism throughout his adult life, finally succumbing to a heart attack. And when it comes to the genius of penning “The Great Gatsby,” Collins can certainly find a modicum of humor in such a transformative feat.
“Fitzgerald wrote this book when he was 28. That is baffling and infuriating.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Gatz”
Created and performed by Elevator Repair Service
Using the text of “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Directed by John Collins
The Roda Theatre
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Running Time: Four acts totaling six hours and 50 minutes, plus a two hour dinner break.
Tickets range from $37.50 to $125
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org