Scott Shepherd in Elevator Repair Service’s production of Gatz, directed by John Collins. Photo: Steven Gunther/Berkeley Rep

Gatz is an extraordinary and applauded theatrical production that has played to sold-out theaters in the United States and Europe since 2005. This unusually creative and intelligent work is a surprise hit because it includes a real-time reading of the complete text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby. It is coming to Berkeley Rep and will run from Feb. 13 to March 1.

Gatz begins in a shabby office with a bored office worker named Nick reading the novel. Gradually, other workers in Nick’s workplace morph into other characters in the book. Each performance of Gatz is approximately six hours, plus two 15-minute intermissions and a two-hour dinner break. Audiences, apparently, don’t find it too long as they become mesmerized by the drama on stage and Fitzgerald’s creativity.

John Collins is a founder and artistic director of Elevator Repair Service (ERS), the New York theater ensemble that developed Gatz. (The ERS name is derived from a misguided computer-based vocational aptitude questionnaire result Collins took at age 11).

Berkeleyside did a Q&A with Collins, in which he spoke about the derivation of Gatz, which he directs, the beauty of The Great Gatsby, ERS’s company dynamics, and more. The interview has been edited for brevity.

How did you choose to perform a verbatim version of ‘The Great Gatsby’?

We were initially excited about the novel when a member of the company brought it in, and we thought, “Let’s see what we can do with this novel.” We didn’t think we would do every word of it. We just wanted to have an encounter with the novel and thought it would be an interesting piece of theater.

We experimented with doing different scenes but it didn’t feel right to cut anything. We were coming to understand that some violence was being done to the novel whenever we tried to make it fit our medium. That led to the idea of putting the book on stage and still making it feel like a book, preserving the “bookness” of it. For us, the actual genius of the writing was that Fitzgerald had made every word feel necessary. It is lyrical but with a light touch.

That led us to think about doing the entire text, although initially, it seemed like a crazy idea. It breaks all the rules about adaptations, and it didn’t seem practical, but we‘ve always liked ideas that seemed ridiculous or impossible because we like to have really interesting problems to solve. That’s where our best instincts as theater-makers come out.

We came upon the idea of having a guy on stage in an office reading a book sort of by accident.

Would you prefer that, before seeing the production, audiences are familiar with ‘The Great Gatsby,’ have re-read it, or come in cold?

John Collins, founder and artistic director of Elevator Repair Service. Photo: Ahron Foster

The way the show works you are presented with a highly contrasting image that is not the book, it’s this other drama about these people in a mysterious office, so whether you’ve read the book recently, a long time ago or not at all, it’s my responsibility to make it work for all three of those categories. Everyone understands that they are getting the book in its entirety. We wanted to do a show that is about the experience of reading.

So no homework needed?

No homework needed. We’ve had people reading the book during the performance, following along. That’s the one thing I wouldn’t recommend since you can hear it perfectly well, and I wouldn’t want people to miss the visual side.

Let’s talk about the novel. From my first reading of ‘The Great Gatsby’ in high school, I recall less of the beauty of the language and the astute character analysis and much more of the story and the plot.

It’s a book that many people read in high school and college, and it’s deceptively simple and short. It is a novel you can read in a day. The genius of it is sometimes lost on the 16-year-olds. Yes, most people who read the novel in high school take away only the plot. People who make movies out of it see the book superficially, too. The shiny objects are the period details and the American dream narrative, the self-made man. What gets lost in adaptations and a young person’s reading is how beautifully insightful Fitzgerald is about [the narrator] Nick Carraway, not so much Gatsby, but Nick.

Nick creeps up on one, doesn’t he?

That’s exactly right. And the best evidence of that is in Chapter 9. It often gets short shrift since it’s structurally like an epilogue. But so much gets revealed about what Fitzgerald is really up to in the novel, and that’s where he draws beautifully poetic parallels about discovering the new world.

I couldn’t help but see similarities between Tom Buchanan’s crudeness and materialism and the lost idealism of Gatsby and Nick with what is going on in our country today.

No, it’s true. I agree with you there. The way Tom Buchanan talks about “these other races,” he’s a white supremacist who reads books and thinks he has intellectual justification for his racism and xenophobia. That continues to have a familiar ring to it for lots of audiences.

And Nick is such an interesting observer of these things since he sits in between. He’s the ultimate relatable narrator. He doesn’t sit squarely on one side or the other. Nick is a blank slate.  He opens the novel talking about reserving judgment, though he’s not always so good at that.

It’s his Midwestern attitude. He wants to see some good in someone.

Yes, absolutely, he wrestles with his own tendency to judge people but also that Midwestern desire to be fair. He is just such a perfect guide for us.

Scott Shepherd (foreground) and ensemble in Elevator Repair Service’s production of ‘Gatz.’
Photo by Ian Douglas/Berkeley Rep

A lot of the actors in Berkeley Rep’s production are the same ones who’ve been acting in ‘Gatz’ all over the world. How do you handle the potential of burnout among the company members or just getting sick of each other every once in a while?

Well, that certainly happens. There’s no getting around that. We have made a priority to enjoy what we are doing. You’ll see that we approach a lot of the work through humor. When things are fun and enjoyable for the actors, it tends to keep people involved. When a show does well, just getting to travel with the show is exciting for the company. The show has evolved, and the company operates in a familial way.  We’ve learned that Gatz takes a real toll on some of the people performing it, like Scott Shepherd [who plays Nick Carraway] who reads so many of the words as the narrator.

My understanding is that Scott Shepherd has memorized the whole book?

Sort of by accident. We knew that this would be a great project for him because he has such a great mind for text. Scott, before I knew him, had already performed a one-man Macbeth playing all the roles. The irony, in this case, is that the play is meant to be a sort of meta-narrative about a guy reading a book, and he has it in front of him, but reading it out loud so many times and with all the associations that come with the staging, Scott just memorized it.

How much time will you spend in Berkeley during the run of ‘Gatz’?

I have watched every performance of Gatz, and I will watch every performance for the run at Berkeley Rep. We have a new actor playing Tom Buchanan, so I want to assure that he gets comfortably integrated into it. Every time there is a new person in a role, the role, and the show can and should adjust a little bit around that person.

How does the Rep‘s Roda theater work with Gatz?

It’s great. I think it’s going to be a terrific space for Gatz with good acoustics. It’s nice to be in a well-designed, relatively new theater. I’m looking forward to being there.

What are you and ERS working on currently? Are these new projects in the vein of theatricalizing books?

We’re about two-thirds of the way through a production of The Seagull [by Anton Chekhov] and are looking for a landing place for that. We’ve taken an interest in the 1965 Cambridge University debate between William F. Buckley and James Baldwin. It’s amazing material that feels very relevant today.

I understand that you went to high school in Vidalia, Georgia. If you could go back and look at your high school self, would you ever have thought that you would have wound up where you are now?

No, I don’t think so.  I had a whole bunch of different interests as a high school kid, and theater was one of them. I never imagined that that’s what I’d be doing as a job. I thought I would be a lawyer. I was a debater and very interested in studying political science and law. I got about one year into college before I seriously changed my mind about that.

So that was when you transferred from Duke University to Yale in 1989? Was that a big transition for you?

It was. But coming to Duke from a small town in Georgia was a pretty big transition in itself, although technically still in the south. Like many people, I had my mind blown a few times as a college student. I thought I wanted to be an actor for a while. Then I realized that I was a little better at having these kinds of ideas and getting help from real actors to enact them.

Is there anything particular that you would like the Berkeley Rep audience to be watching and listening for as they see ‘Gatz’?

I would like everyone to come with a clear and open mind and know that everything that we are doing is rooted in the text of the book. It’s a serious book but written by a guy with a fantastic sense of humor. The humor tends to come out more in the performance than in reading the book.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...