Elevator Repair Service has always drawn inspiration from unlikely places. Over the last seventeen years, their original productions have lifted fragments of text from radio plays, documentary films, non-fiction writings, TV shows, poems, novels and classic plays. Lately, this experimental theater ensemble has taken their approach to text in a different direction. Instead of plugging bits and pieces of literature into their own ensemble-devised productions, ERS is exploring the artistic intentions of William Faulkner with their new adaptation titled The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928).
“We’ve been searching for a way to be radically committed to this text,” says ERS artistic director John Collins. “We’re trying to figure out how to make it live on stage without gutting it.”
This is not the first time ERS has tackled a novel. The company’s last high-profile production was Gatz, a staging of The Great Gatsby that defied conventions of adaptation by including every word of the novel in the company’s marathon six-and-a-half-hour performance.
When it came time to decide on the company’s latest project, Collins had the impulse to stage another novel. “I was still enjoying the idea of literature and dense language as a starting point. I’d gotten a little hooked on that from The Great Gatsby. But I wanted to do something that would require a different set of solutions, something where the ideas we’d come up with for Gatz wouldn’t work.” They ultimately decided to adapt the first chapter of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Collins recalls, “When we read it out loud, that complicated, layered puzzle of a first chapter seemed transformed in an interesting way. To hear it, rather than read it, took it to a different place.”
In each chapter of the book, a different narrator tells a variation of the same story. By staging just the first, ERS found they were able to convey the scope of the whole novel while keeping the running time of the production under two hours.
The narrator of that first chapter is Benjy Compson, a 33-year-old mentally disabled man who has a very limited understanding of the world around him. He can’t always tell the other characters apart, and he can’t differentiate his memories of the past from his perceptions of the present moment. To make things even more complicated, the narrator is mute. Benjy’s disorienting stream-of-consciousness narration constantly leaps backward and forward in time—weaving together fragments of imagery and emotion that accumulate until they eventually reveal the tragedy of his family history.
“It’s a novel that you kind of have to read several times,” Collins admits. “We’re trying to find a way to present it and frame it for the audience that allows them to surrender to that fog of [Benjy’s] memories.”
In their research, ERS found a “hyper-text” version of The Sound and the Fury online. Collins explains, “These grad students in Canada basically mapped the whole book; they had actually broken it into sections and identified, ‘this paragraph is happening in 1914 or 1915, and this next paragraph is happening in 1898. And then it jumps to 1928 in this paragraph.’” This codified text became incredibly helpful in rehearsal. It allowed the company to look at the story in chronological order for the first time. And this helped them understand events in the context of a cause-and-effect relationship.
“So, the crazy thing that we’re doing—apart from choosing to do this novel at all,” Collins laughs, “is that each time the narrative jumps in time, the whole casting arrangement shifts. So, you have one person playing a character at age 14, and somebody else playing that character at age 7. You have this group of people onstage, and the characters are sort of moving all around among them. We’re indulging this dynamic of the novel in a way that sort of amplifies it.”
Making up rules is a big part of Elevator Repair Service’s process. Early on in the development of The Sound and the Fury, Collins decided to set a few key limitations: the action of the play would be confined to the Compson family living room; the entire company of actors would be onstage at all times; and although not every word of the first chapter’s narration would be used in the production, none of the text spoken by the actors would be paraphrased or added from an outside source. From Collins’ perspective, the sheer complexity of Faulkner’s text demands this kind of rigorous, systematic treatment.
“What I’m looking for is a way to completely indulge the crazy landscape of the story without making it completely opaque at the same time,” he says.
If The Sound and the Fury is anything like ERS’ past productions, you can expect it to bear the marks of their signature style: striking visuals, articulate physical acting, lush sound design, and the occasional burst of dark whimsy.
Previews of The Sound and the Fury begin April 15 at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St. Please visit www.nytw.org for more information.
Claire Epstein is a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn.