The critically acclaimed Gatz makes its LA premiere this week. Lead actor Shepherd reveals the surprising things that happen when an audience settles in for eight hours.
By Lisa Sweetingham
New York–based theater ensemble Elevator Repair Service brings Gatz, an acclaimed 6.5-hour long play (8 hours after you count the breaks), to LA for the first time, with just nine performances at REDCAT starting Thursday. Lead actor Scott Shepherd, 44, plays Nick, the everyman who arrives at work one day to find his computer won’t start, so he picks up a dog-eared copy of The Great Gatsby and reads it from cover to cover to his officemates—and to the audience. In this play-within-a-play, as the action moves back and forth between Gatsby the book and Gatz the office space, Nick and his colleagues slowly appear to take on the characteristics of the main characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic 1925 novel. It’s a marathon theatrical experience, with two breaks and a dinner intermission. And when it’s over you will know The Great Gatsby intimately. Shepherd, 44, spoke to us by phone from New York. At the time, Hurricane Sandy had just ravaged the city and Shepherd was waiting for electricity to return to his cold, dark Soho apartment.
Time Out Los Angeles: You have no power, where are you right now? Scott Shepherd: I’m in midtown eating lunch. You get above 28th Street and everything is working fine. The first morning after the storm, you’d see people with their rolling luggage heading uptown, or people just wandering and wondering where they were going to get coffee. Then every once in a while you’d see someone coming downtown with coffee. And everybody would be like, ‘Where did you get that?!’
TOLA: How many times have you read The Great Gatsby now? Shepherd: We’ve done the show between 150 to 200 times. But that’s just a fraction of how many times I’ve been through it, since we have to rehearse, too. So, probably, 1,000 times—let’s say a cool grand. I know it by heart. I realized I had memorized the whole book when we were first creating the show, and then it became, like, a thing. We would play this game at fundraising functions for Elevator Repair Service. I’d be called upon to astound the audience. Someone would just open the book randomly and start reading it and I would finish. But there are some parts I’m rusty on, actually. I probably shouldn’t admit this.
TOLA: Why should Angelenos spend eight hours on a weekday to see this show—how will it change their lives? Shepherd: I think what it changes for you, at least temporarily, is how you think about time. I mean, for all of us now, five seconds has become too much time, we’re constantly multitasking. You can’t watch a video if it’s longer than two minutes. One thing that people come away with is an appreciation for just spending time with something—and in this case, with a remarkable, tremendous work of literature. Also, for the actors, by the time the day is over, you feel like the audience is, collectively, a new friend you’ve made. It’s like, if you met somebody today on the street and you spent the whole day together, you’d feel like you had a close connection to a brand new person.
TOLA: Have there ever been any unexpected surprises during a show? Shepherd: There was this one lady in Oslo who was… a free spirit. I think she had the idea that this was a picnic. She arrived with a bottle of wine. She took off her shoes. She was right there in the front row. There was a guy on her left and a girl on her right and when you looked at her she might be all over either one of them with her arms around them. One time, I looked up and she was rolling a cigarette. She made herself at home. At a certain point in the show, she started talking back to the characters.
TOLA: Did you talk back to her? Shepherd: No, but in one scene that got heated and dramatic, she started taking sides in the argument and she really turned against the character of Tom. So, when we got up after the third quarter, the actor playing Tom was over her and wanted her out. There was some discussion backstage about, ‘What are we going to do about this lady?’ The stage manager asked her to just please move farther back in the theater. We thought it was a good compromise. As we were getting ready to go back on stage, we could hear this intense argument going on and the whole audience was getting involved. Apparently, she had taken all her stuff from the front row, looked up at the audience and said, ‘I am not allowed!’ But the seat she then took happened to already be occupied by a man who was one of the most angry with her. So when he came back to his seat and saw her there he was like, ‘Oh, no, no!’ People in the audience were saying, ‘You can not kick her out! She is beautiful! In Shakespeare’s time it was OK to be rowdy!’ It was really amazing. She finally got fed up and left. Two or three people walked out in protest.
Scott Shepherd and Elevator Repair Service will perform Gatz at REDCAT Nov 28 to Dec 8.