19 September 2011

All the Libraries, A Stage

During one midsummer night party, Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, goes searching for his host. He wanders into a library, where a stout, spectacled man is drunkenly staring at the books.

‘What do you think?’ he demanded impetuously.
‘About what?’ He waved his hand toward the bookshelves.
‘About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain.  I ascertained. They’re real . . .  have pages and everything.  I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and—Here! Lemme show you. . . . It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter.  It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn’t cut the pages.’

The books—not the gardens, the bottles of champagne, the lithe dancers, or the starlets under plum trees—are Gatsby’s great triumph. The library is impressive in its hyperrealism, on par with the stage sets of theater director David Belasco. (Belasco once transported an entire room of a flop house—wallpaper included—to a Broadway stage.) The library shows Gatsby’s virtuosity, not at reading, but at set design.  

While Gatsby’s library embodies the superficiality and hypocrisy of West Egg society, Fitzgerald also suggests that the library might be uniquely capable of creating a connection between people: the spectacled man is the only one of Gatsby’s many party guests who shows up for his funeral.

The idea of the library as theatrical set, where the content of books is secondary to the atmosphere books create, may gain more respect in coming years. This past May marked the centennial of the New York Public Library’s main branch building. The library is celebrating with a yearlong series of programs and exhibitions focusing on the library’s past as well as its next hundred years. These celebrations, launched with a “Find the Future” festival weekend in May, promote the idea of the library as a stage: an environment where things can happen and people can meet, and one that will retain public significance even if the physical books it holds do not. There has been a good deal of anxiety in recent years about technology rendering books—and with them libraries—obsolete. But there is also another story, one that the NYPL has invested in. It’s a story about the triumph of books through new media, about not choosing between technologies but integrating them.

Amidst millenarian thinking about the death of the book, it’s important to bear in mind that the content of the New York Public Library is not obsolete, nor will it be anytime soon. There are people in all five boroughs who cannot afford to buy books or DVDs, much less laptops or e-readers. According to a national study sponsored by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation in 2010, 30 million people in the United States used library computers to access the internet last year, and of those, 40 percent did so to find jobs. There are plenty of adults who use the NYPL’s English tutoring and literacy programs, plenty of children whose picture books are checked out from the library. Former NYPL president Paul LeClerc was always careful to emphasize that the public services the library provides are at the center of its mission. Central too are the archival holdings: materials that provide content, not merely ambiance, to scholars.

But poverty and archival research aren’t the sexiest selling points for a centennial celebration.  “Find the Future” had to be hopeful about the role of the library in a future where New Yorkers would have no need for employment counseling, and could afford Kindles and internet access. And so the festival promoted the library as a place for live, communal experience.


John Collins allows himself a rare display of exasperation. “No! Hold it like you would hold a book.” One of the actors has been holding a paperback sideways in order to read her lines from an iPod Touch wedged between its pages. The stage manager takes responsibility: “Sorry, I taped the iPod in the wrong direction.”

In an oaken hallway of the Park Avenue Armory, a statistics professor, a media artist, and an experimental theater company have gathered to create a performance called Shuffle, a mash-up of The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, and The Great Gatsby to be performed as part of the “Find the Future” festival.

Lines come by way of a computer-generated script the actors will perform in real time as it scrolls across their book-enclosed iPods. The scripts will also tell them how to move around the space: they don’t need to memorize their lines, they just need a good wireless connection. Unfortunately, the latter can be a lot less reliable.

“Ready to refresh, everyone? And . . . go!”

“No. Stop!  Mine’s not working.”

“Sorry, guys, the router’s down again.” 

An actor sighs: “Well, I guess in the worst case scenario, we can just start reading from the books.”

Some of the actors could easily start reciting large segments of the novels from memory. They have spent the past seven years performing these books.  Last fall, New York-based theater company Elevator Repair Service (ERS) performed Gatz, its six-hour staging of The Great Gatsby, for an extended, nearly sold-out run at the Public Theater. 

Gatz takes place in a generic office circa 1995. A bored office worker (Sam Sheppard) arrives and tries to turn on his computer. When it doesn’t work, he opens up his Rolodex and finds a copy of The Great Gatsby inside. He begins to read aloud, gradually inhabiting the role of the narrator as the workers around him step in and out of the novel’s other roles.
 
After Gatz—originally produced in 2004, but stalled by copyright issues (the Fitzgerald estate wanted to hold out for Gatsby on Broadway)—ERS staged the Benjy chapter of Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury, then The Select, an abridged version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

The idea for Shuffle came from Wayne Ashley, director of FuturePerfect, a performance, media, visual art, and technology initiative. Ashley is primarily interested in producing work that goes beyond standard uses of technology, and beyond the idea that any of this technology is actually new: “The idea is to stop focusing on the ‘newness’ of technology and focus rather on its ordinariness, obviousness, and seeming indispensability.” For FuturePerfect’s inaugural event in 2009, Ashley produced an installation that used strobe lights and fog to induce hallucination in spectators. (Several audience members required medical attention for what Ashley called “emotional epilepsy.”)

Ashley brought ERS together with media artist Ben Rubin and statistician Mark Hansen because of their shared interests in the structures of text and language: ERS in narratives, and Hansen and Rubin in databases. According to Ashley, this collaboration would explore “what theatrical and performative possibilities might there be in ‘staging’ data; embodying data. There is a long tradition of visualizing data, and recently in sonifying data, but less about its embodiment.”

To create text for Shuffle, Rubin and Hansen began with digitized scripts of Gatz, The Sound and the Fury, and The Select. They broke each script into individual sentences, and designed a program to create an interleaved version of the three texts so that a sentence by Fitzgerald would be followed with one by Faulkner, then one by Hemingway.

The performance started with three actors standing behind the reference desk of the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room, alternately reading sentences from the first pages of the novels. Across from them, Rubin projected a column of text from each novel that highlighted lines as they were spoken. The speed of delivery accelerated with each line, until suddenly the projected columns began to spin like a slot machine.

As the projections spun, the three novels fell out of sync, so that the middle of Gatz could be matched with the beginning of The Select and the end of The Sound and the Fury. Sometimes the text was performed as a story with one actor designated as the narrator—usually this was Ben Williams, who had acted in all three previous productions (and done the sound design for two of them), and had most of the three novels committed to memory. In those instances, it was often possible to pick up the storyline of Gatsby because Fitzgerald is heavy on narration. Hemingway and Faulkner were harder to follow, and manifested themselves primarily as surreal asides.

This storytelling segment was at the center of the production, thanks in part to Williams’s hint of a Tennessee drawl, green eyes, and broad shoulders. But there were also a number of solos and duets: moments when one or two actors would break away from the area at the center of the room and perform scripts created from different codes. Such codes were based on rules that culled the full text for phrases that matched certain criteria: ones beginning with “my” or “your,” ones beginning with “I am” or “I’m.” The resulting script would be something like: “I’m not going to mind you, I’m sick, I am not going to be one of these bitches that ruins children, I’m going to tell on her, I’m not going to be that way, I’m pretty cynical about everything, I’m looking around” or “My car, Your momma, My name, Your mouth full of pity, My money, Your grandmammy.” As the actors delivered these lines, they would move around the room, through the audience, up and down the stairs behind the desk. Dressed variously in suits and vintage dresses, they held the novels in one hand, and champagne flutes in the other, as though they were the ghosts of staff Christmas parties past.


Live events are not new to the library. Paul Holdengräber has been curating a “cognitive theater” series (i.e., panel discussions) called LIVE! at the Schwarzman building for six years. But what does seem new is the way the library is combining digital technology and the physical institution. A couple of weeks before the centennial, the NYPL announced that the Schwarzman building would become the first library on the social networking application Foursquare, which lets you “check in” at stores and restaurants, telling friends exactly where you are (generating free advertising for the business and properly crediting yourself for each outing). During a LIVE! panel discussion on the future of the library, Paul LeClerc also discussed a plan that would allow social networking between scholars working in the library, helping them “make themselves known” to the other scholars.  (Holdengräber—who carried dog-eared copies of Benjamin and Valery on stage with him—wondered if the point of going to the library isn’t precisely to escape from social media.)

Emphasizing live performance is not an obvious way to prove an institution’s contemporary significance. For years, major performing arts institutions have struggled to affirm what is important about presence at an event: the atmosphere, the concentration, the magic—terms that really only mean anything to regular theater and concertgoers. At the same time, these institutions have been scrambling to cut their losses by offering performances in both traditional and digital formats. The Met offered an HD telecast of Robert Lepage’s new “Ring” across the street from Lincoln Center, and the Berlin Philharmonic sells $9 “tickets” to watch simulcasts of their live concerts online. Such projects affirm the live/digitized divide as two mutually exclusive products. The NYPL centennial was more innovative in the ways that it combined new and older media, harnessing digital technologies to promote a live experience of the library building. In addition to Shuffle, the library commissioned an elaborate scavenger hunt, designed by Jane McGonigal, that was played both on smart phones and within the library’s physical collections, and offered workshops on using their digital holdings.

While some festival events were clearly oriented toward “finding the future,” older forms were also central to the celebration. There were performances of Alice in Wonderland and Molière’s School for Husbands. The library hosted two different storytelling sessions: “Between the Lions,” produced by The Moth, and a reading of short stories from the New Yorker. The only form conspicuously missing from the weekend was the one perhaps most bound up in the physical organization of the library: the novel.

A library’s reading room is something like a stand-in for those aspects of modernity that were central to the novel’s birth and reception: an anonymous, democratic space in which atomized individuals discipline themselves into sustained concentration. In his essay on Leskov, Walter Benjamin writes that the shift from storytelling to novel-writing belies the transition of a society that has become impoverished in communicable experience, despite being overwhelmed with information: “The birthplace of the novel is the silent individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving example of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others.” The novel’s only cameo during the festival was in Shuffle, an event that submitted novelistic form to a dialectic so complete Benjamin himself might have smiled.  Elevator Repair Service turned the novels into stories.


A week before the centennial, John Collins met with me to discuss Shuffle. In some sense, the mash-up quality of the performance is closer to ERS’s earlier work, far more irreverent to its source texts, than to the novel productions for which they became famous. But there’s a difference between the process of those earlier pieces, which worked over long periods of time to bring together two or three primary sources and make sense of their relationship, and ERS’s current project. Collins describes the difference in terms of authorship. In Shuffle, the stories unfold in an organic way; according to Collins, the Machine—which he uses as shorthand for the code producing the scripts—“creates the possibility for art to occur more like nature than architecture.”

When lines fit together (“He always brings four or five girls to these parties” from Gatsby followed by “He’s a real aficianado” from The Sun Also Rises), one marvels at the serendipity of a seemingly natural drive from chaos toward order. The Machine doesn’t have a theory about the texts, it just culls a bunch of lines that occur in parallel, or that start with the same few words. Part of the pleasure comes from hearing language—Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway’s in particular—without the responsibility of proving that a similar turn of phrase in The Great Gatsby and The Sound and the Fury actually means something. The meaning does not come from the novels at all, but from their telling.

Elevator Repair Service’s actors are virtuosic storytellers. During Shuffle they created meaning through the grain of their voices, their gestures, and the ways in which they interacted with their listeners. The moment that drew the most laughter from the audience was a section in which Vin Knight planted himself between two strollers, each carrying a young boy, and rattled through a list of “He is” phrases: “He is a sturdy straw-haired man of thirty, He’s a bootlegger,” alternately pointing at each child. The audience also spoke back once in awhile: “You two should get married,” an actor gestured toward two middle-aged women standing together. “We are,” one of them responded.

There was, of course, a more rarefied philological pleasure to the event, one that was connected to the texts. If one read all three novels, the coincidental parallels were that much more amusing; if one had seen ERS’s performances of the novels, it was thrilling when Mike Iveson, who played Jake Barnes, suddenly spoke the same lines he’d spoken in the play, but with radically different intonation and meaning. 

Yet even for someone who has read all of the books, seen all of the performances, and skimmed all of the press material, the experience of Shuffle was often about the failure to make sense. Collins was happy to concede that “sometimes the work is an utter failure. But we like to play on the edge—to have to feel the presence of the void of meaninglessness as a backdrop against the meaningful moments that happen. In a way it’s like Faulkner, in that you can’t quite get the larger meaning in a short burst. It requires some commitment from the viewer. It works through immersion.”

Like the Benjy chapter of The Sound and the Fury, Shuffle is, on the one hand, predicated on the inability to communicate fully—to match words with actions, to sort out temporal logic—and, on the other hand, on the pleasure of trying to make sense of the language even when it never adds up. “When it’s not working, it just sounds like a list. When it is working, it sounds like a new sort of narrative organically trying to organize itself, and to me, that’s an interesting place to live.” Shuffle never tells the audience what it means, and it never means any one thing.

There are a lot of museums in New York, places like the Metropolitan Opera, that deal heavily in the business of preservation. At such institutions, there are two departments where new media are used: marketing and education. The NYPL deserves a huge amount of credit not only for its educational programs, but also for its ability to imagine ways for people to use the library without having to either buy something or be taught something in the process. While remaining an institution bound in the culture of accumulation and preservation, the NYPL’s centennial celebration hinted at alternative uses for the library. Of course, it remains to be seen whether encouraging Foursquare check-ins and creating scavenger hunts for adults are the best ways the NYPL can offer New Yorkers more meaningful engagement than is provided by their local Apple Store. But commissions like Shuffle do suggest that the library can become a space for playing with and reconstructing the very pasts that the library has served to codify. And it might also be a place that breaks some of its own rules about silence and reverence every now and then. Perhaps the library will become a new sort of public space: a place not just for books, but for stories.

Image: The New York Public Library under construction, December 1909. From openlettersmonthly.com.

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