How to Memorize The Great Gatsby by Accident

Scott Shepherd, center, plays some combination of the reader and Nick Carraway in Gatz, a marathon of a hit show.
Scott Shepherd, center, plays some combination of the reader and Nick Carraway in Gatz, a marathon of a hit show.
Gene Pittman

Actor Scott Shepherd inadvertently memorized all 49,000 words of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby the same way the rest of us couldn't help but learn the chorus to "Call Me Maybe" this past summer. After performing the full text of the quintessential Great American Novel in the internationally acclaimed show Gatz for the past eight years in countless cities across the U.S. and Europe, he and the rest of the 13-person cast fear the 1925 masterpiece has permanently lodged itself in the crannies of their craniums.

"We'll all be in the same old-age home, and everything else will have gone from our minds we'll only be able to talk to each other in sentences from The Great Gatsby," Shepherd says.

In what the New York Times' chief theater critic Ben Brantley called, in 2010, "the year's most heroic performance," Shepherd plays an office worker who idly picks up the book and begins to read aloud, transforming his coworkers -- played by fellow members of experimental theater company Elevator Repair Service -- and their drab environment into stand-ins for the characters and setting of the famous story of Nick Carraway's wild, disillusioning summer in New York.

The show, which lasts eight hours (including two 15-minute intermissions and a 75-minute dinner break), finally makes its Los Angeles debut this week with a run at REDCAT from Nov. 28 through Dec. 9.

For an interview a few weeks ago, Shepherd stops by the The Palm Court in The Plaza Hotel in New York City, where Tom, Gatsby, Daisy, Nick and Jordan go in Chapter 7 as "a place to have a mint julep" in a disastrous attempt to escape the oppressive heat and the tension created by Gatsby and Daisy's affair. Jazz echoes between the marble Corinthian columns, the gilded portraits on the walls and the ornate stained glass ceiling, and the world of the novel seems to have momentarily come alive. They never actually drink any mint juleps in the book, however, and neither does Shepherd, opting instead for coffee diluted by a small cup of soy milk and sweetened by sugar cubes (The Plaza is not a Splenda establishment.) In a high-backed blue velvet chair, he admits to the waiter that he won't be ordering any food, and the waiter takes away a basket of assorted rolls and harrumphs in an unplaceable European accent.

Offstage, in a sweater and jeans, Shepherd speaks softly but deliberately, his blue eyes peering out from beneath tufts of light red hair. He explains that ERS first decided to mine the perennial English class standard for source material in 1999, experimenting with improvised puppets, including a meat-tenderizing mallet with sunglasses stuck in a men's dress shoe and a googley-eyed thermos playing Nick.

They soon realized, however, why every attempt at adaptation has failed to capture the book's appeal, from the forgotten 1926 play that ended, bizarrely, with Tom, Daisy, Nick and Jordan witnessing Gatsby's murder to the much-maligned 1974 Francis Ford Coppola-penned film, which starred a cloying Mia Farrow as Daisy and an impassively smarmy Robert Redford as Gatsby.

"Its power is just from the one-after-another sequence of perfectly crafted sentences, and as soon as you start to meddle with that you feel ashamed and disappointed in yourself," Shepherd says.

So ERS nixed the puppets and chose instead to deliver the closest theatrical approximation of reading, a communal experience that's not quite stage and not quite page but somehow encompasses and comments on both. Gatz refers to Jay Gatsby's real name, James Gatz, and seems to point to the authenticity the show achieves.

Shepherd says he particularly likes how Gatz forces both himself and the audience to consider the vacillation between alienation and participation that permeates The Great Gatsby. The play and the novel both ask: to what extent can we ever be fully present in the moment? In Chapter 2, Nick gets drunk for what he claims to the reader is only the second time and stares self-consciously out onto the city: "our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without."

Nick tentatively dips a toe in the promiscuous, gin-soaked world of Jazz Age hedonism, all the while considering himself not entirely involved or at fault for anything that happens. The reader earnestly observes the world of the novel, all the while remembering she is snug at home in the 21st century. The actor thrusts himself into the world of his character, all the while acknowledging the physical presence of the audience just feet away. The gap between what's happening on stage in the contemporary office in Gatz and what's happening in the story as it's read reminds the audience of the near-constant dissonance between what is happening in our heads and what is happening around us.

According to Shepherd, the best audiences have been in New York and Minneapolis, where the show debuted in 2005, and the worst in Vienna, where he performed somewhat hoarse and a number of audience members walked out. People are most likely to leave (if at all) during the first 20 minutes, and so Shepherd refers to it as "the scary section...when you get there, you've paid your money and you know what the show is and you're down for, you know, eight hours of this... and then it starts slowly, just a guy reading a book, and you worry. You get very worried. And you're like, 'Oh no! What have I done?'"

But Shepherd isn't concerned about L.A.'s intellectual stamina. He once performed "a rather esoteric show" involving ballet and Jerzy Grotowski at REDCAT with the Wooster Group, the highly respected avant garde theater company that has featured the likes of Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi, which Shepherd works with when he's not doing Gatz. On opening night, he thought, "There's no way this is going to play here, in the capital of entertainment but... L.A. turned out to be one of the best audiences we ever had for that show."

He loves Skylight Books, in Los Feliz, and he eagerly anticipates seeing the latest Hollywood incarnation of The Great Gatsby: Baz Luhrmann's gaudy, ecstatic interpretation, which comes out in May and stars Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Tobey Maguire as Nick and Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby.

"Leo came for half of [Gatz], but we heard he was jet-lagged and he was with his mother," Shepherd says. "He came with Tobey Maguire, who stayed for the whole thing."

And although Gatz remains an enormous hit, with raves from critics and theatergoers worldwide, it's not clear whether the show will continue into a ninth year, as no performances have been scheduled yet for 2013.

"This thing in L.A. could be the last one," Shepherd says. "[Or] it could go on forever."

In a nod to the iconic final line of the book, the cast invented a ditty that points to both the staying power of what they've created and the interminable feeling one gets from either watching or performing this marathon of a show: "Borne back ceaselessly into the past, I know forever we'll be doing Gatz, doing Gatz, doing Gatz."

Follow me on Twitter at @adelaidelaments, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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REDCAT: Roy & Edna Disney/CalArts Theater

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