IT'S DOWNRIGHT EERIE how junior-high career tests can shape your destiny. Darken a few bubbles on a computer sheet with a No. 2 pencil and sit back as a computer spits back all your adolescent hopes and dreams in the form of two or three distinctly unglamorous jobs. Office manager. Technical writer. Auditor. Is it possible for anyone to receive a job prediction as exciting as cardsharp, executioner, or struggling performance artist?
If you're John Collins, co-artistic director (with John Bodow) of New York's eight-year-old theater troupe Elevator Repair Service, the trick is in how one chooses to interpret less-than-thrilling results. "The company name wasn't an accident," he explains during an interview from his East Village apartment, two weeks before his troupe's upcoming performances at the Southern Theater as part of the Walker Art Center's "Out There" series. "It just started to stick to us because of this story about my cousin and I. At age 11 we took a career survey and 'elevator repairman' was one of several absurd career options." He backpedals a bit. "It's not an absurd job for some, just for us."
As an undergrad at Yale, Collins majored in drama and upon graduation joined up with the inimitable Wooster Group as a sound designer. At the same time, he started directing hit-and-run midnight shows with a few pals in various Lower East Side spaces. Collins and his colleagues, now a 15-member unit from the Gen X demographic, soon honed an aesthetic at once utilitarian and mischievous.
"I'm interested in disbelief!" exclaims Collins, who strips down stages to their bare walls and cables, just so everyone can see how the show works, artistically and technically. "It's not an illusion. It's a theater. Why pretend the audience isn't there?" The result may progress in regular play fashion, but just as the audience becomes comfortable, a zombielike dance section or a manic monologue emerges. It's reality filtered through make-believe and then back through reality again.
Elevator Repair Service also fosters a unique creative process. Ideas are uncovered in the relationships of objects that may or may not have anything to do with each other. The performers make the material work with the set. "It's backwards from conventional theater design," says Collins, who credits the Wooster Group with teaching him how to avoid rigid dramatic protocol. "Scenes often do not even go together, so we listen to them, see how they talk to us. We like to work with impossible requirements and work hard in the end not to make total sense out of everything we do."
It's a stimulating approach, one that has provided Elevator Repair Service with many opportunities to create what Collins calls "a crazy random energy in rehearsal" that makes it to the stage. In 1997's Cab Legs, for example, the actors worked from finished text, but every line they spoke during the show was a paraphrase of the original script. And in 1998's Total Fictional Lie (on tap at the Southern this weekend), the group delved into the idea of "documentary," and how it presents itself as a form of truth-telling. "We take something we're interested in, yank it out of context, and reimagine it as live theater, " says Collins. Parallels surfaced between entertainer Paul Anka, well-publicized serial killer Aileen Wuornos, and door-to-door Bible salesmen, all cultural icons explored in documentary films; these interludes were then tied together with a few dance numbers.
"We took hand gestures from the documentaries we watched and tried to apply them to everybody's feet," Collins recalls, conjuring up entertaining images of people trying to gesture meaningfully with their toes. "We always avoid the more straightforward approach. We have more fun that way!"