The James Gang

Wrestling atheism to the ground: Elevator Repair Service
Ariana Smart

Because it's relevant (I hope) in explaining a new theater piece inspired by William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, and because I have not yet filled my January quota of self-indulgent story leads, I will now tell you about the time I heard the voice of God. I was 19 years old, just finishing my second academically unsuccessful quarter of college. It was finals week. I hadn't slept for more than a few hours in three days. I was also in the middle of a roommate crisis that I'll save for another self-indulgent lead. I tried to take an afternoon nap, but was thwarted by the neighboring dorm room's budding electric guitarist, whose attempt to master the introduction to Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" seemed louder and more quixotic with every pass.

I retreated to a friend's house, where I eventually slept for half a day, but not before being confronted by the aforementioned voice. The voice sounded not unlike my internal voice, but seemed beyond my control. Lying in bed, I found that if I turned my head to the right, the voice went away, and if I turned back to the left, it returned. I was instructed, among other things, to be less selfish, to start a fanzine (?), and to adopt the name MC Don't Front, which suggests that the divine, omniscience notwithstanding, has no talent for inventing hip-hop pseudonyms.

James's 1902 classic of philosophy, psychology, and religious studies was not concerned with institutional religion, but with what he called "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." (Despite the preceding quote, the book is generally lively and often funny, as in James's comments on the cult surrounding Walt Whitman: "He is even explicitly compared with the founder of the Christian religion, not altogether to the advantage of the latter"). As the title indicates, Varieties is a pluralistic study, and it's filled with lay accounts of experiences not unlike my tale of exhaustion and/or revelation. Some of the tales James collected and studied are woven into the nonlinear plot of Elevator Repair Service's Room Tone, which will play at the Southern Theater as part of Walker Art Center's Out There 16, an annual series of experimental theater and dance.

The 13-year-old Elevator Repair Service has become one of NYC's leading experimental-theater groups, drawing acclaim for its combination of slapstick, high-tech audio, low-tech set designs, and its unusual interpretations of literary and popular texts.

The germ of Room Tone, explains ERS founder John Collins, came both from co-director Steve Bodow's idea to adapt Varieties and Collins's interest in visual artist James Turrell. "[Turrell]'s done some installations where you stand in a dark room, and the piece itself happens in incredibly low light with things you can't see when you first walk in the room," says Collins from his apartment in New York. "They play with the way your eyes work, and I wanted to make something like this for the stage." All this darkness and supernatural stuff--does fear engender religion, or does faith silence fear?--led to the inclusion of The Turn of the Screw. "A lot of The Turn of the Screw sounds like The Varieties of Religious Experience," says Collins. "It's ghosts and mystery, but being contemplated in this spiritual way."

Directly after my brush with the supernatural as a fatigued 19-year-old, I thought I'd been converted. After three or four days, though, life went back to normal, and I attributed the voice to stress and sleep deprivation. But partly because of that day I've never entirely warmed to atheism and, at least every fortnight, I wonder if something godlike isn't behind the love and art that sustain me.

"I'll try not to sound like I'm spinning this too much for your sake," Collins says when I ask him about the spiritual aspect of art, "but I'm always trying to achieve something in a live experience that goes beyond explanation. I imagine that's what anybody who's trying to make some kind of art is shooting for, you know, we all want to make something that can't be described but can only be experienced, and I take that very literally with theater."

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