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One thing you could say about John Collins: He likes an oral challenge.
Under his direction, the New York–based ensemble Elevator Repair Service (ERS) has staged, among other things, three modern American novels—usually recited in their entirety. First came Gatz in 2006, a seven-hour marathon incorporating an enactment and complete reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The group followed that up in 2008 with The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928) from William Faulkner's opus, and The Select (The Sun Also Rises), a full 2010 rendering of Hemingway's classic.
Now they're taking on the U.S. Supreme Court.
For Arguendo, the ensemble's newest verbatim performance, opening September 10 at the Public Theater, the group will stage the complete oral arguments presented in the 1991 case Barnes v. Glen Theatre. In case you've forgotten, that's the one in which the highest court in the land debated whether or not erotic dancing might be protected by the First Amendment. The dialogue between the justices and the opposing attorneys made for unusually lively jurisprudence: Imagine Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Sandra Day O'Connor discussing whether the Kitty Kat Lounge in South Bend, Indiana, should or should not require its dancers to wear pasties and g-strings.
Over burgers and bourbons around the corner from the company's East Village studio, Collins recalled chancing upon the case while researching copyright law during the group's long struggle to secure permission from the Fitzgerald estate to perform Gatz in New York. (For years, the show had toured the U.S. and Europe, becoming the group's signature piece while Collins tried to get clearance for a hometown run; the estate eventually relented, but by that time, the rest of the world had seen it before New York.)
"I got excited because I discovered that, with a lot of cases, you could listen to the oral argument," says Collins, who scrapped an intended law career after college. "You could go online, download it, and actually follow it. So I got kind of hooked on oral argument—which is much less interesting, I guess, than if I had gotten hooked on naked dancing."
Don't expect standard-issue courtroom drama. "It's just not meant for the stage," Collins says of Arguendo's legal-eagle source material. "It comes from another universe. It gives us all kinds of problems that we have to solve in staging it—and that's good."
It helped that the transcript was loaded with one-liners that kept Washington, D.C., observers laughing out loud during the original session. Plus, the case was basically about performance, and offered a glimpse of historic government deliberations over art during the 1980s and '90s NEA/Mapplethorpe culture wars. (If nude dancing were intended as "expression," it would be, essentially, a protected form of speech; but if baring it all were merely "behavior," then it could be subject to decency restrictions.)
"How low can the 'low' art go before it loses the protections that we automatically assume the 'high' art has?" muses the director, who connects that question to the ensemble's own ethos. "We've always been interested in what the edges of the performance are. When does it stop being a performance and start being something that's just happening?" Barnes v. Glen seemed to parallel the downtowners' aesthetic investigations, but from a legal standpoint.
In the end, the Supreme Court effectively upheld the state of Indiana's right to pass a law banning public nudity: The dancers had to cover up. But Collins sees little consensus on why in the ruling—and the court's loopy thought process, brimming with far-out hypotheticals, attracts him. "To try to get at a sensible, straightforward answer to some of these questions, they take it to some absurd places," he says of the judges. (At various points they wonder if dancing has to be rhythmic and whether nudity is inherently expressive conduct.)
Arguendo's title is a legal term from Latin, meaning "for the sake of argument," and for Collins, that's the heart of the matter. He sees no easy answers to any of the questions as posed. He hopes to steer the show "into that strange marginal world between fact and fiction, between something that's more documentary and something that's made up—and really tests the question of what is truth." (ERS has scheduled a special series of post-show discussions with legal experts so the audience can keep talking about the case, rather than just asking questions about how the show got made.)
A few of the group's tactics could be seen at a recent afternoon rehearsal. Some of the proceeding's technical portions happen simultaneously with other scenes. Collins frames the hearing with a C-SPAN broadcast interview outside the courthouse with a nude dancer from Michigan. Cascades of text project onto an upstage screen, zooming in and out of documents as attorneys cite them. And, of course, there is some undressing. And maybe provocative dancing. Nude.
Above all, the ERS performers seem to relish freewheeling with an ostensibly serious debate; the show is full of antics inspired by their research visit to the Supreme Court this year. As Collins points out, the transcript just covers what was said; it's up to the group to imagine the rest.
The Court has changed since 1991, the same year the ensemble was founded. So has ERS. Collaborators have come and gone, and thanks to their success with Gatz, the shows—larger, fuller, more polished—now tour throughout a network of presenting partners.
Still, Collins says he's trying to keep things fresh and resist pressures to manufacture another hit. The company's been collaborating with a living playwright, Sibyl Kempson, who has created a text for them to stage this year at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The director also toys with the thought of a future piece based on Congressional debates over the 14th Amendment ("it doesn't have the nice, concise quality of a one-hour oral argument"). And he wonders if ERS could do something with Shakespeare or Chekhov, those titans of world theater repertory.
But mainly, regardless of the author or source, Collins wants audiences always to wonder: "'Is this a pre-imagined performance, something that was already written down and planned, or is this something that is just happening right now?' Which," he adds, "is the province of theater."