Many scholars refer to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” as “The Great American Novel.” But from now until March 17, Arizona Theatre Company will adapt it into a new form: theatrical performance.
It may sound like a daunting task, but Associate Artistic Director Stephen Wrentmore said he is thrilled to be working on this national treasure of a book. “The way Fitzgerald constructs character, illusion and narrative” makes the story “alive with resonance,” Wrentmore said.
The performance features mostly professional actors and technicians, but Arizona Theatre Company has also partnered with the UA School of Theatre, Film and Television as well as the School of Dance to provide an opportunity to UA students. Four undergraduates, including Taylor Bradley, a freshman majoring in dance and business marketing, are dancers in the play’s ensemble cast.
Bradley, who grew up in Roswell, Ga., has been dancing since he was 10 years old. He has performed in many dance shows and competitions, but said “The Great Gatsby” is one of his first productions with a theater company. Bradley said being part of the production is an incredible opportunity and a stepping stone to bigger things because the performance helps expose him and the other dancers to the world of acting.
He added that performing in “The Great Gatsby” is particularly exciting because it is such a well-known and memorable story. “Fitzgerald is an incredible author. It’s been so cool for me, and I think the rest of the cast, to see this novel that we’ve grown up reading personified through theater,” Bradley said.
Of course, performing in a professional play as a full-time college student is no easy feat. Bradley said that since early February, he has practiced for more than eight hours a week, and once tech rehearsals began, some practices lasted for 12 hours per day.
“It’s been difficult, but not impossible,” Bradley said. “I just really had to discipline myself and stay on top of my studies.”
Bradley and the ensemble dancers are not the only UA affiliates performing in “The Great Gatsby.” Kevin Black, associate professor at the UA School of Theatre, Film and Television, plays the role of George Wilson in the show.
Black said the setting, the Roaring ‘20s, is one of his favorite aspects of the play.
“Since childhood, I have wanted to be able to go to different times, to live in different eras,” Black said. “The closest thing I get is when I act in a period piece,” He explained that the world of “The Great Gatsby” is purely imaginary, but it’s based on history — so it’s satisfying to bring that dual world to life.
Bradley agreed that the adaptation from book to stage allows “The Great Gatsby” to present the 1920s with even more detail than the novel does. He said the music and dance add to the story because they were such a vital part of the era.
“Without dance and the music that’s been composed for the play, it wouldn’t feel like the ‘20s. It’d just feel like an imitation of the ‘20s,” Bradley said.
Black said he was also excited about the music and dance in the show.
“The dance students are tremendously talented and skilled. Frankly, I’m a little in awe of them,” he said. He added that the understudies for the actors are students from the school of Theatre, Film and Television. “We have tremendously talented students in all our schools. I’m always very proud and impressed,” he said.
Bradley said all his hard work has already offered him a sense of what it’s like to be a professional performer.
“I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I truly do hope it’s on a stage,” he said. Bradley concluded that he wants to dance professionally or work in a theater company, and would love to end up on Broadway.
Whether the performers are seasoned professionals like Black, or aspiring artists like Bradley, Arizona Theatre Company’s production of “The Great Gatsby” celebrates a story that, according to Black, resonates 80 years after Fitzgerald wrote it.
People respond to “The Great Gatsby” because it’s “a story about yearning, about desire, about coming so close to your dreams and having (them) just fall out of your fingertips.” But just as the end of Fitzgerald’s novel suggests, Black said, “It doesn’t matter that we didn’t get our dreams today, because tomorrow we’ll just try harder and reach farther. That is a universally understood impulse, but peculiarly American, too.”
Arizona Theatre Company’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” opens when a simple projection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first line above the stage: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since …”
A spotlight illuminates narrator Nick Carraway (Zachary Ford), dressed in a perfectly tailored white suit as he completes his anecdote. And in that moment, the book’s two-dimensional words come to life through three-dimensional characters. Fitzgerald’s narrative subtly invites the audience to experience this fictitious world as if they are seeing it through Carraway’s eyes.
It’s always risky to reinterpret a story that so many people know and love, but as the show continues, the production offers enough detail to still leave many elements to the viewer’s imagination. Sets are minimal and props are simple and purposefully chosen. As UA School of Theatre, Film and Television associate professor Kevin Black explained, the stage is filled with light and sound instead of overwhelming or dramatic sets. Everything is merely suggested, which means that everything is open to interpretation, he said.
Though the adaptation is a drama rather than a musical, song and dance add an extra dimension to the already captivating and complex story. Likewise, intricate costuming which is both authentic and eye-catching contributes to the play’s realistic encapsulation of the 1920s atmosphere. Black added that playwright Simon Levy deserves much of the credit for adapting “The Great Gatsby” so successfully. “The play is extremely faithful to the book,” he said, “But it’s not a staging of the book.”
He noted the way Levy captures both the action and the dialogue of the novel. In scenes such as Myrtle Wilson’s (Marta Reiman) accidental death, this balance is particularly noticeable. The play utilizes headlights, a scream and quick dance lift to portray the memorable moment. Then, as George Wilson (Kevin Black), Tom Buchanan (William Peden) and Nick struggle to make sense of the emotional situation, they stay true to character while calling out lines from the book.
The play even retains some of the book’s most literary characteristics, such as motifs and symbols. The billboard featuring the iconic eyes of “Dr. T.J. Eckleberg” appears several times as a backdrop, and during critical moments of the story’s progression, these eyes symbolically reappear as a projection above the stage. In the same way, the play subtly incorporates the single beam of green light that blinks at the edge of Daisy Buchanan’s (Monette Magrath) dock, reminding Gatsby of his dream to be with her again.
As the play draws to a close, this green light continues to glow, and the actual words of the novel appear above the set once more. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us,” Carraway says. Even though the story ends in somewhat of a tragedy, when the play draws to a close, the audience cannot help but remember Fitzgerald’s hopeful message of reaching for a better future.