PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Gatz and Blood Knot Actor Scott Shepherd

By Robert Simonson
March 10, 2012

Scott Shepherd is closing the chapter on Blood Knot at Signature Theatre and opening the book of "The Great Gatsby" — literally — in Gatz at The Public Theater. He talks about memorizing an unabridged classic.



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It's been an interesting time for the Public Theater. Though it's had shows on Broadway and high-profile Shakespeare revivals, its two most consistent (and unlikely) ticket-sellers have been a couple scrappy productions from the edgy, experimental theatre fringes.

One is Mike Daisey's searing one-man indictment of Apple, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which recently returned to the Public for a encore engagement. The other is Gatz, Elevator Repair Service's six-and-a-half-hour staging of the entire text of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." A big critical and popular hit last season, it returns on March 14 for a run that will continue until May 6. At the center of every show is actor Scott Shepherd, who, as narrator Nick Carraway, does most of the talking, at first reading from the book itself and later telling the tale, word for word, from heart. This is one performance where that old layman question — "How do you memorize all those lines?" — is actually somewhat appropriate. Playbill.com talked to the man with a book in his head.

How many times have you done Gatz so far?
Scott Shepherd: I know we passed 100 when we were at The Public. Maybe 130, 140, like that.

And how many countries have you done it in?
SS: A lot! Portugal, Austria, The Netherlands. We were in France? Dublin, Australia, Belgium.

When you first started the project, were you familiar with the book?
SS: Only in that high school way. I had only the completely inadequate appreciation for it that you have for books that you read in high school.

I guess you have a much better appreciation for it now.
SS: I hope so. As we read through it again, I remembered the general shape of it. It starts out kind of comic and then leads to this confrontation at the hotel, and then the car accident. I had a particular memory for that long list of names at the Gatsby party, that great epic catalogue.

At this point, I imagine, there are huge swaths of the book that you could recite by heart if I asked you to.
SS: Yeah. There's a game we like to play — or that [director] John Collins started to like making me do at fundraisers and things — called Stump the Freak. He'd hand the book out to somebody in the audience and they'd find four or five words in a row and read them and then I'd jump in from wherever they had left off.

You must have had to push a bunch of information out of your memory to fit "The Great Gatsby" in.
SS: I don't know what I've lost! [Laughs.] Something important, I'm sure.

Scott Shepherd in Gatz
Photo by Joan Marcus

Maybe your locker combination from high school, and every other phone number you've ever had. As you perform it, do different passage strike you more strongly at different performances?
SS: In general, certain passages have a slow, pulsing life. They come into focus over the course of a few shows. And then for a while they won't become as prominent again, and I really don't know why. Then a passage further down the page will start to feel like the centerpiece of that scene. It has a bit of a life of its own that I'm not in control of. I do remember when we finished the show in New York the last time, and we thought this might be the last time we do this — at that point the show was almost ten years old; the first time we did it was in 2005 — there was a section at the end of chapter eight that was in danger of becoming too sentimental. It's all about this goodbye between Gatsby and Nick. I kept a tight rein on it.

When you do the show, do you basically sleep, eat and perform? There's not much room for anything else?
SS: Yeah. I try to do a little exercise before I get to the theatre. After the show, I'm not exhausted yet. I don't feel it until a half hour later, when I go out with the cast for a drink. Then the exhaustion hits.

Do Fitzgerald nuts ever wait for you after the show?
SS: I've been approached by a few professors. And we've been fortunate to have some of the descendants come. A couple of Fitzgerald's grandchildren have come. We usually know they're coming.

When this is all done, I guess you'll never feel the need to read this book again.
SS: I already don't need to read it! For me, it's not really a book to read anymore. I can't really compare it to other books. I can't regard it in the same way. But I do sometimes, when I read a contemporary writer of some kind, I recognize who is down a branch from Fitzgerald, more than, say, Joyce or Faulkner. I was just reading Jonathan Franzen and he really feels like he comes from the Fitzgerald stock.

Read senior correspondent Robert Simonson's earlier appreciation of the Fitzgerald classic as related to the 2010 engagement of Gatz at The Public Theater.