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Simon Levy Interview

March 1 - March 10, 2013
The New Hazlett Theatre Center for Performing Arts

Performances are typically 2 hours long.

Showtimes: Friday & Saturday @ 8:00 PM
Sunday @ 2:30 PM


“Glitzy, Theatrical, Captivating”

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby




Prime Stage Education Director Monica Stephenson recently had the opportunity to interview Simon Levy about his adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

Simon LevyMS: First, I just have to say how proud Prime Stage is to have the opportunity to bring your adaption of The Great Gatsby to The New Hazlett Theater.   You’ve had rave reviews and successful runs at The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Arizona Theatre Company, Seattle Repertory Theatre and The Grand Theatre in London Ontario Canada.   There are productions being mounted across the country.  Audiences are getting to experience The Great Gatsby in a new and exciting way.  Congratulations!

MS: Your play is the only adaptation of The Great Gatsby authorized by the Fitzgerald Estate.  I understand that there is a story behind securing the right.  Can you share it with us?

SL: There's a very very long answer to that question, but I doubt there's enough room here to give you all the delicious details, but let me try and encapsulate it: 20 years ago I approached the Fitzgerald Estate about adapting Gatsby because I had this dream of creating the American Literature Theatre Project (which grew out of a life-changing theatre trip I took to the Soviet Union) that would bring to theatrical life great American literature. What better story to launch that dream than The Great Gatsby? So, full of passion and pride, I approached the Fitzgerald Estate, who listened with great interest to my impassioned plea. When I had finished, they said, "Absolutely not, you can't have Gatsby." I was crushed. But then they, suprisingly said, "But pick another book." Ironically, I had just re-read Tender is the Night, so I said, "Okay, how about Tender?" I think they probably thought it was a completely foolish idea, but it was my time (I was doing all this on spec), so they said, "Okay." In my naivete (and arrogance), I thought I could whip off the adaptation in six months. How hard could it be? Well, two-and-a-half years later, I finally had a draft to present to the Trustees of the Estate. (That 2+ year journey of wrestling that book into theatrical life is worth a separate essay, but suffice it to say the experience cemented my awe and admiration for Fitzgerald.) Anyway, the Estate approved my adaptation of Tender, we produced it at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles (my theatrical home), and it went on to be a great success, winning a bunch of awards, including the PEN Literary Award in Drama. I was asked to do a scene from it at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society Conference at Princeton where it created quite a sensation and I had the good fortune to meet most of the important people who teach and write about Fitzgerald, including the Trustees. I went back to the Estate and said, "Look how wonderful my Tender is, now I would like to do Gatsby." Again they said, "No. But why don't you try The Last Tycoon?" And I said, "It's an unfinished novel!" And they said, "So finish it." And I thought, There's a challenge! That adaptation only took a year-and-a-half, was also produced at the Fountain Theatre, and was also a great success and won awards. This time when I went back to the Estate to ask for Gatsby, they said, "Yes." But with a whole lot of restrictions. A little over two years later, I presented them with a draft, which they approved. And now all three plays are being published by Dramatists Play Service. It's been an amazing 20-year journey!

MS: What is it that most inspires or draws you to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, particularly The Great Gatsby?

SL: That time when I had re-read Tender, just before getting the rights to adapt it, was because I was struggling with some personal issues and I was looking for some answers. I had fallen in love with Fitzgerald's writing in my early '20s and he was always a go-to writer when I needed him. This time, as I was re-reading Tender, I felt like I really got Fitzgerald, that I really understood who he was. That his problems were Dick Diver's problems (the protagonist in the book), and that these problems were also mine: Particularly the way Fitzgerald explores and addresses what it means to be a man in American society, the expectations and pressures, the mythology attached to that; and also what it means to be an artistic man trying to be successful in this culture. How does one balance obligations and dreams? I think Fitzgerald really got what it meant to struggle with the anima that fed his creativity and how that clashes against the left brain hardness of materialism and success that's expected of men (especially) in our society. Also, when you look at his writings, you always see this dichotomy, this clash, between illusion and reality, especially in Gatsby. This was not an intellectual exercise for Fitzgerald, a detached idea, but came from a place of real feelings, real encounters in his life. What is illusion? reality? How do you hold two conflicting ideas in your mind at the same time? You see, what he's struggling with is this: What happens if you're a failure?; what happens if you abrogate the American Dream?; what happens if you're not any good at what you do?; and what do you do with failure if there's a part of you that really believes in yourself? That is, what happens if you don't live up to the American mythology of success?

MS: The Great Gatsby is full of descriptive prose, symbolism and history?  How did you make choices regarding what to use and not use in your adaptation?

SL: I think the greatest challenge for any production of this play - and the thing that excites me the most - is finding, in the language of theatre, an equivalent to or substitute for Fitzgerald's prose. After all, the book lives on for a lot of reasons - not the least of which is the way Fitzgerald writes. An adaptation has got to capture that somehow while still illuminating the plot and the various themes. What everybody talks about when they talk about Gatsby the novel is the beauty of Fitzgerald's prose, his lyricism, the way he expresses, the poetic maturity of his descriptive prose, his astonishing use of metaphor and symbolism. Well, one of the great advantages of theatre is how we are able to give life to symbolism and metaphor on stage. As an art form we excel at being suggestive rather than literal. It's what we do best. You don't need to put a whole mansion on stage. You can do it iconographically so that the audience uses their own imagination to fill out the rest. So, as I was working on the adaptation, it became really important to find ways - through set, sound, music, choreography, and especially lighting - to suggest to future directors and designers the kinds of ways to emulate Fitzgerald's prose. But first and foremost my task was to tell the story, to bring the characters to life, and to trust that the rest - metaphor, symbolism, theme - would be inherent in the play. The rest is up to the creative team. The larger task of what to keep or dispense with in the adaptation has been a long long journey of immersing myself as deeply as possible into Fitzgerald and the novel while still remaining true to the task of creating an exciting piece of theatre.

MS: What were some of the theatrical opportunities and what were some of the challenges that you discovered while adapting this play?

SL: First of all, I came to this project with tremendous respect. After all, Gatsby is the Everest of American literature. Fortunately, I already had the advantage, because I had spent so much time with Fitzgerald on the other two adaptations, of feeling I really understood him. Before I can express myself in a work, I need to look for the nexus between it and myself. Everything I do is ultimately biographical in some way - the things I'm passionate about, struggle with, understand within myself. So there are parts in the adaptation where I can't remember now if the voice is Fitzgerald, if I adapted and shaped it from another source, or if I made it up. Of course, most of the text is directly from the book. But one of the primary challenges was figuring out how to create dialogue out of Fitzgerald's poetically descriptive prose. Where could I find language in the narrative that would translate into dialogue? How do I bend it, shape it, massage it, change it, add to or subtract from it? Secondly, there was the question of Nick. How do I make him active? This is Nick's memory... and imagination... and it's highly selective, even porous. The emotional thread that connects the scenes of the play is Nick. He may be observer, but he's deeply affected by all these people he encounters that fateful summer. He's the one who changes. To make him active took a long long time to figure out. Every adaptation is a humbling experience because you know you can never have it all, so then it becomes about choice. And where does choice come from? Some of it's obvious, of course, but much of it is in that nebulous realm of intuition, imagination, and one's personal relationship to the source material.

MS: On a personal note, I’m smitten with how your adaptation uses space and time, allowing scenes to overlap or linger around the characters.   What was the inspiration?

SL: Just as there is something fluid in the language of Fitzgerald, so, too, I wanted the play to capture that fluidity. But the last thing I wanted was the characters becoming lyrical, as if shot through gauze, which I think is a great mistake in too many of the attempts to bring this story to life. It's imperative that the actions of the characters be brutal and honest, full of the hopes and mistakes and scars that come from loving; it's amazing how much bad we do in the name of love. But I also wanted the action of the play to happen in a lyrical, magical, multi-dimensional world - reality vs. illusion, the American Dream, greed and desire, wealth vs. the ash heaps. I wanted to marry plot with theatricality. Almost immediately I saw the world of the play as a dreamscape, a living metaphor, wherein time and space (just as they are in our memories) know no hard boundaries.

MS: How does Music play a role in your adaptation of The Great Gatsby?
SL: Music is very important to me. I began my creative life playing the sax before switching to theatre. In many ways, as a director, I see myself as a conductor. As a writer, I often feel more like an arranger or composer. In my early drafts of the adaptation I had an African-American character called the Saxman on stage throughout the play, accompanying the action on sax and clarinet. His function was at once pragmatic, thematic, metaphorical, and a political statement. I took him out because commercial producers and some directors thought the character unnecessary and too expensive. After agonizing over that issue for several years, I removed him and replaced him with an Author's Note at the beginning of the play encouraging directors and producers to include a musician, or musicians, but at their discretion. When you go through the novel there are music and song references throughout. "The Jazz Age" was coined by Fitzgerald. How do you think of the 1920s without thinking about the music of that era? How do you think of Gatsby without thinking of the '20s? Almost impossible. There was no way I could do an adaptation of this story without feeling the music and the rhythms of the Jazz Age. They informed the writing... and I felt it important to literally include them in the script. In some ways, the adaptation is almost a musical, or could be if it weren't for all the dialogue... and some day there will be a musical adaptation, just as there's already a ballet and an opera.

MS: I’m just curious, is there a character from The Great Gatsby with whom you most identity? 
SL: As a writer, one of the challenges is to get inside your characters so you identify and empathize with them, and, most importantly, speak from their point of view. Ultimately, you fall in love with all of them. But, if I take a step back and look at the question objectively, the character I have the deepest affection for is Nick. It's ultimately his journey, his eyes through which we see this world he enters, his pain and disappointment we come to identify with at the end. He comes to East Egg full of youthful hope and expectation, full of illusion, and leaves, more mature, wounded, full of reality.

MS: What do you wish for our audience to take with them after experiencing your play?

SL: The power of theatre is to emotionally engage people. The last thing in the world I want for this play is for it to be overly intellectual or literary. I want the audience to care. I want these to be visceral, living, f 'ed-up characters, played out against a mythic American landscape. Just as we journey with an Oedipus or an Antigone, a Medea or Clytemnestra, specific, vibrant characters in a mythic Greek world, in the same way I want Fitzgerald's iconic characters, Gatsby and Daisy and Nick and Tom and Jordan, to be as vibrant and alive and as complex and screwed up and joyous and full of love and mistakes in their mythic American world. I want them to be remembered. I want them to live on, consciously and unconsciously, in the minds of the audience so that, years from now, when one of those characters is mentioned or the words "The Great Gatsby" come up in conversation, a scene or a moment or a line of dialogue from the play will explode to life inside of them.

MS: Lastly, are there any plans to adapt more of F. Scott Fitzgerald work for the stage?

SL: I've looked at the other novels, as well as most of the short stories, and though they call to me, there are other stories I've put off for too long - some of them deeply personal - and they're begging me to pay them more attention. Sometimes you get a crazy idea in your head and you just can't shake it until you at least attempt to give it life.