A Very Modernist Mash-Up at NYPL

What do you get when a statistician and a visual artist use computer algorithms to mix up passages from 1920s literature — and an award-winning experimental theatrical group acts out the results?

We at The New York Public Library have no idea — but based on previous performances of the theater group Elevator Repair Service, we can’t wait to find out! ERS is known for using innovative physical performance and comically inspired rearrangements of text and found objects.

Shuffle, commissioned by NYPL in celebration of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building’s Centennial, was performed at the Library’s landmark building on Saturday, May 21, and Sunday, May 22. Free performances took place at 30-minute intervals, starting at 1 p.m. both days, and running until 6 p.m. on Saturday, and 4 p.m. on Sunday.

Elevator Repair Service is known for their theatrical mash-ups of slapstick comedy, hi-tech and lo-tech design, both literary and found texts, and found objects. Shuffle, a performance installation in which ERS has collaborated with visual artist Ben Rubin and statistician Mark Hansen, will mix short passages from great 1920s literature.

The script, generated in real time, will be performed with characteristic brilliance and abandon by ERS’s energetic actors, who will emerge from the nooks and crannies of the Periodicals Room to create unpredictable scenes.

“We expect the result will be a compelling, entertaining, and insightful examination of the English language as it was used by the great writers of the early 20th century,” says John Collins, ERS’s founding director and performer. “We think Shuffle will be an intriguing tribute to the grand history of the Library, its collections, and to its landmark building’s Centennial.”

The algorithms will analyze and recombine words from classics like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

“The text — arranged into new strings of sentences and phrases — creates a compelling look at literature that we thought we knew,” explains Collins. In surprising, often absurd, micro-theater, ERS actors will seamlessly blend with viewers. “Shuffle will blur the boundaries of performance space, private, and public space,” Collins adds, “and will be an exciting way to experience the beautiful and majestic building.”

Since its founding in 1991, Elevator Repair Service, a New York based ensemble that performs all over the world, has created original full-length productions and short dramatic pieces — including the acclaimed Gatz, a re-imagining of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Rubin and Hansen previously collaborated on their hugely successful visual art projects with The Whitney Museum of American Art — Listening Post — and a permanent installation in The New York Times Building called Moveable Type. Shuffle represents a departure for Elevator Repair Service, whose controlled, creative chaos typically unfolds on a conventional stage.
Shuffle was commissioned by NYPL in partnership with FuturePerfect, a new initiative that researches and presents emerging hybrid performance practices, media forms, and artistic ideas. Reservations are not required.

Shuffle. Photo:Ariana Smart Truman

Gatz. Pictured L to R: Laurena Allan, Gary Wilmes, Scott Shepherd, Annie McNamara, Kate Scelsa, Vin Knight. Photo: Mark Barton