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Book to stage: The Great Gatsby

Last year at about this time, Stephen Wrentmore dug out his very old copy of “The Great Gatsby,” the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel published in 1925 — considered by many the “great American novel.”

He was talking at the time with David Ira Goldstein, artistic director for Arizona Theatre Company, about possible programming for the 2011-12 Arizona Theatre Company season. Wrentmore was named the company’s associate artistic director in January, and will be directing “The Great Gatsby” for ATC later this season.

The thrill of returning to “The Great Gatsby,” says Wrentmore, was greater than any other experience revisiting works he’d previously read. Reading it cold as an adult, he muses, beats being force fed the novel as a child. “It’s such complex and rich writing for a hungry mind,” shares Wrentmore.

This first edition of The Great Gatsby was sold at auction by Christie's for $163,500

American students are expected to read “The Great Gatsby” but that’s not the case for students in London, where Wrentmore was born and raised. “I read ‘Huckleberry Finn’ by accident when I was 11 or 12,” recalls Wrentmore. Seems immersion in the writings of modern American authors isn’t considered essential within the British education system.

Wrentmore discovered American novels shortly after taking his exams at age 16, and says he soon became “obsessed with American literature.” Wrentmore recounts reading American novelists like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald through the end of his university studies — when he finally got to visit America.

He first traveled to Arizona in 2000, and still marvels today at the differences between British and American culture. Comparing life in Arizona to life in London, he says, is like comparing two distinct languages. “I knew in my head that it would be different,” shares Wrentmore. But “the different energy levels” of Arizona life and London life are more stark than he’d imagined — by virtue, he says, of both climate and distance.

“Europeans walk everywhere,” reflects Wrentmore. “And there’s a greater sense of the outdoors in Europe.” In London, he says, you meet people on the pathways. “There are more opportunities for random encounters.” In Arizona, he’s observed, people seem to live in their cars. There’s no popping out to the market late at night unless car keys are involved, and it’s isolating.

Hence the added importance of arts and culture to Arizona communities, reflects Wrentmore. People who attend a concert or play have a shared experience. They develop a sense of community — something Wrentmore says we need more of. The arts, adds Wrentmore, forge a connection between “our common humanity.”

Wrentmore has been busy casting “The Great Gatsby” in Tucson, Phoenix and NYC — but says he’s only about 70% there so far. The Arizona Theatre Company production of “The Great Gatsby,” the final work in their “America Plays! Celebrating Great American Stories” series, runs Feb. 25-March 17 in Tucson and March 22-April 8 in Phoenix.

Cover of my daughter Jennifer's $12.95 copy of The Great Gatsby

“People have great expectations,” reflects Wrentmore. “We have to tell the story in a way that resonates with contemporary audiences.” Wrentmore recognizes that whatever they do, it’s likely to collide with various audience member visions of the work. “For every reader of ‘The Great Gatsby,’ there’s a different Gatsby,” says Wrentmore. “It’s completely liberating.”

“Some people won’t get it,” says Wrentmore, “and some will see a truth in it.” Wrentmore says he feels more freedom to choose historical periods and other elements when directing the works of Shakespeare. But “The Great Gatsby,” he says, must “relate with the period and how people remember the story.”

Still, Wrentmore says he’s observed that people’s memories of “The Great Gatsby” are hazy. You can ask anyone, he says, about “The Great Gatsby.” They all know it and they all have an answer — a different answer. Not all novels translate well to the stage, according to Wrentmore. But he sees “great theatricality” in the work, and is certain it’ll travel to the stage “with elegance.”

“The Great Gatsby” has been adapted several times for the big screen. The 1974 film starred Robert Redford and a 2012 film will star Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s being filmed in Australia and directed by Baz Luhrmann, and will be released by Warner Brothers Pictures in both 2D and 3D on Christmas Day 2012. But it’s rare, according to Goldstein, for the Fitzgerald estate to grant rights for theatrical adaptations. They’ll be performing an adaptation by Simon Levy.

Wrentmore notes that “The Great Gatsby” is supremely relevant for contemporary American society. “These characters live in a bubble of privilege,” says Wrentmore. “They drink, lay about and engage in dangerous liaisons.” It’s hardly a reflection, says Wrentmore, of the Protestant work ethic in which folks work hard for money they then put to good use.

“I come from a society that believes in a sense of society and culture,” says Wrentmore. “We give back.” But the characters in “The Great Gatsby” don’t give back. Wrentmore notes that the Gatsy story “kicks us again about the elusive idea of the American dream.”

“These characters are, for the most part, the one percent,” says Wrentmore. Just a few of them “represent the 99 percent.” Fitzgerald’s tale reminds us all to ask ourselves what it really means to be successful. And to consider, once we’ve achieved wealth and status, what we ought to be doing with it.

— Lynn

Note: The West Valley Arts Council is featuring “The Great Gatsby” in “The Big Read,” a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest. A visual arts competition for ages 12-22 closes on Dec. 8 so click here ASAP for details if you or someone you know might like to participate. 

Coming up: Musings on “Mozart’s Sister,” Visual arts classes for youth, Ethnic studies translated for the stage

Update: Arizona Theatre Company is seeking donations of new and used copies of the book “The Great Gatsby” — which can be dropped off at The Temple of Music and Art in Tucson or one of three Phoenix locations — the Herberger Theater Center, the ATC Phoenix box office and the Downtown Phoenix Partnership. Watch the education section of the ATC website for details coming soon. And click here to check out the NEA’s “Big Read” blog.  12/06/11