So you want to be a performance artist?

Sokol plays the role of Benjy in William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” where she plays a man with a child’s mind.

Provided by Ariana Smart Truman

Sokol plays the role of Benjy in William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” where she plays a man with a child’s mind.

by Helen Yang and Erica Cai

The horseshoe-shaped wooden desk, neatly placed candlestick phone and crisp suits in the office create a sharp contrast with the disorderly group of office employees, who lounge across the tables, chug beers and rapidly discuss legal documents—even through a screen, the short video clip of Elevator Repair Service’s latest rendition of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” on their website exudes a frantic energy.

Actress Susie Sokol, who plays four different characters in “Measure for Measure,” has performed in 14 different off-Broadway plays in the 26 years that she has been working with Elevator Repair Service, including the lead role in plays such as “The Sound and the Fury” and “The Sun Also Rises.” With a background in dance, Sokol began to delve deeper into the world of theater in college, when a friend recommended her to a director at Elevator Repair Service, which was founded in 1991 by Artistic Director John Collins. After experiencing firsthand a play production with the company, Sokol joined the ensemble of performers and artists.

“The director was looking for people that weren’t really professional Yale drama type people. I was into dancing at the time, and there was very good chemistry, a really good fit,” Sokol said. “We put on a really crazy play in college. [I wasn’t] given an exact role to play. It was very freeing—I was writing it and picking things that I wanted to do on stage. And then I was hooked.”

As a performer and production member, Sokol has the opportunity to define her own characters under general guidelines. Rather than following a strictly outlined role, she choreographs movements and interprets character styles based on a combination of her own research of the characters and settings and her personal inspirations, resulting in unique dramatic performances riddled with original dances.

“I get lines and things that are standard for a performer, but we also do dances and movement-based work, not just simple acting. So on my own, I… research different movement styles and bring them to rehearsal,” Sokol said. “In [Supreme Court themed] ‘Arguendo,’ in the end I played Justice Bader Ginsburg. I found a little clip of Bader Ginsburg, figured out all the gestures in the little segment, and brought them to the company.”

Throughout the 26 years that she has been performing under Elevator Repair Service, the company has evolved in production style. In the earlier years, plays drew from a variety of sources, then presented collages of different stories. In the more recent phase, most plays are complete adaptations of different pieces of literature, such as The Great Gatsby, The Sound and the Fury, The Sun Also Rises and more.

In addition to acting, Sokol teaches second grade, a job that helps not only support her financially but also generate inspiration. For example, she integrates her life as a second grade teacher with her life as a performer by drawing new ideas from her students and by challenging herself to brainstorm creative ways to bring plays to the classroom.

For the books, it’s all about moving the audience, with the challenge of something that’s not one-on-one like with an actual book, but instead with an audience – and still having to maintain that sort of sacred feeling of reading and intimacy, but it’s bigger.

— Susie Sokol

“The little guys have funny movements, and so I’m inspired by them, and it’s easy for me to channel them,” she said. “There’s also this connection of using things that I’ve discovered and bringing them to the kids. For the kids’ final dance, we were putting on a west African folk tale with traditional dances… but with popular songs like ‘Take Me On.’ That’s [Elevator Repair Service] style: putting things together that don’t go together.”

Having dedicated much of her life to Elevator Repair Service, Sokol hopes to share her love for both the freedom and creativity involved behind the scenes and the unique dances and movements performed on stage.

“It’s a communal experience. It’s all about moving the audience, along with the challenge of something that’s not one-on-one like with an actual book, but instead with an entire audience,” Sokol said. “We still [have] to maintain that sort of sacred feeling of reading and intimacy, but bigger. I think for a lot of people, they just hear [the stories] in new ways when they see them elucidated in our performances.”

This piece was originally published in the pages of The Winged Post on Oct. 17, 2018.