Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. He leaned against the bar of the Old Home Sample room, the most gilded and urbane saloon in Cato, Missouri, and requested the bartender to join him in "The Good Old Summer Time," the waltz of the day.

THE OPENING PARAGRAPH OF "ELMER GANTRY," BY SINCLAIR LEWIS

FOR A month this winter, 14 actors, one playwright, three directors, two stage managers and a couple of interns at F Arena Stage spent most of each day trying to fashion the novel "Elmer Gantry" into the language of theater. It was a completely experimental process, without any commitment other than effort, inspired partly by the success of the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Nicholas Nickleby." The hope, of course, is the unstated aspiration of producing as rich and dense a theater piece as "Nickleby," which a company of over 40 actors, directors and writers spent six months to create from Dickens' novel. It is a bold undertaking. The workshop began with no guarantee of a usable product at the end, without even the rights to it, and ended with the "cautiously optimistic" intention by artistic director Zelda Fichandler to schedule the show for production next year.

The process of turning one art form into another is a peculiar form of alchemy. A novel lives in the mind; a play is created simultaneously in the minds and bodies of audience and performers. "A novel is vicarious, a play is experiential," said associate director Douglas Wager, who led the workshop. There have been other attempts to dramatize "Elmer Gantry": the movie with Burt Lancaster and a musical called "Gantry" that ran for one night.

How does an inner monologue translate on the stage? Taking the opening paragraph, how does a playwright create the saloon, the town, thebartender? How does a play cope with the span of time (26 years) and place? With the 77 named characters, not to mention numerous congregations and groups? How could 416 pages be honestly transposed into an evening of reasonable length?

"We had to destroy our preconceptions of what a play is," Wager said.

"For me, composing a play is like a symphony," said playwright Lanie Robertson, trying to explain how this process was a complete reversal of his usual method of working. "I want a play to have thematic unity, a form . . . very different from a novel, which you can pick up and put down. My tendency is always to know what the ending and highlights will be . . . I've tried to roll with the novel as much as I could, allowing my uncensored unconscious to infect my writing."

Encouraged by the eight-hour "Nicholas Nickleby," which played in one sitting or on consecutive nights, the Arena team decided to ignore conventional time limits for the moment. Informed by a previous experience in dramatizing Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy," they decided not to commission a script, as they had then, but to allow the actors to be the incubator.

The 14 players were members of the resident company, including both senior members like Richard Bauer and Stanley Anderson, as well as newer and seasonal performers like Robert Westberg and Kevin Donovan, and a few people hired just for the workshop with a $7,000 grant from the Comsat Corp.

Why "Elmer Gantry"? The plot, the peculiarly American odyssey of a small-town hustler who becomes a preacher, a salesman , and a self-proclaimed protector of public morality, intrigued both Fichandler and Wager for several years, partly because of the parallels between the story and the rise of the electronic church and the conservative religious movement of today.

The similarities between parts of Gantry, whose name has become a synonym for a Bible-beating preacher whose public virtue masks private immorality, and the new electronic preachers are both irresistible and risky, and several actors worried that the implication would be unfair. Gantry, for example, forms a Committee on Public Morals, which sounds all too similar to today's Moral Majority, and his speech that ends the book echoes Jerry Falwell's call to "turn this into a Christian nation": "Let me count this day, Lord, as the beginning of a new and more vigourous life, as the beginning of a crusade for complete morality and the domination of the Christian church through all the land. Dear Lord, thy work is but begun! We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!

But the metaphor of Gantry as the evangelical preacher applies to only a part of the book, the part used by the makers of the movie that starred Burt Lancaster in one of his more memorable characterizations. The book covers more years--from 1902 to 1928--and more levels. As playwright Robertson said, "This is also the story of the shift of our nation from a simple and trusting community, an agrarian society, to an urban America controlled by people with power."

So the adventure began. Chapters were divided into scenes and assigned, first to individual actors, then to groups.

The following exchange, for example, is taken from a scene in Chapter Five, prior to Gantry's ordination as a Baptist minister, which the actors improvised several times. Robertson took notes, and some of the rehearsals were taped. Then Robertson wrote his version, using a lot of what the actors improvised, a version which may or may not end up in a final script:

Mrs. Gantry: I tol' Mrs. Dinger 'bout that sermon you wrote 'bout how to pay off the church debt in six different ways. She was mighty impressed.

Elmer: Sixteen, Momma. And it ain't no sermon. I mean it isn't no sermon. It's an essay.

Mrs. Gantry: A what, Elmer?

Elmer: An essay. "Sixteen Ways of Paying a Church Debt."

Mrs. Gantry: Oh don't you look nice? Oh, Elmer, you even look like a preacher now.

Elmer: Well, let's go. I'm ready to take on these birds.

As the work continued, the actors found that many of Lewis' characters, particularly the women, were sketchily drawn. To broaden the characters in their own minds, they improvised scenes that were not in the book, exploring the background, psychology and personalities. For example, the pivotal role of Sharon Falconer, the first great passion of Gantry's life, is known only in the present. Her past is hinted at; she was poor, came from the wrong side of the tracks, had another name. Several actors spent a day delving into her background, material that may never appear on stage, nor indeed was even performed for the rest of the group because the emotional spontaneity that came out in the improvisation could not, they felt, be recreated with any purpose.

"The actor's contribution is enormous," said Wager. "You can only experience the story through the characters."

Nobody was assigned a specific role; everyone played everyone, regardless of age, sex, or size. This device, a tip learned from the Royal Shakespeare Company account of "The Nicholas Nickleby Story," enabled the company to avoid internal rivalry and the inhibiting aristocracy of a star system. "We were all committed and responsible to an entire story, and all the characters," said Bauer, one of Arena's leading actors. Indeed, at first, nobody wanted to play Elmer Gantry. "Oh no, is it my turn to play Elmer?" wailed one actor one day. The character was too large, with the image of Burt Lancaster and the cliche' of a preacher to overcome.

While the actors were being watched and recorded by the directors and playwright, Robertson was also producing lines and scenes they could try in the more traditional manner, such as this version of the first paragraphs of the book:

Elmer (singing): "The good ol' summer time, the good ol' summer time." (To Bartender): Come on, ol' socks. Sing us a tune here.

Bartender: Nope. I ain't much of a hand at this here singing.

Elmer: All right. All right, old socks. Me and my roommate'll show you some singing! Meet roommate, Jim Lefferts. Bes' roommate in the world. Wouldn't live with him if wasn't.

Jim: Pipe down, Hell-cat.

Elmer: Bes' quarterback in Mi'lwest. Meet roommmate.

Scene: the lobby of Arena Stage, noon. Members of the workshop drift in, wearing rehearsal clothes reflecting varying levels of eccentricity. After a period of milling around, they separate into pre-assigned groups and go off to nooks and crannies of the theater to work.

One group--Anderson, Donovan, Christina Moore, Barbara Rappaport and Christopher McHale--work in a spare room sometimes used for a costume workshop. They are improvising the last scenes in Chapter Nine, in which Elmer, who has been forced into a shotgun wedding with a deacon's daughter, finagles his way out of the match by arranging for her to be found embracing her cousin Floyd, who is in fact only comforting her.

Donovan, the company's Equity intern, is a thin, bearded young man who in this improvisation is playing the part of Floyd. McHale, who played the ruffian in "Major Barbara" earlier in the season, is Gantry. Anderson is Deacon Baines, Rappaport is his wife, and Christina Moore is Lulu.

The two parents are talking quietly; they are improvising a scene not in the book in which the parents plan their daughter's wedding. Lulu, Elmer and Floyd are having a picnic; Elmer is rough with Lulu and stalks off, he says to prepare a sermon. She explains to her cousin that she doesn't understand why Elmer treats her so meanly, she doesn't know what she does wrong. Moore, as Lulu, bursts into tears--the first of four times she will cry in two hours. Donovan, as Floyd, comforts her, and the embrace turns into a gentle kiss. Gantry, who has alerted Lulu's father, is waiting to observe this scene. The father is furious, drags his daughter around, shouts, yells. He goes down on his knee to beg Gantry's forgiveness, kisses his hand, weeps. Lulu is crying. The mother looks confused and upset.

The improvisation is rough, uneven, awkward. The actors, making up lines as they go, sometimes interrupt each other. The emotion is uncontrolled, broad strokes that would be refined in a formal rehearsal process. They grab each other violently.

"It was a very frightening process," said Bauer after the workshop ended. "We didn't have to come up with something for an audience, or for Zelda. I'd never had a chance before to work in a situation where there was no strata in the group, where age, sex and experience didn't matter."

Said Donovan, "We had to be able to fall on our face in front of our peers." It wasn't that they didn't notice that you'd fallen on your face, but that was not the most important thing."

Zelda Fichandler feels the workshop process produced a basis from which to proceed. Robertson is now back in New York working on an outline of what was learned, shaping an "overall arc" for the proposed play. "If this works, it will be in part because it has been explored," she said. We'll see how it goes with the outline."