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Changing Theater’s Nature
Nature Theater of Oklahoma Reimagines a Life on Stage

By Maddy Costa

It all started so innocently. Sometime in 2007, Pavol Liska, who runs Nature Theater of Oklahoma with his wife, Kelly Copper, began to think about making a play based on autobiographical narratives. He had become intrigued and puzzled by the way people tell stories to each other: not with a straightforward linear structure but looping through time, easily distracted by tangents, slipping into stories within stories. His very first step was to call up another company member, Kristin Worrall, and ask her to tell her life story in its entirety, but without telling her why. The conversation lasted more than an hour, during which Worrall travelled from her birth through her earliest memories to roughly third grade. It took another nine phone calls—16 hours in total—for her to reach the present day. By this time, Liska had abandoned the idea of soliciting anyone else’s autobiography. Worrall’s was a show in itself.

That show is Life and Times, a musical staging of all 10 conversations, each one sung, verbatim, and presented as a self-contained “episode,” with a performance style tailored to suit Worrall’s advancing age and preoccupations. So the first episode, which plays as a stand-alone piece at the Walker this month, is performed as if by a children’s community group, in stiff overalls jerked by stiffer dance moves; Worrall’s teen years are an old-fashioned murder-mystery, inspired by her favorite books and a trip to the UK; Episode 5, in which Worrall loses her virginity, is a medieval-style manuscript illustrated with drawings of Copper and Liska having sex. There’s nothing particularly unusual about Worrall’s life, and yet the further Life and Times travels, the odder it gets.

This dazzling, mind-boggling enterprise has swallowed up Liska and Copper’s own lives: it’s taken them more than four years to reach the end of Episode 5, and they have no idea when all 10 parts will be finished. But do they regret it? Not a bit. They’re committed to Life and Times now for the same reasons they embarked on it in the first place. For one thing, they wanted to honor Worrall’s time and dedication in answering Liska’s call: “It was an incredibly generous response, one that we weren’t expecting,” says Copper. “Both of us knew we wanted to use it in its entirety.” For another, Worrall’s banal, homely, familiar narrative taps directly into the company’s concerns and desires for their art form.

“Theater can be an incredibly hermetic experience,” says Copper. “You’re writing these plays and you’re doing your little private work and then at a certain point you open it up to the world. We were interested in making our work more permeable, and inviting the world in.” She means that two ways: creating new, more collaborative processes for making work; and ensuring that what goes on stage appeals to a wider spectrum of people. “It’s been nice to have people [in the audience for Life and Times] that I don’t normally see at avant-garde theater, who have come because it sounded like something that they might like,” Copper adds. “It shouldn’t be a totally hermetic world: there should be a door in there for my mother, and for people who are not carrying within them the entire history of the avant-garde.”

But Liska also revels in Worrall’s narrative—stuttery with “likes” and “ums,” littered with rhetorical questions, tailing off into non-sequiturs—because: “This kind of language does not belong in the theater. It doesn’t have drama, it doesn’t have eloquence, it doesn’t have conclusions about human nature. People talk a lot about the language but we’re not interested in the ‘poetry of the everyday.’ We use it because it’s wrong.”

If there is a touch of the subversive about Liska, it has its roots in his youth in Slovakia: he was 16 when the Velvet Revolution of 1989 ended the communist dictatorship and put his country on the path back to democracy. What particularly struck him was that “the Velvet Revolution was organized by theater people. A playwright became president, actors became ambassadors, directors became part of the cabinet. That’s what interested me; not theater itself, because I never really saw theater.” He’s associated theater with “some kind of change in society” ever since.

It’s made him incredibly demanding of his art form, a rigor Copper shares. The pair met soon after Liska left Slovakia, at the age of 18, for Oklahoma (the company’s name, a lovely coincidence, comes from a passage in Franz Kafka’s novel Amerika); they were students together at Dartmouth College and started making work together right away. But they quickly became disillusioned with the routine of writing plays and struggling to get them staged. “Theater seemed like a very stale art form,” says Liska. “Eighty percent, even 90 percent of the challenges that we were facing had nothing to do with art: it had to do with money, it had to do with the social situation, with real estate, with social dynamics, with egos. That’s not what I wanted my life to be. I wanted to participate in society and be a useful contributor.”

So they gave up, for four years, time Copper devoted to photography, interior design, any day job she could find that required creative thinking, while Liska worked as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and drifted into depression. Friends lured him back, by asking him to direct their show. “I said I’ll do it only if I never have to worry about the rehearsal space, if I don’t have to worry about money, and I don’t have to worry about you coming to rehearsals. And the moment it stops giving me any type of pleasure, I will stop,” he recalls. “I had nothing to lose and nothing invested. Then I became curious again.”

That curiosity formed Nature Theater of Oklahoma in 2005, and it’s what pushes the company forward. Copper phrases it another way: “When you realize how difficult theater is to make, you’re forced to ask the hard questions: what is it about this art form that I’m interested in—and can we deal with just those things? There are so many better ways to be a writer or a visual artist, so why theater?”

The search for answers has radically altered their way of working. For a start, it encouraged them to give up writing plays. Their first show to use recorded conversations was 2007’s No Dice; not only was it quicker and easier than spending a year writing a text, it gave them the opportunity to “scam the system.” “Most of the actors were working day jobs, but some of them were at desks with telephones, so Pavol would call them at work,” says Copper. “It was corporate-sponsored without anyone knowing it.” For Liska, it’s a bonus that the resulting texts are not, in the conventional sense, “art.” “The biggest discovery we have made is that we produce the best results, we make the best art, when we’re not making art,” he says. Their take on Romeo and Juliet, first performed in 2008, is a case in point: instead of Shakespeare’s poetry, the cast of two delivers a garbled vernacular version of its speeches and events, cut and paste from the bits and pieces that friends of Liska happened to remember when he called them up and on the spot asked them to relate the play. Charles Isherwood, reviewing the show for The New York Times, described it as “flat-out hilarious”: most everyone agrees.

While Copper gave up on authoring plays, Liska abandoned conventional directing. What he uses now is chance, assigning movements, gestures, accents and other fundamentals of performance to the throw of a die or the cast of a card. You can see this in action in Life and Times: Episode 1: the bouncy, jittery choreography is entirely generated by flashcards, whose order changes with every performance. To further complicate matters for the performers, Liska and Copper stand at the back of the auditorium, issuing instructions to the cast through earpieces. “I always wonder: would Al Pacino be willing to have a director talk to him in his ear during the performance?” says Liska, eyes twinkling. “I find it strange that people would not welcome that challenge. I take my responsibility to the world seriously, but I don’t take my responsibility as a director seriously, and I don’t want my actor to take his responsibility as an actor seriously. I play with the fact that I tell you what to do: I’m going to tell you what to do in front of an audience, to throw you off or to play with the fact that this is happening right now. I think that’s at the core of the work: subverting the ego investment in your particular role in the theatrical process.”

Behind all these strategies is a single idea, which Copper and Liska describe as “resistance.” “That’s our number-one job, always to look for resistance,” says Liska. “What are you playing against, what are you pushing against?” Worrall’s narrative is one element of resistance, says Copper: “I can’t rewrite it. So the material exists as a kind of restriction.” That the cast sing every word creates another, huge resistance: “When we started out, only one of the performers had any professional singing experience,” Copper admits. Several years later, “some people [still] say a Hail Mary before they do a harmony—but it’s great that it continues to offer a challenge to them, because the work they’re doing is honest work in the present moment.”

And if you think the audience is off the hook, think again, because Liska and Copper want to extend that resistance throughout the room. The tendency in theater, says Liska, is to “try to coddle the audience and make sure that they’re comfortable. I don’t want to go to the theater and be comfortable, never have wanted to. So how do you make it OK for the experience to be complex and difficult and challenging?” In Life and Times, the singing is as much a resistance for the audience as the performers. As Copper puts it, “We sing to the audience too much: there’s a time at which it’s entertaining, and then a time at which it’s like, ‘Oh my god, are they going to keep singing?’” Plus, Liska and Copper keep the house lights up, emphasizing the audience’s role in creating the show. “You shouldn’t feel like you can just watch the actors as objects, it should be a more complicated relationship,” Copper argues. Liska compares the experience to going to the gym: “You paid money to do a workout, not watch a workout.”

The effect of all this stress (in both senses) on the live moment is that Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s work is “always in flux.” “You do a show like Episode 1 for four years, and how can it just stay the same when people continue to grow and change?” asks Copper. “It can’t be a dead thing that you perform out of habit. We watch every performance; you get to see something over and over that you made—and if you care anything about it, you continue to work. You have to.” Episodes 1 through 4 have now been remade so many times, the company are going to take a break from performing them in 2014, to give themselves the space to focus on making the next five episodes.

That said, Liska is still intrigued by the possibility of taking a break from theater altogether. “I’m always advocating: let’s all take a year off, let’s all stop making theater and see where we get. Just one year, that’s all I’m asking, we can go back to it—but is anything going to be better, worse, no difference at all? I’m curious to find out.”

Based in London, Maddy Costa writes about theater and music for The Guardian and on her blog, States of Deliquescence. She’s rethinking theater-writing as part of Dialogue and as critic-in-residence with experimental makers Chris Goode and Company.

“Theater shouldn’t be a totally hermetic world: there should be a door in there for my mother, and for people who are not carrying within them the entire history of the avant-garde.” —Kelly Copper

“That’s our number-one job, always to look for resistance. What are you playing against, what are you pushing against?” —Pavol Liska

Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper

Photo courtesy Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episode 1

Photo courtesy Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episode 1

Photo courtesy Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episode 2

Photo courtesy of Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Romeo and Juliet

Photo: Peter Negrini

Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episodes 3-4

Photo courtesy Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episode 1

Photo: Reinhard Werner, Burgtheater Wien