Holiday Guide: Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Theater of the Mundane

All your life's a stage

"We always try to look for what's not art yet, what's shameful," explains Liska. Adds Copper, "It's about finding the pleasure there." As Sarah Benson, the artistic director of Soho Rep, which will co-produce Life and Times in New York, explains, drawing on such lowbrow sources makes Nature Theater's work "both aggressively avant-garde and aggressively populist."

Starting with one woman recounting her life from babyhood to early adulthood, Copper and Liska have divided up the language among 10 performers, four of them men, each of whom speaks it in the first person and substitutes his or her own name in place of Worrall's. Eventually, Liska and Copper hope, the audience will appreciate this narrative not as a conventional plot or story, but as a chance to reflect on their own lives and how and why we tell our own stories.

This particular story is a long one. Liska and Copper project that the completed Life and Times will take 24 hours to perform, and even these first four episodes take nearly half that, once you allow for intermissions and dinner breaks. Do they worry that audiences will become bored?

'Life and Times': 16 hours of phone conversations distilled into a tidy 11
Reinhard Werner/Burghtheater

'Life and Times': 16 hours of phone conversations distilled into a tidy 11

Liska and Copper: No, they'renot from Oklahoma.
Courtesy Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Liska and Copper: No, they'renot from Oklahoma.

Actually, they expect it. "You don't have the capacity to stay hard for 10 hours," Liska quips. However, he emphasizes that he and Copper don't intend to weary people, but rather to provide an exhausting excess of amusement that forces them to relate to the material in a different way.

"We're more maximalist than minimalist," he explains. "When I eat donuts, I eat a dozen—I don't stop with just one." By pushing past mere enjoyment, he says, Nature Theater hopes to take the audience "toward transcendence, toward discovery of something that's beyond the form."

If audiences find the 11 hours or Life and Times something of a workout, it's even more so for the actors. "There needs to be a sense of masochism in a performer who works with us," Liska says. "They need to enjoy being pushed to the extreme." Copper notes that the company is so devoted that cast members typically volunteer to cook dinner for the audience between episodes one and two; they've also essentially signed a decade of their lives away to the performance and creation of Life and Times, including a touring schedule so grueling that it sent Liska to the hospital for five days in Hamburg.

Nature Theater will need perhaps five more years to complete work on Life and Times. They do not yet know what forms the later episodes will take, but episode five will appear as an illuminated manuscript and episode six as a radio play—a consequence of damaged audio that lost perhaps two hours of conversation, including Worrall's college years. (How a radio play will address this lacuna, they can't—or won't—yet say.)

That sort of mishap might send lesser theater artists into a panic, but Liska, as he devours a sweet potato pudding, approaches it with equanimity: "We set up an impossible situation, and we have to solve it." That could describe any of their works. With music, dance, hamburgers, games, and likely any number of appalling accents. "It's about finding the pleasure," he says.

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