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Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska, the long-married founders of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, are lounging in a booth at their favorite soba restaurant as they describe how they first met: 20 years ago at a lecture course in Dada performance at Dartmouth College.
"We used to stage interruptions during the class, sliding packages wrapped in newspaper across the table to each other," recalls Copper. Liska adds cheerfully, "We started fucking right away."
If this were a scene in a Nature Theater play, the dialogue might remain equally prosaic, but the casual tone, the offhand gestures would disappear. (Although the tempura might stay.) In shows such as No Dice, Rambo Solo, and Romeo and Juliet, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma has developed a reputation for taking the most ordinary chitchat, typically gleaned from phone conversations, and elevating it to the profoundly theatrical.
'Life and Times': 16 hours of phone conversations distilled into a tidy 11
"Do a Southern accent," Liska says he likes to instruct actors. "Do an interpretive dance. Do it like a Shakespeare play. Do it like a Greek tragedy. Do it like a soap opera."
This approach isn't exactly Dada—Copper and Liska employ chance elements, but Nature Theater work is exacting and precise. But such playful methodology has positioned the company in the first ranks of New York experimentalists, though they haven't shown work in the city since the Kitchen's 2009 staging of Romeo and Juliet, which substituted friends' and family's recollections of the love story (including many riotous misrememberings, such as an erotic bath scene) for Shakespeare's original text.
Although Nature Theater has been absent the past three years, it has not been idle. In addition to touring nearly nine months out of the year, they have completed four of a projected 10 parts of Life and Times, which exalts the troupe's methods and concerns to truly epic proportions. Nature Theater will perform Life and Times: Episodes 1–4 in a marathon event, stretching as long as 11 hours, as part of the Under the Radar Festival starting January 16 at the Public Theater. For theatergoers without half a day to devote to experimental theater, Nature Theater will also stage the episodes separately, also at the Public.
Life and Times, conceived and directed by Liska and Copper, draws its text from a series of 10 phone conversations, totaling 16 hours, between Liska and Nature Theater member Kristin Worrall, one of Life and Times' performers. Liska began with the prompt "Tell me the story of your life."
"I remember it being fun, if not a bit self-indulgent," Worrall writes in an e-mail. "I definitely took it seriously, though. It took the form of a stream of consciousness, and after a while, I'm sure there were times I forgot that Pavol was on the other end of the phone."
Originally, Liska thought he would call many people, just as he had for Romeo and Juliet and No Dice. But Worrall provided an unexpected treasure trove of text. "It was a gift of 16 hours of material, and we said, 'Let's just do this,'" Liska recalls. Adds Copper: "It was a generous answer. It deserved a generous response."
Not everyone would think that Worrall's stream-of-consciousness musings required theatricalization. Although Nature Theater isn't making full scripts available, the excerpts it has provided seem no more articulate than the average phone conversation, and Worrall's life no more remarkable than that of any thirtyish New Yorker with a suburban pedigree.
As Liska told Belgium's Agenda magazine: "The text is not exactly written by Shakespeare or Chekhov. It is a stupid phone call." In an early section, Worrall describes seeing a baby picture: "I'm all in like, swaddling clothes, and I have black hair, and I'm looking at the camera, you know, through these squinty eyes. And, uh . . . I even look then . . . I look . . . Oh, my God! . . . I'm, like, a very serious baby!"
Fortunately, the trenchant, the poetic, and the eloquent don't particularly interest Nature Theater. As Mark Russell, artistic director of Under the Radar, put it in a recent phone interview, the duo's goal is to investigate "the epic banal" with "joy, beauty, humor."
Both Liska and Copper boast MFAs (directing for him, playwriting for her), but as Copper says, "We're always looking for a form we're not masters of." Because both feel comfortable writing for the theater, they decided when they formed Nature Theater in 2005, borrowing the name from a theatrical company in Franz Kafka's Amerika, to cease writing scripts entirely. Instead, they would use what Liska calls "crap" and what Copper referred to as "garbage on the language front."
And that's very much how they like it. Liska explains: "A Shakespeare text is already a work of art. You can only fuck it up." Whereas, he continues, "the distance we have to travel from a telephone call to a work of art onstage is very, very far. That's what the project is about."
As anyone who has seen a Nature Theater show knows, language is often the mere excuse or occasion for a piece. Layered atop everyday speech are thick accents, fanciful costumes, and bits of different performance genres—many of them unpopular or even despised. In Life and Times, for example, the first episode borrows the form of halftime shows, the second of dance parties, and the third and fourth of murder-mystery theater.
"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?
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.