More Work, More Pleasure
Nature Theater of Oklahoma's game plan turns the mundane into marvels
By Rebecca Kastleman
"The Great Nature Theater of Oklahoma is calling you! It's calling today only! If you miss this opportunity, there will never be another!" —Franz Kafka, Amerika
You may not know why a lanky, sweaty, shirtless man with a bushy beard and an innocent grin is bear-hugging you and kissing your cheek, but you probably know that you like it. It may seem strange when an actor saunters in from the wings casually munching a slice of pizza, then shares it with three other actors (who all seem to think it's the best-tasting pizza that's ever been made), but you're probably glad you're watching it. And you may not be sure why you and the rest of the audience are seated on a theatre stage, while actors zestfully pop up and down behind rows of plush red seats out in the auditorium, but you probably think the whole thing is pretty amusing. No, if a sense of giddy bewilderment seizes you as you watch Poetics: a ballet brut, Nature Theater of Oklahoma's 65-minute post-postmodern nod to Nijinsky, do not be alarmed.
Poetics—which sometimes resembles the kind of dance you might do in your bedroom wearing flannel pajamas while singing Abba into a hairbrush, except it's about a hundred times more charming—is signature Nature Theater. The circus barker's bellowed summons quoted above, from an unfinished passage in Franz Kafka's Amerika thatpromises long-delayed happiness to the novel's hero, has given the real-life NYC-based Nature Theater of Oklahoma not just a name but a mission. The company's whimsical, charismatic work uses an assortment of dramatic forms to celebrate the theatrical in the mundane, imagining a naïve frontier theatre akin to what Kafka might have envisioned.
The company has been around in its present form since 2002, when artistic co-directors Pavol Lika and Kelly Copper began working with a rotating corps of actors to develop unconventional performance work. While the company contracts or expands with each new project, Lika and Copper, who are husband and wife, hold the organization's reins. At home in their spare, warmly lit East Village apartment—also occupied by the couple's two cats, Ancho (who has a mustache resembling a chili pepper) and Miles (after Davis)—Copper and Lika seem disarmingly at ease. Copper, in her trademark oblong glasses and auburn updo, settles against the exposed brick wall with her knees to her chest; Lika, whose elegant handlebar mustache outdoes even Ancho's, reclines lankily by the window. It could be a scene from one of their shows, which is perhaps a telling point: Nature Theater's work toys with the ridiculous, often waxes profound and is unfailingly original—qualities that also aptly describe its artistic directors.
The company revels in the pleasure of everyday experiences we aren't accustomed to noticing, let alone enjoying. This is nowhere more evident than in Poetics, a wordless production (staged at New York's Public Theater and taken on tour last summer, following its 2006 debut at Portland, Ore.'s TBA Festival) that playfully resists being slotted into a genre, and which has been called "delightfully ingenious" and "gleefully democratic" by the Village Voice and the New York Times, respectively. The show features four actors who communicate through a movement language comprised of ordinary gestures—hands folded or on hips, legs crossed or uncrossed, bodies jumping up and down or sprawled out on the floor. They perform to a soundtrack of pop classics such as Eric Carmen's "All By Myself" (the Muzak version), Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" and James Brown's "Super Bad," as if inviting the audience to groove along with them. What begins as a tentative exchange of gestures and eye contact among actors and audience members on a bare stage gradually develops into an exuberant dance epic taking up the entire space of whatever theatre it occupies. From its inspired choreographic moments (such as a sequence featuring the actors' index and middle fingers prancing on the stage floor) to its show-stopping finale (a real ballerina and a chorus of extras are involved), every step of Poetics reminds us how full of emotion everyday gestures can be.
Poetics declares itself a "ballet brut," and the actors hardly conceal that they're amateur dancers. In fact, their warm and utterly unselfconscious performances not only endear them to spectators but also seem vaguely transgressive. "How can these actors have so much fun?" some part of us wonders. "Don't they know they're not really good at what they're doing?" Yet the intimacy and robustness of the performances suggests that what matters is not the actors' virtuosity but their passion. There is something freeing—and perplexingly sexy—in the actors' jubilant relationships to their inexpert physical selves, as well as in their transformation of everyday gestures into something awesome and new. We may be immersed in a culture where everyone is an expert, but Poetics helps us entertain the idea that exuberance, however naïve, may be an end in itself.
Poetics is not the only production in which Nature Theater riffs on the fascinating banality of everyday experience. Such themes also surface in Rambo Solo, the tightly choreographed story of one man's obsession with the novel First Blood, told simultaneously in real time and on video; and in No Dice, a hermeneutically ambiguous send-up of conventional dramatic form based on deconstructed phone conversations. For its mock-Elizabethan version of Romeo and Juliet, which recently played at the Kitchen in Downtown Manhattan, two performers (Robert M. Johanson and Anne Gridley) recite rambling, often wildly erroneous accounts of Shakespeare's play that are derived from off-the-cuff interviews, prompting New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood to declare the show "flat-out hilarious" and "a subtle exploration of the slippery nature of our cultural memory."
But the company's recent project Life and Times, the first episode of which opened at Vienna's Burgtheater in September, may be Nature Theater's most effusive ode to the quotidian yet. In its as-yet-unrealized entirety, Life and Times is a 24-hour-long musical that tells one person's life story in her own words, from birth to age 34. The libretto (written entirely to ukulele accompaniment) is a direct transcription of 10 phone conversations (corresponding to the production's 10 projected episodes) that Lika had with the show's female protagonist. In the tradition of Nature Theater's other multi-part undertakings, the first episode of Life and Times covers years zero to eight and runs for about two-and-a-half hours. As for itsremaining episodes—well, Lika and Copper hope to complete them within the next decade or so.
WERE THERE TO BE A 24-HOUR PRODUCTION OF NATURE THEATER'S OWN LIFE AND TIMES, IT WOULD stretch to at least 48 hours, with Lika and Copper narrating two separate versions in distinct but complementary styles. The more vocal of the two, Lika often speaks in metaphor and has a way of making his big ideas about the theatre seem pragmatic, even inevitable. Directing, from his perspective, sounds a bit like rock climbing: the continual confrontation of one's will with an impediment, coupled with a great view at the top.
Copper's dreamier demeanor belies that her focus is closer to the ground—on objects, actors, methods. She illustrates the Nature Theater story with details drawn from experience, recasting Lika's loftier remarks on a human scale. Rather than metaphors, Copper's speech is peppered with synecdoche, as when a certain ugly gray carpet comes to symbolize the range of difficult conditions emerging New York theatre artists must contend with. The offending carpet, together with a set of unappealing green calico curtains, furnished the Downtown Art rehearsal space where Nature Theater devised No Dice. Eventually the ever-present carpet was incorporated into the show and became a permanent feature of the set. When the production opened to critical acclaim and was invited to tour Europe, Copper was bemused to find that every large, state-funded European theatre the company visited was able to purchase its own ugly carpet for the run of No Dice, only to throw it away when the show closed. "You just wished you could have sent them back!" Copper declares wistfully, mindful of so many discarded carpets that, aesthetics notwithstanding, might otherwise have been put to good use.
Lika and Copper have developed and rehearsed most of their productions in their own apartment, a pattern that arose as much from inclination as necessity. In fact, the company's productions make convenient domestic spaces seem newly cool, the way Nirvana transformed the garage band into grunge music. In addition to solving the problem of scant rehearsal space, the apartment provides an intimate and sometimes claustrophobic environment that has become thematically central to Nature Theater's work. These apartment productions speak to other influences, as well: Lika and Copper acknowledge a debt to the phenomenon of Eastern European "apartment theatre"—performances staged in private homes to evade censorship. Lika, who was born in Czechoslovakia during the Communist era, says he feels a strong connection to the lessons of that period: that theatrical events can be of major importance even when they are played for modest audiences in small, unsanctioned spaces.
Still, Lika is the first to admit that philosophizing about the role of theatre goes only so far; he directs because it gives him pleasure. It wasn't always that way. When Copper and Lika began working together in the mid-'90s, they struggled with the social and logistical demands of the New York theatre scene: "There were all these things we thought we had to have—costumes, scenery," recalls Copper. "We thought we couldn't make mistakes." They weren't having fun, so, after devising three shows, they quit to pursue other artistic passions, including photography and video. But eventually they began building a new production, this one on their own terms. Says Copper, "Realizing you don't actually need all of these things—that making theatre is a simple proposition involving people, time and space—is actually very liberating." The homegrown scrappiness of their shows is proof, for those with doubts, that lo-fi, low-budget theatre needn't be low-wattage.
Refocused, Copper and Lika were finally able to attend to the challenges that really interested them: those that take place in the rehearsal room. "The primary goal of rehearsals is to create obstacles and make actors work harder to overcome those obstacles," Lika ventures. "Ultimately, every show is the invention of a new sport, a new game. You throw a rule in and you watch them play the game, and then you decide, well, that rule doesn't really produce results that please me, it's not a sport I want to watch." The more difficult the sport, the more exhilarating the performance.
In Nature Theater's theatrical championship match, says Lika, "the only reward you can get is absolute pleasure, and the pleasure has to come from playing by the rules that we create." For actors, the rules of this game provide an opportunity for authentic connection with the audience. "If I see someone really struggling on stage with an impossible task," Copper reasons, "then I'm holding my breath with them—I'm with them a hundred percent of the way." For performers in Nature Theater, the rules keep changing even after the production opens, and the impossible tasks never let up. "It creates more work for them and more pleasure for them, and also more work for us and more pleasure for us," says Copper.
As for what comes after Life and Times, Lika and Copper have no shortage of concepts on the shelf.Â They might do a play entirely in rhymed iambic pentameter, for which they have already composed a hundred pages of verse. Whatever shape the next project takes, the two directors are doing their best to try precisely the opposite of everything they have attempted thus far.
"The success we've had is very new to us," explains Copper, "and we're very appreciative of it. But you're constantly asking yourself how not to court it. How do I always keep that potential for failure open?" Lika agrees: "We're going to look for brand-new ideas," he says. "Or maybe we'll quit again—who knows?"
Brooklyn-based Rebecca Kastleman is an American Theatre Affiliated Writer, with support from the Jerome Foundation.blog comments powered by Disqus
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