Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Also known asNature Theater of Oklahoma
Organisation typeTheatre company
WebsiteNature Theatre of Oklahoma

About Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Nature Theater of Oklahoma is an American theatre company which, despite the name, is based in New York. The name they found in Franz Kafka's novel America.

The directors Pavol Liška and Kelly Copper make up a long-married couple who have created a number of productions together. Among them are No Dice, Romeo and Juliet and Rambo Solo.

The Sceneweb database only lists productions by Nature Theater of Oklahoma that have been performed in Norway.

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Press review

Brian Parks on the production No Dice by Nature Theater of Oklahoma, performed during Under The Radar Festival 2007, The Call of Nature, Village Voice [New York]:
"Over the past several years the Nature Theater of Oklahoma has evolved into one of New York's most talented ensembles (...) their shows are smart, witty, highly physical, and eager to twist notions of theatricality."

Wilborn Hampton and Jason Zinoman on the production No Dice by Nature Theater of Oklahoma, performed during Under The Radar Festival 2007, Under The Radar Festival in Review, The New York Times [New York]:
"Nature Theater of Oklahoma, the most buzzedabout new troupe on the New York avant-garde scene, is certainly not for traditional tastes, its gleefully democratic spirit and old-fashioned showmanship certainly aims to please - and do so quite winningly."

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More about Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Nature Theater of Oklahoma has its name from Kafka's novel America, in which hundred actors dressed like angels play the trumpets. 

The company is based in New York and the actors specialise on presence and making things difficult for themselves. The trademark is wearing ear-pieces, through which the text is modified by the technicians of the company, to sharpen the concentration and awareness.

The company has been awarded the Obie Award for its performances and in 2008 Romeo and Juliet won Montblanc Young Directors Award at the Salzburg Festival, in competition with Transiteatret’s Die Massnahme.

Florian Malzacherm writes the following in an essay about Nature Theater of Oklahoma, called Freedom with rules (2011):

"Nature Theater of Oklahoma, this is the name of a dubious and promising troop and apparently the world's largest theatre in Kafka's unfinished novel Amerika, that offers an appropriate job to everyone who applies by midnight on the closing date for applications. Karl Roßmann, a Czech immigrant and the hero of the novel, also gets his chance and shortly thereafter chugs with the train to Oklahoma towards a new life.

It was this name for a theatre that directors and authors Kelly Copper and Pavol Liška had long had in mind for the day in which they would pursue their work under the label of their own company, as they did in 2003. Because up to that point Pavol Liška's life had not only progressed in manner that was remarkably novelesque, but also it had progressed in a manner strikingly similar to Kafka's novel. In 1991 at the age of eighteen Liška, who grew up in a small Slovakian town, was given a short-term opportunity, as the result of an obscure job offer, to travel to the United States. Although he was supposed to join the army and had never before travelled abroad, less than a week later he landed in Oklahoma. He learned English in the evenings so that during the day (when he did not have to work), he could follow the philosophy and writing classes at college always fearing that if he were not good enough he might lose his student visa. Oklahoma: that is his American home.

Liška and Kelly Copper, who met in 1992 at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire while studying writing and theatre, moved to New York long ago where they live and work in a one-room apartment in the East Village. Since 2004 under the name of Nature Theater of Oklahoma they have created some of the most notable theatre pieces to emerge in recent years from the former capital of the Avant-garde. Their pieces are unmistakable in their mixture of conceptual precision, an idiosyncratic mixture of modernist artistic strategies (at times closer to visual than performing arts) and at the same time performances full of passion. Without fear of seemingly trashy superficiality and freely borrowing from every possible theatre tradition.

Even though they are currently most successful in Europe (where within the last two years they have appeared at almost every important international theatre festival and have won the Young Directors Award in Salzburg) their theatre remains something distinctively New Yorker. Not only because their new production Life and Times, which combines the ensemble of the Burgtheater with American actors, employs the original American art form of the musical and the piece No Dice plays with the genre of dinner theatre. But also because their artistic influences are certainly at home in Manhattan: Marcel Duchamp as the inventor of ready-mades, Andy Warhol who elevated everyday life to art, quasi random decisions from John Cage and Merce Cunningham, Ken Jacob's use of found material, Richard Foreman's handling of props and audience, the Wooster Group with their fascination of perfection and excessive demands, and last but not least the unique Jack Smith who celebrates trash and camp as original aesthetic - they have all left their mark on the work of Nature Theater who confidently and happily see themselves as a part of this tradition. (Sceneweb's comment: The claim that the musical is an originally American art form is something the article writer has chosen not to qualify, and Marcel Duchamp was French, living and working in Paris for significant parts of his life, though he also stayed in New York for long periods of time.)

ORAL HISTORIES
Both Copper's and Liška's fascination with audio recording began early. As a child and throughout her youth during the seventies and early eighties, Kelly Copper moved around the USA with her family nearly every six months. This did not leave much time for lasting friendships; however, it allowed for even more time with books and the cassette recorder that was one of the first toys that she ever received as a gift. Her father, a radio host, went to work with all manner of sound instruments every day. Kelly and her sister listened to him from home and for example, when he had voice imitators on his show, they would produce their own radio plays chock-full of self-made special effects that were created using everything that was available to them, for example the sound of a flushing toilet.

Pavol Liška's interest for the theatre began when he was sixteen during and after the 'velvet revolution', when in Czechoslovakia people from the theatre changed the political world with a playwright becoming president and actors and directors becoming ministers and ambassadors. Liška, who grew up in a small town, had never been to the theatre at this point. Even then he did not experience the theatre live, but rather via audio cassettes. The pieces from Havel, Kohout, and others circulated via copies of live recordings. 'I thought that theatre was always presented in this way and for me it was enough.' And so it was no problem for him that his first self-composed theatre piece (which strongly resembles the work of Havel) could only be realized in the form of an audio cassette recording. He had no idea about the stage, it did not interest him. 'All I wanted was to hold a cassette in my hands.'

Later, after arriving in Oklahoma, he translated the piece word for word with the help of a dictionary. This interest for the spoken word, for sound as a document, has remained with both until the present day. Later Liška would record for hours of stories from Copper's mother or the story of his own father's life, which yielded over twenty hours of material: Countless and up to this point, unused, cassettes shelved somewhere. There was no idea for how to use them, only the desire to record everything, 'as a possibility for feeling alive and to be alive', as though he had a notion that this material had artistic potential. The knowledge that some conversations will be recorded alters the conversations not just in content but also in form. The (untrained) speaker understands their role as one who is playing a role, and thus their speech becomes more artificial. This had already fascinated Andy Warhol and prompted him to record conversations over dinner at which he placed a recorder on the table in a plainly visible position. Thus, since the nineties, the predecessors from Life and Times had existed long before the concept of a project based upon a complete life story.

The idea of generating an entire piece from only oral reports and conversations was the origin of the work No Dice (2007). Copper and Liška drew the material for the three-and a-half hour performance from around one hundred hours of telephone conversations about work, art, and life. The recordings were cut together and placed in new contexts in order to generate new meanings.

Telephone conversations have a noticeably different flow than live conversations. Because one cannot see their opposite number, confirmations must constantly be requested and given. Due to the omission of facial expressions, nuances become exaggerated and the absence of gestures requires one to more clearly articulate what it is one wishes to say. Little things are enlarged and create a sudden and irritating artificiality by being transferred onto stage.

In order to retain the original flow of the speech, texts are not transcribed and then memorized by the actors, but rather in No Dice (also later with Romeo and Juliet) played directly through headphones on synchronized iPods. The performers simultaneously speak the lines that they hear through the headphones. Even when they fill the texts with different meanings or alter them with strong (for example French) accents, the rhythm and intonation remain intact. Thus arises an idiosyncratic form of script as well as an unmistakable manner of speaking, a variation on the aesthetics of naturalism á la Hauptmann: at the same time both highly authentic and artificial.

For Life and Times the use of recorded telephone conversations as the basis for a script was further radicalized. The phone calls in which Kristin Worrall, musician and performer in No Dice, detailed her life story lasted sixteen hours in total. The life of this not at all untypical 34 year-old American, that is above all interesting because it reminds us in so many ways of our own. Word for word and without cuts or corrections, this telephone conversation was transcribed and made into the libretto of Life and Times, with every pause, slip of the tongue, stutter, and mistake of the original. One day the complete epic biographical musical is meant to last about twentyfour hours. Presently only the first part has been composed by Robert M. Johanson, musician and actor in Nature Theater productions Poetics, No Dice, and Romeo and Juliet. Episode 1 is, so to speak, the pilot for the series and lasts roughly three and a half hours and covers the first six years of Worrall's life.

EVERYTHING THAT IS AT HAND
The use of stories told by others is a part of Copper's and Liška's concept of working a lot with 'found' material. They explicitly align themselves in the art-historical tradition founded by Marcel Duchamp's found, and redefined as art, ready-mades about experimental found footage films in the sixties up to present day documentary theatre forms. The recycling and processing of found material became significant for Copper and Liška at the end of the nineties when they turned their backs on the theatre for four years and focused their efforts exclusively on visual arts. Old family super-8 films from the flea market and photos found in the garbage interested them more than large-scale, original artistic endeavours. 'As an artist there was little that you could do that would have been more beautiful than these films and photos'.

When they returned to theatre in 2002, they brought these ideas, based primarily in visual art, into the theatre not only regarding the generation of scripts but also regarding material related to movement, costumes, and expressions. Poetics (2005), the first true work done under the label of Nature Theater of Oklahoma, is a dance piece choreographed in the fundamental movements of everyday life. A substantial portion is movements that one can conduct while sitting because the rehearsals took place, for lack of additional room, primarily at the kitchen table. Among the principles of Copper and Liška is the idea of integrating constraints and the random opportunities they provide into their work.

Much like the legendary New York Avant-garde director Richard Foreman, an early patron of their work and one of their primary role models, claimed: let the production become what it wants to become. Also, find out what the most radical element in the rehearsals is and then make it the central focus. Both take time and this means that one cannot come with a concrete and completed plan to the rehearsal; rather you must embark on a journey whose outcome is unknown. Even the cowboy and pirate costumes in No Dice were discovered unintentionally as the rehearsal room belonged to a children's theatre.

Life and Times does not only reflect the life of Kristin Worrall. The script, spread among six actors, becomes multiple biographies. For the choreography Liška employed, among other things, movements and pictures from his own childhood. Spartakiade was the name given to athletic competitions in Czechoslovakia (and other East Block countries) which at their peak were massive choreographed gymnastic events. In order to make the stories more anonymous, some of the names of people and places in Worrall's descriptions were replaced with those of similar childhood memories of Kelly Copper.

These types of strategies and techniques always raise - more so in visual arts and literature than in theatre - famous questions about authorship. However, the answer that Copper and Liška give regarding their work is not an unassuming one. It is true that they use the materials of others, but they are the ones who select, contextualize, and form it. They are the ones who make art out of it. An art form that had better be something more than what they could think of on their own."

Sources:

BIT Teatergarasjen, autumn program 2009. 07.08.2010: http://www.bit-teatergarasjen.no -archive

The article is from the spring program of BIT Teatergarasjen 2012, printed edition.