Nature Theater of Oklahoma: Turning the pedestrian into an epic

Nature Theater of Oklahoma: Turning the pedestrian into an epic
Photo: Reinhard Werner, Burgtheater Wien

"Um. So. Shall I start? Okay. Um. So, let's see. Okay." That's the first line of Nature Theater of Oklahoma's epic production Life and Times, the first episode of which performs at the Walker Art Center's McGuire Theater this weekend, starting tonight. The line is actually sung, as is the entire musical.

However, this is probably unlike any musical you've ever seen. The script is taken entirely from a voice-mail message by Kristin Worrall, one of the musicians in the cast, who was asked to answer the question, "Can you tell me your life story?" She did so over 10 voice-mail messages that took 16 hours in total.

Nature Theater of Oklahoma: Turning the pedestrian into an epic
Photo courtesy Nature Theater of Oklahoma 

Kelly Copper, co-artistic director of NTO, transcribed Worrall's answer, which became the foundation for the work. It now includes six parts, although it isn't yet complete. The showing at the Walker includes the first episode only, which tells Worrall's story from birth to age eight. 

Philip Bither, the Walker's performing arts curator, first learned of Nature Theater of Oklahoma nine years ago from a recommendation. Life and Times is "ridiculously ambitious and audacious [in its scope]," he says. "It's theater of real life turned into mythical scale."

Rather than bringing the first eight-hour cycle, Bither chose to bring episode one to "introduce their aesthetic, and bring their voice to Minnesota," he says. 

With all its "weird language and ticks and loops," Life and Times isn't documentary theater. It's not like a well-made play. Instead, "it actually pushes out away from those kinds of styles, attempting to take a person telling about their real life and making it epic-scaled theater," says Bither.  

The company's directors are Pavel Liška and his wife, Kelly Copper. Liška grew up in Czechoslovakia, and lived through the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when the country ended its Communist rule under the Soviet Union and became the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Growing up, Liška was intrigued by theater, though his only experience with it was listening to it on audiotape. 
Photo courtesy Nature Theater of Oklahoma 
Photo courtesy Nature Theater of Oklahoma 

As a young man, Liška met an elderly woman who was visiting the country from Oklahoma. He befriended her, and eventually moved to Oklahoma himself. It was in Oklahoma that he saw his first play. 

Copper and Liška met after Liška transferred to Dartmouth. Together, they moved to New York, and became demoralized by traditional theater, which they didn't find creatively inspiring. For a few years, Liška worked as a security guard, but his friends kept inviting him back to work on projects. 

Eventually, Copper and Liška started making work as Nature Theater of Oklahoma. The name is after a chapter of Amerika, an unfinished novel by Franz Kafka where the main character has a horrible experience finding a job, sees an advertisement for Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and joins. 

Nature Theater of Oklahoma: Turning the pedestrian into an epic
Photo courtesy Nature Theater of Oklahoma 

According to Bither, Nature Theater of Oklahoma was commissioned by an Australian theater festival, and has been picked up by numerous European curators and festivals, but there hasn't been much support for them in the United States. "I felt it was a national disgrace that this company was acclaimed all over Europe and all over Asia, but never found its home in the United States," he says. "That's the kind of challenge the Walker loves." 

Bither says that after this initial showing, the Walker plans on bringing the company back for a multi-year commitment. 

The text of Life and Times -- the "ums", the ticks, the "okays" -- create a "hypnotic quality told in an everyday pedestrian way," says Bither. "This is language that is uneducated. It's not heightened language. It's the way a friend over a drink might tell you about their life."  

It creates a piece where the actors don't seem like actors. "They seem like people you meet on the street," says Bither. Unlike the Guthrie, where you have "beautiful and very trained actor-ish voices and approaches to stage persona, this is very different."

"The idea was not to change the language," says Copper, who transcribed the messages. "We take her narrative as a found object." The result, Copper says is that the work becomes about how much work goes into the piece to raise it to the level of "epic". 


Nature Theater of Oklahoma
Life and Times: Episode 1
7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday
Walker Art Center

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Walker Art Center

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