A World Premiere Doubling as a Grand Finale

For Culturebot | Date of publication: Wednesday October 14, 2015

It is an epic; monumental and intimate at the same time. It lasts for five hours, but does not tell a hero’s life. It is about Kristin Worrall, an ordinary American woman. Her utterly recognisable goings-on already cause the members of the audience to bond with her. Worrall herself plays in it. This significantly strengthens our identification with her. During the opening night she even managed a dual presence: on screen and in the room.

It was just one of the unique aspects of the world première of Life & Times – Episodes 7-8-9 by Nature Theater of Oklahoma, on Sunday October 4 during the festival Steirischer Herbst in Graz, Austria. The show is the grand finale of a theater epic that took off six years ago at the Kasino am Schwarzenbergerplatz, the black box of the Burgtheater in Vienna.

Veronika Kaup-Hasler hopes this will not be the end of it. She is the artistic director of Steirischer Herbst and one of the first and most faithful allies of Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, the husband-and-wife team of makers behind the Nature Theater. “We’ll see each other in ten years!,” Kaup joked after the show. She knows better than anyone else that the yearned-for Episode 10 will most probably never see the light of day.

The Nature Theater a worldwide audience has become addicted to effectively ceased to exist a year ago. The once so closely-knit family of players and makers behind the label, taken from Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel America, has disbanded. Some members had left the group even earlier. All went their own ways. Liska and Copper are now working on new projects just as a duo.

The epic shows the family made as an ensemble, each many hours in duration and closely related in form and content – especially No Dice (2007) and Life & Times (2009-2015) – made them world-famous and gained them prizes and other tributes, such as a three-year residency at the Burgtheater. But they also proved draining to the extreme for all involved. Artistically, physically, financially, and privately, because of the constant travelling around the globe. All through Europe, from there to China, Japan, Singapore, and Australia, and then via the United States back to Europe again. While the group was busy playing episodes 5 and 6 on one end of the globe, theaters and festivals on other continents still waiting in line begged and pleaded for episodes 1 through 4. “That in particular we found increasingly difficult to cope with,” Nature Theater-actor Robert
M. Johanson said in Graz. “Having to come back to the beginning over and over again.”

Setbacks further increased the pressure. Life & Times is based entirely on ten telephone conversations with group member Worrall, conducted and recorded in the course of 2007, with a total duration of sixteen hours. For the fifth talk, Liska and Copper switched from an analogue to a digital recorder. Only later they discovered that their first digital recording had registered just twenty minutes of the talk.

Because of that gaping hole in the text they were unable to complete the cycle as they had intended. The first four episodes were live shows, covering Worrall’s life roughly until halfway through high school. So far, so good. But then came ‘the lost years’, as Liska and Copper had grimly come to call the next episodes. How to shape those? First they made an animated film, which they eventually baptised Episode 4.5.

New to the medium, they had to teach themselves all the techniques involved. After that, they drew the thousands of images required. The exercise proved too demanding: Copper suffered from painful ganglion cysts on her hands. Still, Pavol and Kelly remained irresistibly drawn to their new craft of drawing. The twenty minutes ‘not lost’ describe Worrall’s first sexual experiences. The maker couple immersed themselves in the centuries-old tradition of sexual imagery, as in the Kama Sutra and Japanese shunga.

Yet again they acquainted themselves with a new technique, this time the making of medieval manuscripts. The result was a book. Its soft, foam-filled plastic cover makes it look like a Mormon motel bible. Inside is the text of the preserved twenty minutes of the talk with Worrall, including her familiar uhhh’s and ummm’s and oh my god’s, hand-written by Copper in the Carolingian minuscule, a form of medieval calligraphy still reasonably readable for us citizens of the digital age. Each page is adorned with a drawing, made by Liska.

Of him and his wife. At home. Mating, in every imaginable position. “We also decided to take upon ourselves the burden of representation for this episode,” Copper wrote in an Afterword. She added that the book was “a labor of love.” For two years the couple worked pro bono. The previous episodes of Life & Times had completely exhausted the available budget. The final production of the book could only happen after it got “generously supported by festivals and theaters in Berlin and Norwich.”

Upon entering a performance of Episode 5, each visitor received a personal copy of the book and a reading light. They were supposed to peruse it in the darkened room, accompanied by thunderous organ music. Episode 6 became a diversion. Again, a live show. But this time not about Worrall’s life. It was a “making of,” during which the members of the Oklahoma-family recounted, in the same style as the previous episodes, the trials and tribulations of the Life & Times gestation process.

Still from Life & Times – Episode 8 / Photo Nature Theater of Oklahoma
Still from “Life & Times – Episode 7”. Photo © Nature Theater of Oklahoma

And now we have Episodes 7-8-9. A final tour de force. Three feature films, this time around. The first one almost entirely in black and white, in a nostalgic style, with a score and credits harking back to pre-1940 Hollywood. The second in color, shot in magnificent summer evening light, in parks and abandoned industrial estates around New York, the group’s home base. The third is a gangsta rap, played and filmed in Graz. That one lasts for just seventeen minutes; by that time, the last few drops had been well and truly squeezed from the group’s budget and energy.

It doesn’t matter in the least. Worrall stumbles from one trivial job to another, from one fleeting relationship to the next. Every single triumph and defeat depresses and enchants her as if it were the first of her life. The peaks and troughs in her mood are just as short-lasting. Again and again, she starts afresh, full of high hopes. Over and over she dreams the same dreams, in front of an audience long since in the know that they will never be fulfilled.

But exactly that also makes this life so uniquely recognisable to us, enables us to so completely empathize with her. And the Nature Theater’s form of representing this life – the ridiculously insistent acting and diction, the loud singing, the steamrolling music, the drill-like choreography – indeed transforms it into a heroine’s epic, elevates Worrall far above her humble stature in the real world. She becomes the celebration of our own insignificance. The result is an intimacy causing us, spectators in the room, to bond as well – with each other and with the Oklahoma family.

The world première of Life & Times – Episodes 7-8-9 was staged in the Schubertkino, a cinema in Graz’s romantic old city center. All the players in the last three episodes were present bar one, who hadn’t been able to attend. The entrance had been fitted out by Steirischer Herbst with a red carpet. But it waited in vain for the stars in their tuxedos and daringly nude dresses. “To us that seemed like overdoing it a bit,” said a member of the festival staff.

How right he was. It felt fit for the occasion like this, just with the bubbly and canapés served in the inner courtyard. A party, merry and melancholy in equal measure. We celebrated a unique theater event, but also parted with a unique theater family.

Most likely for good.

Notes & Additional Information

This article is a translation of a review published earlier, on Tuesday October 6, on Theaterkrant.nl, a Dutch blog devoted entirely to performing arts news and reviews.

After the world première in Graz, Life & Times – Episodes 7-8-9 was shown once in Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer theater, last Sunday, October 11.

The next scheduled showings will be in November, first in New York: November 1, Bard Fisher Center, and then in Paris: November 14-17, Theatre de la Cité, Paris (only Episode 8)

Stadtkino Wien also plans to show all Episodes in the near future, but the dates have yet to be fixed.

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