The narrative ends with Rossmann’s entry into the blinding expanse of the Great Plains. We never learn if the Nature Theater of Oklahoma lives up to its own hype.
One of the founding members of the modern-day Nature Theater of Oklahoma, which presents its Life and Times: Episodes 3 & 4 in Brussels this month, has a similar story. Like a Rossmann in reverse, Pavol Liška landed first in Oklahoma from his native Czechoslovakia. He found his way to New York City after a detour through New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, where he met the other half of NTO’s creative core, Kelly Copper.
At the beginning (1992), Copper and Liška collaborated informally but regularly. “We have made performance and visual work separately and together ever since,” says Copper. “We took the name Nature Theater of Oklahoma in 2005 as a formal collectivisation – a way to escape questions of who does what.”
A clever tactic, but the dogged journalist is undeterred. I immediately ask who does what. “Pavol and I are the directors,” Copper responds patiently. “We create the projects, and we have strong connections now with some of the performers who’ve worked with us for years.”
So the NTO is a family of sorts, with members taking on different roles according to the needs of the moment. “We tend to fall in love a bit with the people we work with,” Copper continues, “and the people who join us as performers have usually first worked with us in some other way. One who is in Life and Times started with us as a technician. Another was originally an intern, getting lunch and buying supplies.”
Although based in New York, the company tours Europe regularly and maintains long-standing relationships with local venues like Ghent’s Vooruit and Brussels’ Kaaitheater. Indeed, the NTO is obliged by financial necessity to practically live on the road. “I think everyone knows that there is no substantial support for the arts in America,” Copper says. “We are not paid in the US. We only make money when we tour. If we do not tour or get commissioned, we have to do other jobs, like selling bicycles or making sandwiches. This leads to situations such as one recently in Hamburg where Pavol ended up in the hospital. His body just gave up.”
Liška recovered, but the crisis underscored the need for rest, relaxation and contemplation, even on the road. Enter OK Radio, a regular podcast featuring interviews with fellow artists encountered here, there and everywhere. (Guests include famed Flemish choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker). “We started doing this as a way to create a forum for the reflection that’s missing for us in our practice,” explains Copper. OK Radio podcasts are available for free through the NTO blog (oktheater.tumbler.com).
But make no mistake: Copper, Liška and the Nature Theater are still working hard. Their latest production Life and Times: Episodes 3 & 4 continues the serial dramatisation of NTO performer Kristin Worrall’s life story. There’s nothing especially dramatic about the script, and that’s exactly the point. Copper and Liška recorded more than 16 hours of phone conversations during which Worrall presents a familiar American suburban tragi-comedy.
Through the 10 episodes of the Life and Times series – the current episodes follow Worrall to age 18 – Copper and Liška aim to coax the theatrical out of everyday life. Earlier episodes were presented in the style of a Broadway musical, but this time around another format was required to suit the angsty melodrama of adolescence.
Worrall’s script was duly adapted as a locked-room thriller, less Cats and more Mousetrap. The schlock is tongue-in-cheek, of course, delivered by a talented and seasoned company that has greatly appealed to a Belgian audience keen for oddities.
One last note: don’t worry if you missed the previous episodes. Life and Times is designed to be picked up at any point.