Happy New Year. As an experiment in better living and to give more time to creative pursuits, Pavol and Kelly are only checking and answering their email two days a week in 2013, on Mondays and Thursdays.
If you need a response immediately, please call us at...
We also get text messages at either of these two numbers.
Please understand we are not doing this to be difficult, but just want to find a way to shift priorities for ourselves and our work and get back to a more productive and happier life. We wish you the same in the new year.
This was the first correspondence I received from Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska, artistic directors of Nature Theater of Oklahoma. It made me love them immediately.
I go to meet Kelly and Pavol at their home in Queens weighed down with guilt: someone else pitched this interview to the Guardian, but it came to me instead; soon after waking up that morning I got a phone call from my son's nursery, asking me to take him home because he's vomited; and if I'm so terrified of contributing to climate change, what the hell am I doing flying to New York instead of talking to them on Skype? When I sit down to start the interview, I'm even more unnerved, because before I can get a word in, this happens:
Pavol: So what's your story?
Me: That feels like a dangerous question!
Pavol is brilliant. He greets me at the door to their apartment wearing a baby-blue Adidas tracksuit trimmed with ruffles, the kind of thing someone might have worn on Sesame Street, round face defined by his thin waxed moustache. Before I leave, he demonstrates his favourite thing about the apartment he and Kelly share: it's not only big enough to rehearse there, but for him to stretch himself out full-length on the floor and rooooooooooooooll. It's an open-plan space, with the kitchen in one corner, books in another, and a green sofa in a third, where their two garrulous grey cats nest in a makeshift cave constructed of blankets. Windows fold around this corner, through which you can see the entire Manhattan skyline, buildings glinting in the cold winter sun. I have to stop myself from staring adoringly at Kelly: she has sparkly glasses and such beautiful hair, the burnished colour of autumn leaves, piled around her pale angular face. Both of them wear T-shirts emblazoned with the word Oklahoma: a theatre company with merchandise, just like a band.
P: It's what we wear now.
K: I used to be a flashy dresser but this has been it [for a few years now]. It makes travelling a lot simpler, too.
P: I pack 10 of these, 10 underwear, 10 socks, 2 pants, that it's. The rest is audio equipment, that's all I care about –
K: – I told him we're not going to bring any more suitcases –
P: – having the equipment to make work, so even though we're going for four months, it's always 10, 10...
K: It's filled with microphones, recorders, cameras,
P: tripods, cables.
K: Little by little, we're having to do more and more laundry.
I'm here because Pavol and Kelly are soon to make their UK debut (not counting the part they played in Cadavre Exquis at Sadler's Wells last year), at the Norwich and Norfolk festival with their multi-play extravaganza Life and Times. I'm not seeing the show until the following day, and I've tried to read just enough about it that I know what questions to ask, but not so much that I spoil anything for myself. I know, for instance, that it's very long: starts at 2pm, finishes about midnight. I know it's based on a 10-part, 16-hour phone conversation with one of the company members, Kristin Worrall. And I've read a really beautiful interview with them by another theatre-maker, Young Jean Lee, so I've picked up some biography: they met as students at Dartmouth College (a lecture course on Dada performance; there's a fun Village Voice interview in which Pavol says: “We started fucking right away”), not long after Pavol moved to the US from Slovakia – I'll come back to that bit. They made theatre for a few years after graduating, then abandoned the stage – I'll come back to that, too. And neither of them wanted to have kids, which is self-explanatory. That's pretty much it.
P: You're excited about seeing the show?
M: REALLY excited.
P: It's probably best to be less excited though, because it's hard to work with excitement for us. … It's like a resistance. It's never taken into account in terms of the audience, whereas we take it into account with the performers: how do you create resistance for a performer to do a better job?
K: You don't want overstimulated performers.
P: That's our number one job, always to look for resistance. What are you playing against, what are you pushing against? It's very rare that we do that with an audience, and that the audience actually comes expecting that or wanting that, because we always try to coddle the audience and make sure that they're comfortable. Whereas you will never hear me say to the actors, 'Make sure you're comfortable' or 'Let's work on what makes you feel uncomfortable.' I'm sure the RSC [he has a dry little chuckle to himself] trains their actors to be comfortable: 'How can you be comfortable with stage fright?' Whereas we [say], 'Oh, you have stage fright? Excellent, let's celebrate that –
K: – that means you know what's going on, that means you know you're on stage –
P: – and show that.' But I wonder how to do that with an audience, and make them appreciate it. I don't want to go to the theatre and be comfortable, never have wanted to. … [But] how do you make it OK for the experience to be complex and difficult and challenging? I've always been accused [of] not selling [shows] well: it's not for sale! Come on, I'm not trying to sell it – but I know what I would buy, I would buy a radical, all-life-transforming experience. What would you choose if you had a choice? Would you choose the most radical, transformative aesthetic experience, or the most entertaining experience?
M: But even by using those words you're creating expectation, so then someone goes in saying: OK, transform me. That's a really bad way to go into the show as well.
P: Exactly: you put the responsibility on them as well. It's like telling people how long the show is: if you say it's 10 and a half hours, there's no way I can feel responsible for entertaining you for 10 and a half hours. I hope you understand – you, the audience member – there is just no way that I am going to be able to keep it up. At some point you will have to jump in and supply your own excitement – unless you have absolutely no excitement whatever within you: then we can't work together.
K: We always assume that within that 10 and a half hours there's some room for you and you're going to take it upon yourself to claim that space. It's not all the time the actor giving you something, at a certain point you'll give back, even to yourself.
P: Do you go to therapy? Have you ever? See, you get therapy, regardless of whether the therapist is good or bad. A lot of my friends who go to therapy say, 'Oh, my therapist sucks, I hate it, he's stupid or she's stupid and it sucks and I'm switching.' Whereas when I went to therapy, I didn't think my therapist was particularly smart or even a good fit for me, but it was just the act of going. It's what I put into it, not so much what she was able to give me.
K: You carve out a regular period of time to deal with your issues.
P: For me, it's the same with the performance: if you're not willing to put anything into it, you're not going to get anything out of it. If you're hungry for life-transforming experience, you will more likely than not get it; if you're really not hungry for it, you won't get it. It's just what mindset do you put yourself in.
Pavol sits at one end of the table, Kelly at the other, and me on the long side between them, so the physical sensation of talking to them is that of watching tennis; although their relationship as speakers is probably more that of footballers, one person weaving the ball through the field, the other grabbing it for a moment, the first snatching it back to shoot the goal. At first I have the impression that Pavol's dry, booming, droll voice dominates, but soon recognise how balanced they are, and how sweetly they do that thing of developing each other's sentences, riffing on each other's jokes. It's gorgeous just to sit within such unity of vision.
P: It's like people who don't like Christmas: the Christmas presents will never be enough. [You have] the anticipation of Christmas and after you realise I was looking forward to Christmas and I thought it was going to be this really powerful experience and I would be so happy and satisfied with all the presents and now all the presents are open and that feeling of emptiness is there again. … You should definitely write about that: we do promise Christmas and we do bring Christmas presents, but you have to have some type of appreciation, you can't be ungrateful. Christmas for me is like heaven, even if I get one little present.
K: But it's something that I've heard people say recently: we either live in the past or the future now, we never really live in the present. With all the hyperstimulation and the social media, you're so plugged in to information and it's always in this state of anticipation or fond recollection. [So] you're never really fully in the present. I think what we're asking for is an inordinate amount of present time, for people to be in the same room, actually having the experience right there with the actors at the same time. It's a selfish, it's an ambitious thing to ask people for now, to give you that much time.
P: It's not selfish –
P: – it may be slightly arrogant because you're putting demands, undue, unreasonable demands, and I have to accept that, I have to accept that criticism, like, who do you think you are?
K: It's unreasonable, maybe, more than arrogant: unreasonable to ask people to spend this much time for a dubious subject matter.
P: But always there is a kind of a missionary zeal to it: … we're taking up a lot of your time and we know we're taking up a lot of your time, [but] for the life of us we just could not edit it down.
The Public Theater by Astor Place is big and bright and looks much smarter than I'd expected. The capacity, at a guess, is 200 and the room is full. Sitting just behind me are a group of fairly elderly people whose patience is sorely tested by Life and Times Part 1, which alone lasts a good three hours. To their credit, they don't leave during the interval – but they do mutter darkly about not liking music that is repetitive, not liking the music of John Cage and Ravi Shankar, and wanting their hotdogs. At the start of Part 2, they're nowhere to be seen.
I wasn't surprised they'd had enough: Part 1 is undoubtedly an endurance test. The music is naive, the staging jittery, the text entirely mundane. And it's relentless, a barrage of words and unconnected movements, going on and on and on. But Part 1 is also a work of honest-to-goodness genius. It takes everything you think you know about theatre and tilts it, bends it, plays ball with it and lets the dog chew on it. And it holds you, feeds you the energy you need to remain interested – more than that: riveted. I've seen quite a lot of work these past few months that thinks about narrative, the way people tell stories, and the effect of technology and particularly the internet and social media on the modern mind (notably Anthony Neilson's Narrative and Forced Entertainment's The Coming Storm), but none of it did so as hilariously, bizarrely, eloquently or perspicaciously as Life and Times does.
It starts with three female performers dressed in utilitarian girl-guide outfits and plimsolls, singing in fragile unschooled voices that sometimes quaver in the direction of mid-20th-century musical theatre, sometimes reach for the high melodrama of 19th-century opera, their faltering melodies set to a relatively simple, dancing folk music played on piano, ukulele and flute. They stand in a line, their bodies enacting a series of unrelated, geometric movements, not a sequence they've remembered but generated in response to prompt cards flashed up in random order by another performer sitting with the band at the front of the stage. It took me a while to realise she wasn't prompting but surprising them: that's the resistance, the difficulty Kelly and Pavol introduce to stop the actors feeling settled or complacent, to keep them always present and thinking on their toes. About an hour in, three male actors leap on stage, each one a giant bear with a bushy beard, similarly dressed like boy scouts. They bring with them a bushel of cheekiness: like the moment when “Kristin” talks about getting her first report card, and how upsetting it is to have someone observe you, and one of the men looks over his shoulder to stare at the audience, assessing us. Or when “Kristin” talks about having a crush on her teacher, the same man looks at the actual Kristin, sitting playing flute within the band, and blows her a kiss.
I didn't realise she was Kristin until overhearing people talk about her at the interval; it disturbed me, because there were moments when the audience collectively were uncontrollably laughing and I couldn't quite tell if we were laughing with her or at her. But I say “Kristin” because there are ways in which this narrative feels dissociated from her now, a separation you can read in Kristin's insouciant expression. Each of the performers sings in the first person, as though this is their story, substituting their name for Kristin's wherever required, including the men. But it's more than that: the narrative, in its very banality, feels peculiarly familiar. Part 1 runs roughly from birth (baby photographers, the family's hand-me-down memories) to third grade (eight/nine years old), and the stories Kristin tells of lying to her parents and teachers and other kids, wetting herself in public, arguing with her sibling, reminded me not only of myself at those ages and in those relationships, but made me think about myself as a parent, with children going through these experiences right now. Every now and then, Kristin remarks, “This must be so boring for you!” but you would have to be entirely uninterested in people to find Part 1 boring: entirely uninterested in the ways we learn about or discover shame and injustice, compromise and empathy; entirely uninterested in the myriad subtle ways people puzzle out their place in the world through the instruction of their elders, the tangled suggestions of their peers, and quietly on their own. And again, there is more to Part 1 than emotional resonance. Throughout you're aware of the weird way we tell stories, particularly about our own pasts: the glut of unnecessary detail, the hop-skip through time, the way memory unfolds from the heart of memory, stories opening up to other stories, emerging with a peculiar, non-sequential logic. “We go on tangents,” Kristin muses towards the end of Part 1, a simple moment of self-awareness that encapsulates just what a mystery our own brains are.
K: It [started with] a series of 10 phone calls that Pavol made with a friend of ours, a company member; he asked her: 'Can you tell me your life story?' At the end of the first phone call she wasn't done so they scheduled another time to call back and she kept going...
M: You didn't ask any leading questions?
P: No … For this project, I really tried to eliminate my own voice; instead of guide it, I wanted to find out: what is the actual structure of a story and how does one shape it, without me guiding it and manipulating it? Of course I asked questions, there were introductions, the start of the phone call, end of the phone call; if I knew I wasn't going to understand what she said on the recording I asked her to repeat it, but I really wanted to stay away. I wanted the breakdown of language, I wanted her to have trouble, I was really listening for the times when she couldn't remember, not the sections that she remembered fluently and fluidly. I wanted to find out how she generates language and how language is going to come out of the brain when it's in a crisis, when it's uncomfortable, when it doesn't know what to say.
K: It ends up being a portrait of a particular moment in time: these phone conversations are now five, almost six years old, she does of course feel a distance from them and she realises she told some of these things incorrectly, but we take it as it is. It just reminds me that your life story is in continuous evolution and that you have different relationships to past events at different times in your life: things seem closer or more distant. Of course she didn't know what we were going to do, we didn't either. Pavol's original plan was to call many people and it just so happened she was the first one he called and it took 16 hours. It was an incredibly generous response, one that we weren't expecting. Both of us knew we wanted to use that in its entirety and just were waiting for the opportunity to work on that to figure out what it would be. …
M: Did she choose for herself how much detail to include, and whether to tell it chronologically?
P: She doesn't do it chronologically. Again, if you tell the audience it's chronological they will relax and not worry about it. [But] if you really analyse it, you know that she's talking about third grade, and then oh, that made me remember something from kindergarten, let me go back to that... So it goes back and forth. … I always encouraged her to take her time, to go on tangents, to get lost in it. I wasn't really interested in a straightforward [story], I was open to it all of a sudden becoming a philosophical conversation; if it became about scientific experiments, that would have been fine. Whatever that question produced, I was fine with that.
K: A lot of it includes stories about other people, because we kind of define ourselves as we go in relation to all of these other people who are in our life. Although the structure of this thing is incredibly abstract and spider-webbed and tangential, the audience knows the logic of regular speech – we're just not always aware of how fractured it is, both in its sentence construction and in its narrative construction.
P: The most important thing when I was talking to Kristin was for me to make sure that she did not know she was making art. My number one job was to not let her slip into trying to be good. That was the biggest discovery years ago we have made, is that we produce the best results, we make the best art, when we're not making art. How do you get the audience to be at the same – will they perceive the best when they don't think they are perceiving art? So if they're coming like we're just making dinner, you're coming to be fed. … If you somehow distract them [from], 'I want to see theatre, and if it's not Shakespeare, Chekhov or Ibsen or whatever, then it doesn't belong', if you trick them into not using those standards, maybe they'll be more open, because I know that process helps us as makers.
M: How much are you aware of what in Britain gets called verbatim theatre?
K: I'm aware of this, here sometimes it's called documentary theatre: I think where we differ from at least some of the companies that do that kind of work in the US is that it's not for us a journalistic project. It's more that the material exists as a kind of restriction and it offers us a resistance: I can't rewrite this. We're not out to tell the story of Kristin, down to even not representing her on stage. It's something else.
P: Also we're not interested in the 'poetry of the everyday'. People do take that away, that's fine, but there's no romanticism in [it]. It's very easy to do, it's easy to record. It's not that it's better than anything else: we started as playwrights, so we used to write plays and it took a year and a half to do, of pain and agony and suffering and self-doubt –
K: – [in a tone of disgust] self-expression –
P: – and insecurity and trying to express yourself. Then we realised you can just turn on the recorder and it takes you an hour to write a play and it's like, ah, cool, this is easy. The text is never the primary form of what we try to put out there, even though people do notice that the most because there is still the supremacy of language in the theatre, unless you completely take it away. It's just a found object and it's an easy source. People talk a lot about the language even though it's the thing that took the least amount of time in these productions. People say, 'Oh, wow, 16 hours' – nobody says: 'Oh, only 16 hours'.
K: Nobody says, 'Four years.' It's taken four years [to get halfway through]: 16 hours was the smallest part of it. And actually, one of the reasons that we did it initially is because we both felt like theatre can be an incredibly hermetic experience: you're writing these plays and you're doing your little private work and then at a certain point you open it up to the world. We were interested in how we [could] stay attached to the world; I mean, it was a way of making our work more permeable to and inviting the world into the work. You just grow tired of this art as self-expression all the time: theatre is a social event and it's a social art form and it's an oral art form, so can we stay entirely in this social and oral if that's what it does and that's its essence? Also for me what I liked about working with that material is you drop a kind of pretending and you can work easily and quickly. When we first worked with it we were working with the original audio source in ear to the actors so you could take it home, re-edit it on the audio editor, plug it back in to the actors and you could hear it the next day, so it's a way of working quickly and making many discoveries very quickly – and cheaply, because everybody at that point had an iPod to work from, and the editing again came for free on most computers.
P: It never came from, 'Wow, the spoken language is so great and we want to promote it.' It came from a kind stylised impulse more than a humanist impulse: can we find something that doesn't belong? This kind of language does not belong in the theatre: it doesn't have drama, it doesn't have eloquence, it doesn't have conclusions about human nature, so let's use it because it's wrong.
Between Parts 1 and 2 there's dinner; the queue for hot dogs and knishes snakes down the stairs, across the foyer and around the corner to butt against the queue for the toilets. I head out for a bit, head buzzing, and when I return Pavol is in the foyer, wearing another Adidas tracksuit, this one black with a white skeleton printed on it. It's his first costume change of the night: earlier he welcomed us wearing an Adidas tracksuit in orange and yellow with fringing, like a child's cowboy outfit. The baby blue ruffles get an outing later. I watch him weave his way through the crowd and accost people with a microphone, then huddle in conversation with them. I want to play too, but when our paths eventually cross he says he can't talk to me, he knows me already.
P: I use the theatre as an excuse to communicate with people and to ask questions. I do get terrified of audiences but I wonder why: these people are coming to see my work, why don't I talk to them? Every artist we talk to on OK Radio has the same thing, they're terrified of the audience, they hide from them. I'm the same but I also look at myself from the outside, like what the hell is this? And just this curiosity about, why do people come? Because they do come and there must be a reason. I always try to put myself into a kind of alien mind that looks at things as if I came from outer space on to this planet, and to me theatre is the most weird and abstract behaviour. It's not natural for people to come to a building to watch other people dress up and do stuff and talk funny, it's not natural and I never want to take it for granted. It's much more natural to paint something and put it on your wall and ah, it doesn't feel so empty, I can live here; or to put music on: ah, great, I can listen to music while cleaning; or I can watch TV because it relaxes me, or I can read a book, it creates a quiet space. But theatre's weird, it's like the least natural form of behaviour that we humans engage in. That's why I'm curious about it: everything else is kind of easy to understand and it's nice but theatre is awkward, it's weird, it's dirty, it's grounded –
K: – you're sitting next to other people who smell funny –
P: – it's the opposite of heaven, it's like theatre is hell and is a very interesting place to be.
K: Or at least purgatory or limbo. It's a liminal state.
P: It's hell. Theatre is heavy, it's material, it's all materialistic –
K: – it takes money to make it, it takes money to bring it anywhere –
P: – it takes space, it's heavy –
K: – people can only experience it for a brief moment, a window in time, and if they're in the same city. … I think we're constantly trying to discover why [we do it]: some days I do it because it feels good to me and it amuses me; equally there's some days when it does not make any sense to me at all why somebody would be bringing 15 doofuses around the world to put up a little fake thing and do it for you. There are days when I'm embarrassed that somebody pays as much money as they do.
They say that, but it pains me that Nature Theater of Oklahoma are so little seen in the UK. I found the days running up to their week at the Norwich and Norfolk festival really sad, as people I follow on twitter one by one started revealing that although they had bought a ticket for the marathon, they couldn't afford the travel or the accommodation or the time and weren't going to be able to go. Although I love that the NN festival was brave enough to programme them, it makes no sense to me that they should have been leading not following. While I was in New York I also interviewed the Team about Mission Drift and the contrast between the companies is extraordinary: since bringing their first shows to the Edinburgh festival, the Team have become integral to our theatre landscape, frequently travelling from Edinburgh to London, most recently for an extraordinary, life-affirming stint at the National Theatre with Mission Drift in the Shed. So come on RSC, come on Shakespeare's Globe, come on the National, I double triple dare you: bring over Nature Theater of Oklahoma's version of Romeo and Juliet. It sounds terrific: a haphazard, tragi-comic, scintillatingly smart reconstruction of the play from Kelly and Pavol's friends' and relations' vague, frequently wrong, memories of it, full of invented events and interpolated speeches, telling us as much about our relationship with culture and knowledge as it does about storytelling and Shakespeare's teenagers. And it's exactly the kind of irreverent approach to Shakespeare that we need to see.
P: I don't understand subtlety in the theatre. I understand subtlety in other art forms, where I can pore over things and take my time, [but theatre] has to be athletic,whether it's athletic speaking, athletic moving – even stillness has to somehow be athletic and unsubtle.
K: When you dig far enough back in theatre history, all of it was pretty dirty: even William Shakespeare in his own time was much more rabble than refined. When we were touring No Dice in Europe, we were making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the audience –
P: – we feed people here, too –
K: – we feed people here, too, but I didn't realise that to make sandwiches in some of these very refined theatres of Europe, people were suspicious of it as an activity that would be done in a theatre, there was some resistance that we met with and some people who talked about us being very American, I had never heard that as a definition applied to myself.
P: For you maybe the interesting thing to answer or try to answer at least is why have we not been in Great Britain?
K: Because it's weird.
P: We have had people from there see our work, presenters, but it never occurred to them that it would work. We have been all over the world, we have been 50 countries or whatever –
K: – [Life and Times] is the first time we've been in America in three years, and the first time we haven't had to use subtitles because people speak the language –
P: – because there are a lot of American companies who tour wildly and widely in Great Britain, we have never been invited: we always say, well, it's the language barrier.
K: But we're curious about it.
P: We go to Japan, we go to Singapore,
K: we've been to Serbia, Korea,
P: Germany, France,
P: everywhere, right? Everywhere except where people could actually understand what we're saying. Maybe you guys are just really weird, I always think that British people are really weird whenever I go there, like I don't understand you people –
K: Well, the accent for you is a lot to get through.
P: – I mean I understand, but it's maybe because I just deep down come from really low class of a low class country, so not only a low class but also a low-down country. Somehow I don't belong, whoever I am or whoever I project myself to be, somehow it never belongs. … It's probably not helpful for the British people to think we find them weird.
K: Or think that they find us weird.
M: Where are you from; when and why did you leave?
P: Slovakia. I was 18 when I left to go to make a better life for myself [that was 1991; he's 39 now].
M: What was it in the idea of America [that made you move here]?
P: The fact that I can define myself not based on where I come from, not based on what I have or what has been given to me from birth or by my parents. It's a cliche but that cliche is probably what got me.
K: Clean slate.
P: Clean slate, yeah. It's like a criminal: you want to go to a country where they won't check your background, so you can invent your own.
M: You went to Oklahoma first?
P: Yeah, and that's where I saw my first play. I'd never been to the theatre before. It was The Tempest, two days after I arrived; all I remember was the storm where they're just yelling and talking gibberish and making sounds, that's all I really cared about. If I ever do The Tempest I would just do a really long extended storm, that would be the show.
M: How soon after that did you start thinking you wanted to make theatre?
P: I started thinking about that when I was in Slovakia still, when we had the Velvet Revolution in 89 [when Pavol was 16], which was organised by theatre people – but they had to stop making theatre to do the revolution, so I was more interested in the stopping to make art in order for things to actually happen. I wasn't intrigued or invited into it by the work itself, I was invited into theatre by stopping the work itself, because then a playwright became president, actors became ambassadors, directors became part of the cabinet. That's what interested me, not theatre itself, because I never really saw theatre.
K: He's probably the first person to come to theatre going, 'Wow, those theatre people can really get stuff done.'
P: I'm all for all the theatre people stopping to make work to get stuff done. I'm always advocating: let's all take a year off, let's all stop making theatre and see where we get, and see if anybody misses it. Just one year, that's all I'm asking, we can go back to it – but is anything going to be better, worse, no difference at all? I'm curious to find out.
M: Kelly, what got you started?
K: My father was on the radio, he had a four-hour show and he would go off with his bag of sound effects and bring home all sorts of suspicious characters who did cartoon voices and magic tricks, so I grew up thinking this was maybe something that I might be good at as well. … Pavol and I have only been talking about [this] recently, but my first toy was a tape recorder and his first experience of theatre was a recorded audio tape, because that's how the dissidents used to share plays back and forth, there were no performances – and now of course most of our work over the past five years has been made [using recorders]; even when we weren't making work this way, a lot of the shows that we were making were sound-heavy, we were still taking our tape recorders on vacations and collecting sounds of seagulls and putting them somehow in the work. So I feel like for most of our lives a set of ears has been essential.
P: I never associated theatre with a space and a theatre, I always associated it with either an audio tape or revolution and some kind of change in society.
The Adidas tracksuits are out in force for Part 2; none as comically decorated as Pavol's, but all in different bright colours so the singers look like cheap gems in a bead shop, the synthetic sheen of the fabric glittering in the light. These are the gawky pre- and early teen years, roughly aged nine to 15; the synth-pop soundtrack gestures towards disco and nascent hip-hop but with interruptions of jangly indie guitar; the projected mood is first school disco, excruciating embarrassment papered over with a determination to have fun. The story is familiar from a thousand teen movies: kids alienated from their parents, kids experiencing their first kiss. Kids shaping themselves through the culture that surrounds them, Ghostbusters and Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles and Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. I wonder to what extent these reference points and signifiers are recognisable to Pavol. Is what he finds fascinating in this story its strangeness?
Part 2 lasts a mere (ha!) two hours, but it feels much more exhausting than Part 1. This is where it really starts to feel relentless: but isn't that what makes it so true? Life itself is relentless, day piling on day, experience on experience, encounter on encounter; and even when you attempt to retreat always there is the incessant churning of thoughts in your mind. (You can tell I've never found meditation.) Just as my energy and attention are flagging, though, something brilliant happens: a crowd of people spill on to the stage like pearls from a broken necklace, a radiant rainbow chorus whose voices swell and surge and carry me on. And as Kristin's story darts back and forth in time, one thing in particular strikes me: her regret that she wasted so much time worrying about what other people thought.
K: The actors in a way can't agree too much that we're in a musical; if the form that you've chosen is not in itself offering any resistance to the actors then there's a problem. In a way, we sing to the audience too much: there's a time at which it's entertaining, and then a time at which it's like, 'Oh my god, are they going to keep singing?'
P: It's like eating too much ice cream: 'You like ice cream? Here's a big tub of it – but you have to eat it, no little bits.'
K: But we do talk about how it shouldn't be a totally hermetic world: there should be a door in there for my mother, and for people who are not carrying within them the entire history of [the] avant garde; there's something different for those people, but there's no door shut to your mum coming in, and maybe she gets something out of it that's entirely more profound than you would. It's been nice to have people that I don't normally see at avant-garde theatre, who happen to have come because it sounded like something that they might like. At the same time there's people who come to see musical theatre, who are I think in distress that our actors don't seem like they know how to sing. I feel like the actors are at a level now where they don't get this as much, but at the beginning they'd have some of the audience [she mimes putting their hands over their ears while cringing] – and we leave the lights on, so actors have to deal with that. 'You're not offering me the virtuosic singing experience I've come to expect from my musical theatre' – so what are you going to do about it, are you gong to leave or hang in there with it?
M: Does there come a point where they've been performing it for so long, and get so good at it, that all those resistances are gone?
K: I feel like we never get there completely, no. There's some people who always say a Hail Mary before they do a harmony – but it's great that it still continues to offer a challenge to them and it's always going to be something that they have to work on, because I think the work they're doing is honest work in the present moment. They're not offering something that they worked on in the past [and] here, now you appreciate it. [We're] working on something same as you're working on something, and we share that I think that.
P: And it's always on the verge of falling apart.
K: Yeah, if the audience doesn't feel like they have to say a little prayer to help out then we haven't done our job. You should feel like you have to hold it together as well: that's when I enjoy the evening most.
M: Are you there for all the performances?
K: Yes: I run titles for One, Pavol runs audio for One and Two –
P: – we communicate with the actors too, I talk to them in their ear –
K: – we control the speed of it. So we're there every night and we're also watching it every night, taking notes, which is important because there are elements of it every night which are chance-generated, so people need the feedback.
M: Do you say stuff deliberately to wrong-foot them?
P: Of course – that's why they'll never be good at it. But they understand the game, it's not –
K: – it's not set up to make them fail.
P: In one of the podcasts we talk about [this]: I have some friends that are really in the Broadway world and Hollywood and acting with Leonardo Di Caprio and Al Pacino, and I always wonder: would Al Pacino or someone like that be willing to have a director talk to him in his ear during the performance? I find it strange that people would not welcome that challenge. It's a game: I take my responsibility to the world seriously but I don't take my responsibility as a director seriously and I don't want my actor to take his responsibility as an actor seriously. I want him or her to take his or her responsibility as a human being seriously but I don't want them to be invested in being an actor, just as I'm not invested in being a director. I play a director, I play with the fact that I tell you what to do, but we agree that that's the game we're going to play: I'm going to tell you what to do in front of an audience to throw you off or to play with the fact that this is happening right now. I think that's at the core of the work: subverting the ego investment in your particular role in the theatrical process.
K: Ultimately we were invested as playwrights and we chose to be totally out of control of the textual material: it's like, this is it, we can edit it but we can't rewrite it. So we're looking for what offers us resistance as well as the actors, and how does this not just become a form of exhibitionism or virtuosity.
K: Yeah. As an audience, I don't want you to feel comfortable with having spent money to get something that's – you shouldn't feel like you can just watch the actors as objects, it should be a more complicated relationship for them as well. You paid money but what you're getting is hopefully something more than what you've paid for – maybe more than you wanted.
P: You paid money to do a workout, not watch a workout. If I go to the gym and I pay my fee at the gym, I'm not gonna just watch somebody else work out –
K: – it's not going to be like, 'Do it to me, make me thin' –
P: – that's not what we do, you pay money to do a workout.
K: There's some people for whom the words 'participatory theatre' conjure up all sorts of like mimes coming out to touch them and mess their hair up.
P: We don't do that.
K: But you can talk to the actors, the actors will talk to you. And there are lights on the audience: they can see you, you bear some responsibility when you do this, you have to deal with the consequences on stage.
P: Are you scared now?
One thing I do know about Pavol and Kelly before I speak to them is that for many years they rejected theatre, and I'm interested in that because for a period so did I. And in the same way that taking a break has made me fundamentally question how I want to write about theatre (is my ambition really to write a 400-word review with star rating of Life and Times? What happens when I write about the show in 1500 words? Several months later? Interweaving thoughts on the show with the interview? What if I used the interview verbatim, refusing to eliminate the repetitons, the slightly less pertinent bits, how would that reflect or communicate the form of the show? What if I chopped it up, making it even less linear? What if, in chopping it up, I more or less consciously impose a linearity of thought that wasn't there? What if I didn't write about Life and Times at all, but spent the next 10 years telling people about the show, almost certainly reaching the same number of people, but creating an oral body of criticism that responds to the oral source of the show?), so too Pavol and Kelly emerged from their enforced separation from theatre with a renewed desire to experiment and challenge their form. Their work as Nature Theater of Oklahoma is now all-encompassing and multi-disciplinary: apart from the shows, they make animated films, funny little cartoons of people eating dinner or using the toilet or dancing in the park; they also make brilliant, hyper-dramatic trailers, and once a week or so they issue a podcast on OK Radio, a dauntingly lengthy but engrossing and illuminating conversation with an artist they know or have arranged to meet in whichever city they happen to be stationed at the time. Leaving theatre, they were able also to leave its conventions, everything one does because that's the way it's done. Even though they set out as graduates to experiment with form, to shift and nudge and change theatre, still they initially existed within conservative conventions of process or making, whose inexorable force on them was debilitating, yet somehow invisible. It wasn't until they rejected theatre wholesale that they were able to see those conventions, that conservatism, clearly enough to reject or at least subvert them.
K: [Using telephone conversations as source material] came from a point of desperation for us, you know, really questioning again why we were doing theatre. At a certain point you realise how difficult theatre is to make, how much people, resources, space it needs, and you're forced to ask the hard questions about what is it about this art form that I'm interested in and can we deal with just those things? Because if it's about writing, why not a novel, why not poetry? There's so many better ways to be a writer or a visual artist or – all of those art forms were ones that we had spent some serious time in. I mean, we gave up theatre for a period and explored other forms of art-making, including video, visual art, writing, and quite frankly a lot of them are easier, so why theatre?
M: Why did you give it up?
P: It just seemed like a very stale art form, and the issues and the problems that we were dealing with, 80%, even 90% of the challenges that we were facing in making theatre had nothing to do with art: it had to do with money, it had to do with the social situation, with real estate, with social dynamics, with egos, and it just wasn't interesting. So that's why we say: let's get out of here. That's not what I wanted my life to be: I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to participate in society and be a useful contributor.
M: Were you making similar work?
P: No, completely different: we were writing plays and spending all our money on it.
K: Most of the time, one or the other of us or both had full-time employment and we were saving money to pay actors, not paying ourselves, spending money on stuff, you'd end up with a lot of costumes and things. So when we went back to making theatre it was like: let's embrace the actual economic and social conditions of making the work, and if we can't do that then let's call it quits.
P: And make it about that: if I'm gonna be having arguments with actors, at least let me record it and use it in a show. I don't want to get a heart attack for nothing, I'm not gonna have an argument with you and then try to pretend we're making a show about Cymbeline or something, something that has nothing to do with the experience we're having in life.
K: One of the first shows that we made with this kind of recorded material, we were given space for three months in the summer so we had space and time to work quickly, and everybdoy had an iPod, so it was again working with what we had, and most of the actors were working day jobs but some of them were at desks with telephones, so Pavol would call them at work. We talked about it was our first paid art-making, it was corporate-sponsored without them really knowing it. Most of the ways that we've been able to be successful with it this time around, not just economically but artistically, has been really scamming the system. [In] that show, No Dice, we gave Diet Cokes and Dr Peppers to the audience – it wasn't a big audience [about 30] – and the sodas came from somebody's day job because they were allowed all the free soda that they could drink. So it's just, how can you scam out of what you've got? … One guy had a baby while he was working with us on No Dice and he had to go home at intermission, because it was a long show and he had a kid at home, so that character just disappeared from the show at intermission. It was another way of embracing, if people have got to go home at a certain time, that's when that character goes home.
M: I love your company.
P: Wait till tomorrow, we will disappoint. We're bound to disappoint you.
M: What made you think, no, actually, it is theatre.
K: I don't know. Pavol was the first one to go back to it, and then he just seduced me.
P: A couple of friends asked me to make a play with them and I said I don't do that. Then I was walking home and it just seemed like, sure, I'll do something. [But] I said I'll do it only if I never have to worry about the rehearsal space, if I don't have to worry about money, and I don't have to worry about you coming to rehearsals, and we can just do this, and the moment it stops giving me any type of pleasure I will stop. I had nothing to lose and nothing invested. Then I became curious again and it's like, OK, it's possible only if you continuously remind yourself you have nothing to lose: this is not the end of the world and you don't have to make theatre if it doesn't feel right.
K: That show was pretty much done in underwear with folding chairs.
P: But more than the material aspect is the artistic: do I feel like I'm able to work on ideas that are not sabotaged by egos and petty social dynamics? Those came into play but I was able to ignore them enough. And then I said: OK, I'm back in this art form and I know nothing about it and I'm OK with that. I start from zero and everything I knew before I can erase and approach it with a curiosity – not with love and passion of the art but with curiosity. And neither with hate: it was a neutral feeling. I still try to retain that neutral attitude towards it. I'm not out there defending the art form of theatre. I'm not defending the live experience with other people, I'm not defending the ephemerality of theatre, you will never hear me romanticising any of that, but I'm curious about it, it's something I know how to do, and it's just as good as any other outlet to work on these ideas. I don't feel like we came back for the love of it; we do have love in our life and we do have love of ideas and we do have love of other people, but I always have to retain a kind of attitude that I have nothing to lose, this could be the last show. But I don't want it to seem like if this is the last show we will perish, it's not that, which doesn't mean that we don't work passionately and robustly and lean into it and really go all out, we certainly do – but having nothing to lose allows you to actually go full speed ahead and take risks. …
K: I think that's something that, over the years, having had more of the privilege to work in places where theatre artists are awarded [public subsidy] … I've come to appreciate what you have working here in the US with nothing and having that thing in mind of: I don't have to make this, I'm not obligated to make this, I stop making this tomorrow the world will go on. What that forces you to do is define really clearly for yourself why you do it, where the pleasure is. I think we've been better this time about following where the pleasure is in making the work, and coming to it with a kind of curiosity.
There's another long break, during which they serve obscenely good chocolate brownies liberally sprinkled with crystals of sea salt, I try to eavesdrop on a conversation one of the actors from Elevator Repair Service's Gatz is having at the bar and am as surreptitiously as possible mesmerised by Bjork. Then it's back for Parts 3 and 4. The set for this is hilarious, a creaky, gaudy drawing-room whose chintz and wood-panelling and leaden atmosphere are instantly redolent of 1950s British repertory theatre – or at least, my inherited and most derogatory ideas of 1950s British repertory theatre. The performers are stiff in suits and tweed, and move as though this were a third-rate Agatha Christie adaptation playing to two sleeping pensioners and a lonely tourist. The style is declamatory, with big silent-movie gestures that reflect some of the company's recent animations, little black-and-white films of absurdly exaggerated facial expressions. Every choice they make in this section is rooted in Kristin's narrative: references to soap operas, to religion and a mysterious event earlier in her teens that continues to haunt her that I didn't quite grasp but appeared to be about somebody perhaps drowning; the funny olde-English formality spins off from a description of a trip to Chester, where she admired the independence of British teens. But the slowness, the staidness, play havoc with my attention; the closer we move to midnight, the less physically able I am to concentrate. I'm aware of poignant things happening, as when Kristin talks about learning the flute, the instrument she was playing in the band in Part 1; and I'm aware of mind-boggling things happening, not least when the stage is flooded with green light and Pavol's voice booms through the speakers from the back of the room. But by now I'm drifting in and out of consciousness and not even an alien invasion is enough to jolt me into being fully present again.
I have a problem with every succeeding show after Episode 1 and I have a sense that the audience has the same experience, is that Episode 1 is this radical proposal and then it's just so much harder to get into the following episodes because that one stupid audacious idea, you've gotten it out of the way. And then Episode 2, Episode 3, they're still good shows, but I have a feeling that Episode 1 is always going to be people's favourite, even though I feel like Episode 3 and 4, Episode 5, are more radical, are more interesting. But I understand why people really enjoy Episode 1, and it almost then feels like everything after is a let down – whereas I'm working harder and harder, but it's harder and harder to satisfy myself.
Pavol on OK Radio, talking to John Collins of Elevator Repair Service
K: By the time we started work on it, the one thing we hadn't done with this type of language was to sing it. We had an opportunity to work at the Berg theatre in Vienna and that was also an opportunity that we had never had before to work at a scale that was not commensurate with the actual life story. This is a very uneventful, common life story, so then the challenge became: can we give it a scale and a frame that is bigger than it would normally merit? …
P: All this work was generated in Vienna, originally they asked us to be more ambitious than we have a right to – generally people ask us to be less ambitious, generally people come to us and say: 'Do you have a smaller piece?' I want to work with people who ask us for more, not for less. I want people to challenge me: it's like, if you want to work with me, ask me for more. That's been our modus operandi in these past years: an insistence on being unreasonable, asking unreasonable demands of the art form and asking unreasonable demands of the audience and above all asking unreasonable demands of ourselves. It's not practical in today's economic arts crisis.
K: There's not people who will ask you to make a show longer. [But] a lot of times I really feel like the artistic directors of these spaces are underestimating their audience. We talked to people and said we should do the marathon here, and they were thinking that the individual evenings would sell; instead what happened was the marathons immediately sold out. So it was nice to be vindicated in that way. People are hungry for something that's a different experience and a challenging experience, they're not looking for less.
P: … It's the same thing as I was [saying] at the beginning: I have nothing to lose in this art form, therefore I can take these great risks. I can say I'm going to make the longest show ever, with the most people: I don't relish the expense but I do relish the ambition and probably if the money was all cut off I know all 15 of us that are involved in this project would do it for free, we would continue to make it ambitious.
K: The venues we've ended up working with have been the presenters that asked us to be ambitious; in a way it's the same proposal we make to the actors: it's not an ordinary actor who's like, can I please work for 11 hours straight and make the audience food? … They're looking for you to challenge them. When we started out with this group of people, only one of them had sung, had any professional singing experience, so they're looking to be challenged, they're looking for things they haven't done before. In the process they've learned how to have a singing voice and how to do harmonies and how to also protect their voice somewhat. It's been a process.
P: But there is a recklessness, there is a recklessness in the performance I mean, and there is a recklessness in the direction, in all the aspects there is a recklessness, which I feel is healthy. Without it we're all working on Wall Street or in a bank or in an office.
It's snowing when I finally leave the theatre, mouth stinging from overly diluted hot chocolate. I want to talk to everyone in the room, but I also feel shy, as though I already know too much about them and them about me. Outside a light dusting of snow covers the ground like icing sugar. What I don't realise as I race for the warmth of my hotel room is that I will spend the weeks and months after Life and Times noticing the way my own memory works, how often I tell stories wrongly or misrepresent the past, not deliberately or maliciously, but through simple carelessness, a lack of thought that betrays all sorts of things about me that I don't like (a strain of innate conservatism, the influence of media narratives, my readiness to be absorbed within a privileged class). I have no anticipation of the jolt I will feel two months later, when I start reading Everybody's Autobiography by Gertrude Stein and feel that she and Pavol and Kelly are engaged in the same endeavour. Three months later I'm at the Young Vic in London watching My Perfect Mind, a beautiful collaboration between Told by an Idiot's Paul Hunter, Edward Petherbridge and Kathryn Hunter, that tenderly attempts to figure out what the fuck is going on in our brains. “Where does memory end and imagination begin?” Paul asks. I don't know. But in that liminal space lives Life and Times, mundane and mysterious and crazy and adorable.
M: I can't think of anything else to ask you.
P: Nothing. It was exhaustive, and exhausting.
K: All the cats have gone to sleep.
M: Do you ever feel over-committed to Life and Times, or tethered by it?
P: Not at all. We made a musical because we wanted to make a musical, we made a book because we wanted to make a book [that's Part 5, shown in Norwich], we made an animated film because we wanted to make an animated film [Part 4.5, ditto], we're making a radio show because we wanted to make a radio show [Part 6, which they're now working on in Berlin]. Episode 7, if I want to make a sci-fi, I'll make a sci-fi; [for] Episode 9 and 10, we're thinking about making a TV show. I love watching TV, I love reality TV, can I somehow write this material into it being like Big Brother or something? It could be a great premise.
K: I think the thing is, we do love a lot of different things, but rather than say we only do theatre, we try to incorporate as much of what we love and are interested in into the work. I feel like we didn't know when we started doing the podcasts that we would maybe want to make radio part of this show, but it's worked out that way. The podcast is separate but of course it feeds in: you open yourself up to try these different things and next thing you know, they're part of the show.
P: I think all the work – the shows, the animations, all this – the one thing they have in common is that we take care of every single moment. If the animations are using human beings, even if it's an ordinary movement, we take it apart. How does somebody grab a cup and put it to their mouth? I understand that I can just turn on the camera and film picking up the cup, and it'll take me half a second to do that – or I can take five hours to animate it and it'll look more awkward. It's like, how do we create a vast amount of effort to do absolutely nothing? Why do we take four hours to cross a room and film it and invest all our energy in making it great and perfect? [We take the] meaninglessness of other activities that we do in life and equate it to this: it makes no sense really, but neither does going to work on Wall Street. It's all about breaking apart reality and then putting it back together. It's like you have a motorcycle, and I know that if you love motorcycles you probably just enjoy taking it into the garage, taking it completely apart and then putting it back together so that you know it. We do the same thing: I want to know what it takes to pick up a cup. That's my motorcycle reality and life is my motorcycle that I love to take apart into the minutest detail so that I can see. It's about just taking everything apart and putting it back together, it's about taking the phone call that I made with Kristin and taking it apart and scoring every moment and putting it to music and every single word – it's not a joke you know, it's not a joke for us, let's take this stupid language and let's make a song for people to laugh at it. That's not what we're interested in. We're interested in taking this language and taking this amount of time and sculpting it – because when you make music you have to sculpt it. There's no improvisation, it's not just free-form.
And identity is funny being yourself is funny as you are never yourself to yourself except as you remember yourself and then of course you do not believe yourself. That is really the trouble with an autobiography you do not of course you do not really believe yourself why should you, you know so well so very well that it is not yourself, it could not be yourself because you cannot remember right and if you do remember right it does not sound right and of course it does not sound right because it is not right. You are of course never yourself.
It is a funny thing about addresses where you live. When you live there you know it so well it is like identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing and then you live somewhere else and years later, the address that was so much an address that it was a name like your name and you said it as if was not an address but something that was living and then years afer you do not know what the address was and when you say it it is not a name any more but something you cannot remember. That is what makes your identity not a thing that exists but something you do or do not remember.
Identity always worries me and memory and eternity.
Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Autobiography