Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska of Nature Theater of Oklahoma on their series Life & Times, new episodes of which will be presented this September by FIAF as a part of its Crossing the Line festival.
Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska, the directors of Nature Theater of Oklahoma, have charged themselves with the task of transforming material that by most standards would be deemed insignificant—16 hours of phone conversations during which Kristin Worrall tells the story of her life—into an epic performance that will eventually consist of ten episodes spanning 24 hours. The show is Life & Times and this September, French Institute Alliance Française will present Episodes 4.5 & 5 as a part of its Crossing the Line festival. Each episode of Life & Times has its own distinct context, but these two in particular mark a shift in the show’s trajectory. For these episodes, Copper and Liska used older forms of animation and bookmaking to create performances without actors. Always diving into unknown forms and challenges, Copper and Liska’s dedication to seeing the potential for performance in everything intrigued me. So what happens when you take an ordinary life and, as Kelly said, “claim more spectacle [for it] than you have a right to?” Well, it’s the Life & Times experiment—an invitation to reconsider what and how we value. In the conversation that follows, we discuss the impact of scale, the art of rotoscopy, and dealing with the middle.
Lauren Bakst I was re-reading the interview that Young Jean Lee did with you guys for BOMB a few years ago, and one of the things that you spoke about, Kelly, was this question of, “When does something become theatre?” or, “What’s the least thing we can do and have it be a show?” . . . In working with animation, drawing, and bookmaking for Episodes 4.5 & 5, do you find that those questions are still relevant for you? Are you approaching these mediums as theatre?
Kelly Copper Yeah, we are approaching them as theatre but also thinking about where these are in relation to the other episodes, because we’re always thinking about performing them consecutively. For instance, episodes one through four are always actors on stage, dancing, singing, acting, but always actors in front of an audience. We’re thinking about what it needs to become at this point. The audience has built up this relationship with the actors, but we needed to make a turn here—as artists. And we also needed the audience to make a turn here. We usually start this episode around 12:30 in the morning, and it’s mid-way through the work. It’s probably eventually going to be 24 hours when we perform it all together. We definitely wanted ourselves to break from working with actors on stage. At the end of Episode 4, Kristin talks about taking her first art class, and there’s mention of drawing with markers, so we were in a way taking our cue from the end of Episode 4. These things were all mentioned, and it’s kind of a turning point for Kristin, this person that we interviewed. So it seemed like a good jumping off point for us. Originally, Episode 4.5 was the end of the fourth episode (fourth phone call). That’s why it’s called Episode 4.5, and we decided to do it as an animated, hand-drawn film. What we found was that we couldn’t make the jump in the performance to showing an animated film. Ideally, what would have happened is that a giant white screen would have dropped down between the audience and the actors, and it would have changed magically into a movie, but we could never manage that transition technically, so we needed to end the performance of Episode 4, take the audience out of the theatre, and completely switch the environment. We decided to include Episodes 4.5 & 5 together as an entirely new thing.
LB I also read that the animated film incorporates re-tracings from a home movie. How does the home movie material or the other visual images, such as the illuminated manuscript, relate to or juxtapose where Kristin is in the story of her life?
KC Well, there’s a three-minute segment that’s being shown in Times Square for Midnight Moment that comes from the animated film, and that segment is from a particular home movie of ours, but a lot of the animations which are in Episode 4.5 are not from the home movie, but are retraced still images. We used an older form of animation called rotoscopy, invented by Max Fleischer in 1917 for the Betty Boop cartoons, where animators would retrace images from film (or in our case, video). And for much of Episode 4.5—what we’re making—it’s kind of an animated still. What we did was try to draw the same image over and over again, and what you get when you put all these same hand-drawn images over and over and over, is that the image wobbles and it ripples and it bubbles. It doesn’t stay still because we’re imperfect at drawing these things. Even a perfect tracing is impossible to make. It’s animated by our errors, and most of it is from stills or sequences of stills. There’s only one segment in there that’s fully animated from a video.
LB How did you guys choose the stills? Where were they pulled from? What was that process like?
KC We used some personal images, because we were working on this separately, away from the actors. A lot of the material is about the family cat, so I used a lot of images of our own cats because they were with us in the home, and we could take pictures of them as needed. Also, when friends would drop by, sometimes we would enlist them; I needed an image of someone holding a phone, so somebody held a phone for me, and we took pictures of that for the movie. Some images were also sourced off the internet. I needed images from a science class, so I found them online. For those parts of the movie, we’re not sourcing from ourselves, we’re using other people’s personal images. I’m also re-tracing a few images of commercial products. There’s an entire section of the text devoted to complexion and facial cleansers, so, for instance, I found an image of Noxema online and retraced that over and over and over again…
LB You guys are both really used to being in a studio with actors and developing things through that practice of all being in a room together, and it’s such a different practice to be re-tracing these images.
Pavol Liska Well, it’s the same process really. Actors are also a kind of material, when you work with them, and the same as a piece of paper or an image. It’s just a different side of the same work. We are providing ingredients. In theater, too, you have image, you have movement, you have language, and we’re providing all of that. We’re just giving the audience the ingredients to make the performance for themselves here, whether it’s with a book or whether it’s with an animated film. It’s time-based, and it’s for a theater audience. We of course hope that others will come as well, but we understand that we are making it as part of Life and Times, and we’re working with the idea that people would have seen, as Kelly said, a musical and a dance and a melodrama and a murder mystery, in the episodes previous to this.
LB Since you brought up the idea of a theater audience, there’s also the intervention in Times Square that you mentioned, and I was curious about how you think the work changes in that context, or what it does differently.
PL Well, you have an unintentional audience, people who are not there to see it; so, to have it projected on so many jumbotrons in Times Square, where people are used to a certain type of commercial advertising, might have a strange sort of impact. I don’t know what impact; I have no experience with this kind of public intervention. It’s definitely an experiment.
KC The process of making the animation was such a monumental effort, just to make a three-minute long segment that contains over 1,300 images. I did the math the other day, and if we would have drawn an image every day for just that one three-minute segment we show in Times Square, it would have taken us over three years to complete. And it’s really plain material; we were testing out a new video camera, and I was just running around the apartment with the cat, and you can’t even see us very well in the original video, so we were kind of tracing this really dark figure. But it’s just the process of attempting to retrace this really poor material. The process, in a way, mirrors what we’re doing when we work with performance; we’re taking what people would say is really garbage material, and so meticulously and insistently going over and over it, and putting the work in to transform it. It’s the activity—the devotion and commitment, the effort—that creates the importance for this really garbage material. It’s throwaway, it’s found, but we’re claiming importance for it, and creating a space and time and consideration for it. Something about putting it in Times Square on so many jumbotrons, and exposing people to it who haven’t bought a ticket, seems like an important iteration of that work.
LB Yeah, it seems exciting. I want to go to Times Square. Now I have a reason to go.
KC In a way, I have no idea what it will look like. I’ve tried to imagine it, and we’ve talked with the guy who’s formatting it for all the screens, but it will be a curiosity to me to even see it on such a different scale.
LB It’s interesting because it’s both on a really large scale in terms of size and space, but it’s also so much smaller in duration than everything else, so it’s almost this inverse of how the other performances occur.
KC We used to have this animation on a much smaller scale inside the Episode 4 performance—and that was part of our problem with it to begin with. We just wanted it blown up as big as possible on a movie screen, and it was meant as a different kind of exploration of scale, which is something that has been important to us in Life and Times, claiming scale for what people would say is an insignificant life story. It’s definitely not the life story of a great man of genius, like these things usually are, so it’s going to be all about scale. It’s all about claiming more time, more size, more spectacle than you have a right to. Once we got it up on a larger screen, it was so exciting to me. As we were drawing on these little 4×6 cards, you try to imagine it . . . And then, of course, Episode 4.5 differs a lot from Episode 5.
LB Yeah, I was just going to ask about that.
KC Episode 5 does involve a live performance of sorts. It’s a live organ concert, so there is a performer on stage, but—and I don’t know how much we want to give away about it here—the light is really on the audience, and the performance really shifts, for us, from the stage, to the screen, and finally out into the house.
PL The audience has to create their own performance, and they have to do a good job for themselves. We give them all the ingredients; we give them the images, we give them the language, we give them the light. They possess a kit. They make a performance for themselves, and it’s up to them to shape the experience, so it’s an experiment in allowing the audience to shape their own theatrical experience.
KC It’s interesting for me to just watch it happen. We’ve only done it a few times now, but, because the audience is in possession of their own light sources, they do watch each other. I’ve noticed that they watch each other, and it becomes about who’s looking at the book, who’s looking at the performance, who’s leaving—who’s had enough, you know? Whether they know it or not, they are the actors in this one. And the questions we’re dealing with are really private and public. We have been using this person’s private life, and private stories, so far, as material, and the audience has been experiencing that, and consuming that story as if it was the most natural thing in the world, but here, hopefully, it gets much more complicated. In this particular moment in time, with Facebook and Twitter, etc., there really is a very thin line between private and public—for everyone. Or we’re desensitized to the idea of privacy, and I guess I want to reintroduce, or sharpen this feeling, articulate some discomfort—some static between public and private.
LB Pavol, what you were describing, about how the audience has this kit and then they have to make the performance; that seems related to how you guys work in a process. You have these certain materials or sources, these rules, this kit, and then you build this performance from there.
PL We usually try to write ourselves a check we can’t cash, or give ourselves something to do that we don’t feel we are proficient in, or don’t feel like we have a right to do. So, for sure, neither Kelly nor I are proficient at drawing. We learned how to do it while we did this episode. We didn’t find out, like, “Hey! We’re great at drawing.”
KC (laughter) “Let’s draw!”
PL No, we found out that we have no idea how to draw, so: “Let’s do this.”
KC It’s what we usually do to the actors—although we do it to ourselves to a certain extent in every episode—but this is definitely us doing it to ourselves, and to the audience in Episode 5, as well. We’re giving them a complicated experience to sort for themselves.
LB I’m also curious about where you are in the process of the whole series. Have you guys already begun working on the next episode?
PL Yeah, we’re working on Episodes 6, 7 and 8.
LB Wow. Now that you’re in the middle of it, are there things that you’re looking forward to, or fantasizing about?
PL Everything. We always need to define circumstances for ourselves that we can look forward to. It would be a miserable life if we were stuck in something that we couldn’t look forward to.
KC And the actors, too. I think that if there wasn’t always a new challenge with every episode, I don’t know if any of us would have a reason to go on. So, we’re finding a way that we can continue to challenge the audience and ourselves, and maintain a high level of interest and excitement about what we do.
LB Do you feel like your relationship to Kristin’s story has changed over time, or is it that you’re just always re-encountering these new parts of her life, and that keeps propelling it forward?
PL The story for me is a red thread that the audience can follow across this expanse of time, and then, around this red thread, we can put many different types of events. So, the red thread is there for the audience. Of course, we read this text, and our relationship to it changes, and we are always look for new ways of turning it because after dealing with it in one way for three hours, you have to find another way to turn it, because like Kelly said, the material itself is poor. It’s garbage material. It’s not good enough, so we have to work all that much harder to make it worthy, to create value for it. So, how do you create value for something that is not seen as having value? That’s what we struggle with and what the project is really about.
KC And how do you not let the audience get ahead of you? In a way, I’ve felt like after eleven or twelve hours of performance, I didn’t want to make it so easy for them either. Every time they leave the theater, you want them to come back in, and say: “You thought you knew what it was…”—and now it’s this, and now it’s this, and now it’s this. We started with an all white set in Episode 1, and actors in identical grey, and then it’s all black in Episode 2, and everyone’s in a different color, and it’s even a completely different set for Episode 3 and Episode 4—you’ve got an entirely new room, and then they come back in for Episodes 4.5 & 5 and it’s a large white screen, and there’s no stage space at all. You have to do that constant work to keep it alive. Because it’s such poor material, it’s dead in the water. With Episode 6 we’re trying again to assess, like you said: “What is the least you can do and still make it a performance?” And, in a way, we were thinking that Episode 6 would be the most minimal and most stripped away.
We played with this idea a little bit with audiences in Berlin. We did a couple of works in progress this past month, in July, and what we learned was that we were teetering on the edge of it not being anything. And then you go back from there and you think: what step from here do I need to make in order to have it be a performance again? But there is something about the middle, it just feels like it wants to change and change and change, and then there is something that gets completely stripped away. How do you build it back up from scratch again, knowing really nothing? The middle is something that we keep thinking about and keep turning around, and Episodes 4.5 & 5 are definitely the middle, and Episode 6, really, as well. Dealing with the audience in the middle was a challenge we wanted to take on, and, though we’re not really doing the whole marathon here again this September in New York, when we do Episodes 1-5, it’s just going to be a different kind of audience in the end. There’s something that’s going to be kind of worn away or bottomed out at this point in the evening, and what do you do with that kind of attention?
PL Does the middle feel like a more meditative space?
PL Well, the responsibility shifts in the room. The expectation that I’m doing it to you wears away, and you just take responsibility for your own entertainment, as an audience.
KC After a while, it’s not entertaining, or it just can’t be that anymore. On some level, the experience has to change. What you’re there for has to change, the stakes and your reason for being there—not just the audience—our reasons, too.
For more on the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and the Life and Times project, go to their website. Episodes 4.5 & 5 will be presented September 20th and 21st as a part of the Crossing the Line festival—buy tickets here.
Lauren Grace Bakst makes dances and organizes conversations.