Catching Up on a Lifetime: Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s LIFE & TIMES: EPISODE 8

By way of introducing Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life & Times: Episode 8, the opening event of this year’s Crossing the Line Festival on September 22, 2016, Pavol Liska asked audience members to raise their hands if they’d seen any of the previous seven episodes. Not many, he observed. But it was okay—he was going to catch all of us up on the story. (A wink and nod to those who had raised their hands; we rewarded him with a laugh.) Here it is, Pavol Liska’s Life & Times for Dummies:

  • Each episode is its own individual universe.
  • Each episode’s content comes from one of ten phone calls with company member Kristin Worrall, responding to the question “can you tell me the story of your life?”
  • Episode 1 leaves off when Worrall is about eight.
  • Episode 8 picks up with Worrall’s move to New York City to begin graduate studies at The New School.
  • But really, if you want to know what has happened in the earlier episodes, you can just imagine your own life—everything that happened to you before you were about twenty-four.

I was one of the audience members to raise my hand. In 2011, I saw the first two episodes of the project—conceived and directed by Liska and Kelly Copper—at Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin. For these early episodes, the staging consists of an ensemble of female and male performers, wearing gray and red, their bodies executing simple calisthenics that seem simultaneously random and repetitive. Watching the performance is a process of freeing yourself from expecting any type of linear story and, instead, listening to the accumulation of language. By splintering Worrall’s voice into many discontinuous bodies that take up her unedited, stream-of-consciousness story, Copper and Liska encourage audiences to splinter her voice, too, in any way we like. Her story is no fixed text, but a medium with which to work. I found myself slipping into a meandering mode of thinking shaped by the text I was hearing, though I’d drift in and out of active attention to the particulars. A story about Worrall’s neighbors would get me thinking about how I’d met the boys on my street during my own suburban childhood, our games of barrel tag and dodge ball, our clubhouse in the woods, things I hadn’t thought about in decades; I might follow that path of memory until it petered out and only then check back in with what was happening onstage, which would send me into a new memory spiral, or I might be diverted from a path by hearing a phrase that sparked a visceral reaction and sent me off in a new direction without my intent. Though I couldn’t repeat in full, after the show had ended, a single episode Worrall had recounted, I was in constant conversation with the text for the duration of the performance, finding my own path through it. Rather than inspire a search for narrative meaning that isn’t there, the aleatory staging of these episodes encourages audiences to surrender to the experience of listening, and to participate by following their own individual associations through the text.

 Life and Times – Episode 1 © Reinhard Werner

Life and Times – Episode 1
© Reinhard Werner

Episode 8 is a film. It directed my associative thought in ways that Episodes 1 and 2, with their calisthenics and small handheld hoops, had not. Worrall’s memories are still sung (by Ilan Bachrach, Asli Bulbul, Gabel Eiben, Daniel Gower, Robert M. Johanson, Elisabeth Conner Skjærvold and Kristin Worrall, in shifting permutations). They’re still unedited, but setting chops up the episode into discrete parts. It’s harder to lose yourself when there are images to hang on to, especially when these images, time and again, turn out to be quite literal in their reference to the text. During a rooftop party, we hear a story about a rooftop party. A church lends the section about giving up drinking an over-the-top solemnity. Worrall’s description of watching the World Trade Center burn across the water on 9/11 is sung from the Brooklyn Bridge with Manhattan’s altered skyline at the performers’ backs. The nonlinear flow of words is interrupted and, in some senses, linearized.

Life & Times, Episode 8 - photo used courtesy of Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Life & Times, Episode 8 – photo used courtesy of Nature Theater of Oklahoma

The film’s credits acknowledge the public locations where Copper and Liska filmed. None of you gave us permits, but we did it anyway. Thank you. I did spend a good portion of the two hours wondering how they got away with this or that, and though I suspect that might be a question about as interesting as asking an actor how she memorized all those words, the performers are upstaged by unwitting interlopers time and again. The interlopers range from a horse snorting under a performer in a field to a passenger giving another performer side-eye on a New York City subway, from construction workers mugging for the camera to a baby beginning to bawl at the mention of masturbation. There are good laughs in these moments. But as a whole, as we begin to anticipate unscripted encounters and work to interpret the relation of setting to text, the directors are controlling our gaze. It’s a mode more suited to film than live performance, it’s true. Our path through Episode 8 is directed, something the earlier, live episodes I’d seen never did (see Life & Times for Dummies, first bullet point). There’s a feeling that we should be trying to make sense of this whole thing. And certainly that’s a twenty-four-year-old’s kind of feeling. There must be layers we haven’t seen. Is the rooftop party actually a scene from How to Marry a Millionaire? When I watch the performers wading through hip-deep creek water or scattered in pastel across a golden field under a sunset, should I be thinking about Thomas Cole? Leave it to the eight-year-old to follow the flow without worrying about where it will take her, or if any of these things would have occurred to her if the program notes didn’t mention Cinemascope and the Hudson River School.

In the playbill, the artists’ note seems to refer to the project as complete. It tells us that, if we want to know about Episode 10, we can ask Copper and Liska about it while they make us a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (a post-show ritual they carried out at the reception until the last glasses of wine were being cleared from the table and the staff were firmly brightening the lights on the stragglers). I didn’t ask. Though I’m sure that the lure of consuming all ten episodes is one of the draws of the Life & Times project for some audience members, it feels beside the point to me. The task that the artists set themselves when they began Life & Times in 2007 is ultimately a personal one. We’re invited to look in, but our presence isn’t required. If we want to know how it ends, we can just imagine the rest of our own lives, for as long as we can bear to consider them.

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