Last winter, Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times saga took the New York theatre world by storm at the Public’s Under the Radar Festival. (Check out our review here.) Now they’re back with two more installments that ran this weekend at the French Institute Alliance Française.
Life and Times is based on a series of telephone conversations with company member Kristin Worrall about her life… so far. The result has been a series of theatrical episodes that uses Worrall’s story word-for-word, including the “likes,” “ums,” and incomplete thoughts that make up authentic human speech. The episodes are all genre-specific, and so far Nature Theater has tackled music, singing, dance, and Agatha Christie-esque mysteries as framing devices. Episodes 4.5 & 5 continue to push the theatre-making envelope. Episode 4.5 is a short animated film, with super titles of the dialogue on the screen. Said dialogue is actually sung, which is a welcome element from previous episodes. Episode 5 takes the form of an illuminated medieval-style manuscript.
While visual art may be the obvious theme of 4.5 & 5, the evening is still strongly theatrical. Before Episode 4.5, the audience is given manilla envelopes with instructions not to open them. At the start of Episode 5, a man dressed in a tuxedo with a blue cummerbund instructs the audience to open the envelope, which contains a flashlight, a book, and earplugs. While the man plays the keyboard set to sound like an organ (thus the earplug option), the audience has forty-four minutes and twenty-eight seconds to read the book. Reading a book in itself doesn’t seem theatrical; reading the same book in the cover of darkness in a theatre filled with people doing the same thing does. It feels as if we were all voyeurs, reading the narrator’s diary with a flashlight under the covers. This is no mistake, as we learn the narrator’s first diary, like the book in our hands, has a blue cover. The voyeurism is only intensified by the illustrations, Kama Sutra-stylings with likenesses of Nature Theater founders Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska in a variety of sexual positions. As Copper writes in the book’s afterword, it becomes a “Nature Theater sex tape.”
Episode 5 also takes on a scholarly edge. It’s as if the audience takes on the role of anachronistic scholars, as the electric-powered organ music accompanies calligraphied descriptions of a remodeled teenager’s bedroom. The countdown clock on the screen seems to promise a post-show exam.
Episodes 4.5 & 5 are relatively shorter than previous episodes, but the multimedia creation is a satisfying installment that excites, surprises, and takes us to the end of the narrator’s junior year of high school.
We round off our UTR coverage with the most unique and most ambitious play of the the 2013 lineup: Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times Marathon, a ten-hour play comprised of four episodes taken verbatim from one director’s phone call conversation with a cast member to recount her life story. And yes, it starts with day one.
Life and Times is truly a celebration of the everyday, mundane life. The first energetic, musical episode retracing the subject’s first 6 (ish) years of life, is just simply exuberant. It rejoices in the trivial details and reminiscences of childhood, whether it be the calming energy of a father, the tauntings of a brother, playing hooky from swim lessons, or a mean substitute teacher who causes one to wet one’s pants. What is it about one person’s personal, small experiences, which may seem so unimportant or too subjective to be inconsequential, that makes everyone suddenly moved to connect and remember their own memories, even if they are vastly different from those of the subject? It doesn’t make sense. But it happens in Life and Times. Never do you resentfully wish that someone with a more interesting life was interviewed, some kind of celebrity or something. Interesting is not at stake here. Neither is celebrity. We’re here to see the greatness, the adventure, in the everyday.
When we say verbatim, we mean verbatim. Every “um,” “erm,” “so,” “like,” etc. is reproduced, even emphasized at times. Sometimes an “um” is given its own note, harmony, and crescendo. It’s all part of the poetry of our subject’s (and our own) speech. It’s fantastic. I love my “ums” and “likes” now! In many ways, the marathon is also a case study in theatrical adaptation and conventions. I’d like to hear if some people felt like there were two voices in the piece- that of the woman on the phone generously telling her life story (imagined in our heads from reading the captions) and that of the artists. For me, the woman on the phone speaks quickly, nervously, a distance of years between her and her memories. The artists speak immediately, affectionately, deliberately, and slowly. The difference between the two illuminates what we do when do make a narrative out of someone’s real-life experiences.
I also endorse captioned performances like those in Life and Times for EVERY SHOW EVER becauseimnotagoodlistener
Episodes 1 and 2 are balanced in their joy and sincerity, striking a genuine chord with the audience. Episodes 3 and 4, on the other hand, are much messier (starkly different from the careful musical performances of 1 and 2). It feels a lot less fluid, a lot less reflective, and a lot more tedious. Yes, the “murder mystery” Agatha Christie-style shtick is fun and lends itself well to the subject’s more confessional teenage years. But the same plodding mood, the same melodramatic parodies for 2 and a half hours? Perhaps throw in some more genre-benders for 3 & 4, you know, instead of waiting for 5 and 6? Maybe some farce, some social manners, some Arthur Miller, some Harold Pinter, some Sam Beckett? You’ve got all of theater history to choose from.
Also, I hate to say this, but just because we’re taking the subject’s conversation verbatim doesn’t mean we must include ALL of it, or even do it chronologically. I could not wait to hear our subject’s memories on some more mature experiences-her first heartbreak, her first interview, maybe even her work as an artist. Alas, episode 4 ends at age 18. Word on the street is that Nature Theater plans to make over a dozen episodes to bring forth all the pieces of their subject’s memories. Because editing is nowhere to be found on their mission statement.
So um Life and Times attempts to capture the idiosyncrasies of, like, human speech… and turn oral storytelling into, um, a theatrical event.And it’s brilliant. UTR’s plays experiment with the idea of what theatre is and can be. This production is one of the main events of the Under the Radar Festival, and for good reason. Life and Times is huge both in length and in concept. The four episodes of Life and Times currently span about ten hours as a marathon (with more to come). And it’s mission to relate a telephone conversation to the audience–verbatim–is no easy task. The crafting of dialogue in the theatre is a language of its own. It has to establish the dramatic conflict and drive the story.
At first, Life and Times doesn’t seem to have any narrative arc, as the novelty of the “real speech” takes time getting used to. The cast doesn’t shy away from the inconsistent vulgarities of human speech–they revel in them. But in those “mistakes” come brilliance. The hesitation before an embarrassing childhood memory. The nervous laughter hiding the fear of an abusive father. The unexpected interruptions where she wonders–and we all wonder–if our stories are actually worth being told.The constant musicality of Episodes 1 and 2 were welcome, as they help give the narrative an emotional life. I was also taken with the “anti-choreography” of awkward limbs and grace-less plies that illustrated everything from solitude to sexual desire. Episodes 3 and 4 can use more development, as the English cozy mystery genre sometimes muted the actors’ performances.
Life and Times was my first experience with marathon theatre, and it was a fun one. The intermissions were accompanied by a dinner and dessert break (featuring awesome salted brownies). It made me think of the possibilities of theatre being an all-day event, where the audience could respond even more to the stories brought to them. I also wondered if the company members could utilize those intermissions in a more creative way, particularly with the ensemble members. Even after almost half-a-day of Life and Times, I still wanted more, and I look forward to future episodes, wacky genres, and “ums.”