nature theater of oklahoma
IN SUMMER 2016, DUBLIN-BASED THEATRE MAKER DICK WALSH VISITED KELLY COPPER AND PAVOL LIŠKA, FOUNDERS OF PERFORMANCE GROUP NATURE THEATER OF OKLAHOMA, IN THEIR APARTMENT IN NEW YORK. THEY TALKED ABOUT WHY THEY STAY IN THE CITY, ONLY EATING EVERY SECOND DAY AND WHY ARTISTS COVERING UP IS MORE POLITICAL THAN ARTISTS GETTING NAKED.
Dick: So the question I want to ask is a simple one: Why are you in New York? Why do you make art in New York?
[Silence. Followed by laughter.]
D: Is that a bad question? Is it a good one?
Pavol: Well we would do it anywhere.
P: This is just where we live. It’s our home.
D: So it’s as simple as that, yeah.
P: Yeah, there’s no real reason. If I didn’t like it here I’d move and continue to do it elsewhere… I did it in Oklahoma, I did it in Slovakia, I did it in New Hampshire.
D: Maybe it’s as simple as that, yeah. But the whole history, tradition here means nothing? Like, why did you come to New York in the first place?
P: Well, of course yeah, but that’s like a silly adolescent urge or ambition, because you think that’s going to solve all your lack of talent.
D: Yeah, yeah, yeah [laughs].
P: You go where the disease is – you want to get infected, so you go where others work who you want to be like. There are very few artists that come out of Oklahoma. And you don’t have the balls at that time to say ‘I’m going to be the first guy from Oklahoma and then everybody’s going to come to Oklahoma…’
D: Yeah, you’re gonna put it on the map.
P: When you want to make theatre, everybody tells you going to New York is what you should do. You go to school and then people make trips to New York, or to London. They tell you in the English speaking world these are the places where you want to be to make theatre.
Kelly: And if you want to make movies it’s LA.
P: When we’re somewhere else, and then we come back home, it’s like ‘oh thank god, I see brown people and I’m the only white person on the subway’. It's a whole world, it’s not a limited world. Maybe in Europe, you are with your friends that are cultured, people who don’t really watch TV because that’s dirty and they read books and stuff and talk smart…
D: That’s good, it’s good to have those people around.
P: It’s good to have those people around but they’re all white and they’re all doing ok and you don’t see other kinds of people, and you enjoy it and then you come back here and you see ‘oh, there are other kinds of people'. This is a more complete universe. You don’t have to be so strictly preoccupied with yourself and your own class and background, you can step outside of yourself a little bit.
K: I think when we first moved here what attracted me was the density of people.
D: Right yeah.
K: One block is Asian restaurants and the next block is Indian restaurants and it’s all compacted into this really small space. I think there are other cities for sure that are diverse, but here everybody is all up in each others’ business and sometimes there’s garbage next to the artwork, and sometimes you can’t tell the difference, and I like that.
D: I haven’t been here before, but my impression is that Manhattan is pretty homogeneous, no? You walk around and it’s all middle class white people.
P: We don’t go there, you know. You came here right?
D: [laughter] Ah yeah, in a way, it’s a boring kind of conversation, people talking about property you know, ‘what’s nice about New York?’ In a way I was more thinking about the political aspect, it being the centre of power, all the financial stuff happens here, politics happens here…
K: Politics really doesn’t happen here, we feel so alienated watching all this shit.
P: We are no longer talking to any of that.
D: Ok… so you’ve made the decision to…
P: No, no, not us, I mean we want to, but artists in general we’re just too pathetic… sadly we don’t talk to that dynamic, the financial struggles or political struggles, none of that really… we have been castrated. We mean nothing to them. They’re too powerful for us to really even ruffle any feathers.
D: I suppose artists before could be controversial, they would break social boundaries, take their clothes off, it got attention…
P: There’s pornos everywhere now… Taking your clothes off is like…
D: Yeah, it’s gone now.
K: It’s off the table.
P: You have to do the opposite. I feel like the business of politics has gotten so flamboyant and over the top that an artist at this particular juncture needs to do the opposite and retreat into a monastic, ascetic lifestyle. Cover up and do something completely the opposite.
D: Yeah, yeah, I would agree.
P: You know, I just want to work fourteen hours a day, I don’t want to party, I don’t want to go out, I want to penetrate some other form of experience. Whereas it used to be the business people who were conservative and art needed to break through it, the craziest people now are business people and politicians.
K: And probably the most perverse.
P: Yeah… you almost feel like… it is like the Islamic world is almost a reaction to that. You want to be repressive on yourself, you want to put restrictions. I don’t want freedom, I want strict rules for myself.
K: It’s the promise of power to the powerless, you know, the kid and the teenager that nobody is listening to.
D: He can actually be who he wants to be… a lot of artists get into art for that reason as well, so they can be something they’re not.
K: I think maybe another issue with that too is that art, at least here, but I think also everywhere, it’s just artists talking to artists, it doesn’t affect the businessmen because they don’t even come see it. And it’s not for them. It’s its own ghetto.
D: But it’s not dangerous anymore, so…
P: No, nothing you’re going to do… unless you’re preoccupied with that and you’re trying to figure out how can I do that… people are not looking at the history, you know. And when we came here, there were people that were ruffling feathers and that’s what was exciting, it was a Mecca of that radicalism in the arts, but that’s gone, that tradition is gone, they don’t even know about those people. What people ask us, companies starting out, is ‘can I have your mailing list?’, ‘how do you get to do touring?’ … is that what you’re asking me? Get your own fucking mailing list, make good work first and see what happens. People don’t care about the work, they just care about making it.
K: Making it… not making the work but making, like…
D: Being successful, yeah.
K: When I first came here as a student the people that, rightly or wrongly, were my idols were not in any way, shape or form making it. We would go visit them and they’re living in a shoebox with a cat eating some pizza off the floor, there was no illusion that there was any possibility of going anywhere with this. You kind of figured out what your day job was going to be and if you really wanted to do it you had to find some other reason. I knew Richard Foreman toured and the Wooster Group toured but they were twenty years older than me … and it wasn’t like they were rolling in dough or anything.
D: It’s a good exercise for people anyway, to ask that question of themselves, why are you doing it?
P: But it’s all about who your heroes are. I’ve never had a hero who’s successful. Whether it’s a filmmaker or a writer…
D: Alfred Hitchcock isn’t your hero.
P: No. So I know that if I go see a film, it’s not like there’s a line around the corner for it…
K: It’s usually one or two people.
P: So I know that if that’s who I want to be like, it’s not going to happen for me. It happened by accident.
K: Yes, it happened by accident.
P: It happened because I guess it felt fresh.
K: We had an offer from Soho Rep, they were going to give us some money, after we’d done some kind of version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters for a school project, they wanted a one hour ninety minute long version of Shakespeare. They called us to their office to offer to fund something new, and what they wanted was the same kind of thing but with Shakespeare. And we made a conscious decision that we don’t want to do that and the next show we did was called No Dice because we were saying no … and we got the rehearsal space in exchange for that show by agreeing to make a show with kids so we could use their theatre at night and we didn’t have to pay any money. We weren’t trying to climb to the next success. It turned out that when we rejected that, we made something that people wanted in some weird way. And also that was luck.
D: Are you considered successful? Are you successful? I mean, I don’t know.
P: Yeah. You consider it successful if you look at the stats.
D: Stats, yeah. You’re touring the world.
P: People ask you to do work. But who considers themselves successful? You still know you got to get up in the morning, go to that desk and try to do something. I just always like to work, so for me, it’s all just a distraction.
K: Success for me was when somebody wanted the next thing because you have to just keep working and then it was a whole other thing when I could choose not to take another job. Because suddenly for the first time we had two incomes which we never had before, because one of us was always working.
D: I’m a very poor man but I get enough money for making art and I’m allowed do what I want… So your solution is monasticism and an ascetic existence?
P: We only eat every other day.
D: Is that what you do? Really?
P: Today is just coffee.
K: Yeah, there’s no day without a coffee so it’s always a good day.
P: Tomorrow we eat.
D: And would you just eat one meal tomorrow?
P: No, we eat regular.
D: You’ll have three meals tomorrow? I’ve heard that fasting’s a good thing but I thought it was do it for three days.
K: Yeah, I don’t think I could do it for three days, but I can do it every other day and it’s a break from cooking. We don’t go out that much.
D: Did we answer the question?
P: Why New York? I don’t know, I mean you can change the question.
D: Was it a good question? I’m not too sure.
P: When you’re in college, you wonder 'where am I going to go?' So then you say ‘I’ll go to New York’, because you don’t stay in college and that’s where people go. And then you get here and you either like it or you don’t.
D: It’s a banal decision really. Any Buddhist will tell you the centre of the world is you, you are it. This idea of a location is just another dream. 'If only I was there, if only I had these friends or this money'.
K: It is funny… I never travelled really until we were asked to go places. It was interesting to me…
D: You’re from New York, Kelly, are you?
K: My family is mostly in California, so I went as far away from that as I could. But I never really got a sense of what it was to be American until I went other places and then they would tell you you’re so American or you’re so this or that and you start to realise ... I really felt like this became my home when I had to leave it.
D: When I came to America first I was 20. I’d been to other countries and it’s always that feeling with a new country, 'this is weird, this is strange', but when I came to America, there was none of that. I think because I was so used to it from the TV, it was like ‘this feels like home’.
P: Do you want coffee?
D: I would drink another coffee, yeah.
K: That question that you’re asking, it’s an interesting one now that you can be so many places at once too. That OK Radio stuff was all started just as an attempt to connect all of these different people and places we were encountering and make some kind of virtual homeland or something. Which you can almost do.
D: That was the pleasure of listening to it as well – it was intimate with a lot of people.
K: Yeah, it was everywhere and nowhere at the same time, an electronic file people can just plug into. I feel like that’s changed too.
D: But you stopped doing it over the last few years?
K: Yeah, we stopped doing it. We found ourselves asking ourselves the same question over and over, and it was a deeper question about what are we doing with our work and we finally needed to stop talking about it and address something. So we did. But we haven’t felt the need to talk more again. I think we found ourselves talking in circles about the same thing and you realise ‘oh, I’m really preoccupied with this, so I’ll stop talking.’
D: What are you working on now, or what are you doing?
K: Right now we’re making films, this last summer we did it for the first time, we went to this rural area in Germany, and … [voice drowned out by coffee grinder]
K: I felt it was a chance to plug into a place and a people that would be something other than watching some shows. We went there and we remade the Die Nibelungen myth based on what we found there and then we cast it. The guy who played Siegfried was an asylum seeker from Cape Verde. And his love interest was a sixty-year-old woman who worked in a hearing aid factory, so it was a cross-section. We worked in people’s homes and we went by bike together and people would host us in their homes and we’ve been editing that into a movie that we’ll come back and share with them in September. So there’s this social live art kind of time that we’re in for a month, and also a time to be by yourself and sort through all that, and then a time to plug in with them again.
D: And the result is a movie, that’s not a documentary but actually a story?
K: It’s actually a story. But at the same time it has a lot of its own making in it. People keep saying ‘You’re not making live work anymore’, but at the same time I think when we stopped writing and started recording actual speech, it’s kind of the same thing. We’re stopping making theatre but we’re recording us working in a theatrical way and then we’re using that recorded material in a way that will hopefully be something new for us.
D: Your work is about going deeper in some way always, no? Using time to… I don’t know what the phrase is. So it’s not inconsistent.
K: It doesn’t feel inconsistent to me but people are like ‘So you’re giving up on theatre, you’re not doing theatre any more’. And I say I feel like we’re making theatre more than ever, but we’re actually digging more into the part of theatre that interests us, which is the making of it and the rehearsal process, not the trying to repeat it night after night. That what was so…
P: I do nothing different than what I did before, except I change one equipment for another and that’s that. I still do exactly the same…
D: The same process.
P: But people don’t understand that. But that’s fine, I don’t expect them to.
K: I think we’re still learning how to talk about it in a way that will make it understandable but it was great to do it.
P: Hopefully you just show them and they understand you know – you don’t even need to talk about it. You just need one person to trust you a little bit and then we got that and then you tell people ‘just come and see what we’re doing’.
K: There were people who had heard stories that we were divorced or one of us was in the mental hospital.
P: I think that’s fine, you know. We’ve quit many times before and will again. You have to in order to clear the slate. It’s an artistic strategy that has worked for us and we’ll continue to use it.
D: To give up, to quit?
P: To quit… yeah, we quit in ’98 and… we always quit. And we quit to the world… so then people leave you alone you know.
K: And then you get depressed…
P: No, not depressed, you’re busy. I have no existential crisis, I’m working you know.
K: In a way, it’s good to go through the phase where nobody’s knocking down your door, you feel unimportant. Whatever illusions of grandeur you might have had get swept away.
D: You can’t deny it, that expectation and demand. You can’t pretend it’s not there.
K: Weirdly, the one thing we always did when we stopped making work and then we would start again, we would always go back to The Seagull. We’ve done three different versions of it.
D: Have you yeah? I’m not really an actor but I’m in that play and I’d never read it before being asked to do it. It’s one of those plays that keeps revealing things.
K: You can come back to it again and again.
D: Before I go on stage, I always worry, how can I do this, I might be able to get through tonight, but how do actors do this 50 times, 100 times… did you find that doing your own shows 100 times, did it still stay alive or did it die?
P: Well, that’s why we made it. It’s like a sporting event. So you follow rules and you’re playing a game…
D: And you try to achieve it as well as you can.
P: … sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But it’s like a football match. It’s not like ‘I played the football match already I don’t know how I’m going to get myself excited to do another one’. Because you’re not going to play the same match.
More on Nature Theatre of Oklahoma here. Images: Al Higgins