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Can You Tell the Story of Romeo and Juliet?

Can You Tell the Story of Romeo and Juliet?

Gurur Ertem interviews Kelly Copper of Nature Theater of Oklahoma.

With their humorous reinvention of Romeo and Juliet, The New York based theater troupe Nature Theater of Oklahoma picks up from the last edition of iDANS which explored temporality in the arts, and brings us to the festival’s current focus. The work will be performed on October 10th and 11th atIstanbul State Theater’s Tekel Stage in Uskudar at 20:30.

In this delightful remake/retake of a classic on love which reintroduces theater an imaginative and dynamic concept of text, Nature Theater of Oklahoma displays a theater of theatrics, an interpretation of an interpretation, inquiring into the narrative construction of life, love, and the self as well as exposing the creativity involved in lightening up the blind alleys of memory.

Kelly Copper, who directs the company with her partner Pavol Liska, answers my questions concerning the trajectory of their career and their art.

You are praised both by the press and by the transnational theater and performance professionals as one of New York’s, and even, one of the world’s, most talented and interesting ensemble theater companies of the day. Obviously, this is the result of a difficult artistic and economic trajectory, [as you mention in some of your interviews and cite in some of your recent works such as No Dice.]. Could you tell us a bit about the journey into this high moment of your career? You had some off-setting moments, and re-inspiring, encouraging ones. Why did you get involved in theater, why were you discouraged to the point of quitting theater altogether, and what brought you back to it?

We often get touted as a new young company, but we have actually been making work for 16 years in New York, so it has been a long journey. We stopped making theater from 1998 to 2002. It was economically difficult, and we had exhausted ourselves and our friends trying to make work which would be on the same level as the Wooster Group or other companies we felt were doing exciting things. We thought at that time that to make the sort of work we wanted to make without compromise we needed — you know — 8 microphones, speakers, televisions, lights, costumes, etc. And we just didn’t have the resources. We didn’t have the space to make that sort of work. So we switched to smaller, more private art — photography, documentary — and then a friend of Pavol’s offered him an empty shoe store for 3 months to make something new. He worked with whatever was in the room, we used photo lights instead of theater lights — two metal chairs — and that was it. And it was a new start. After giving theater up for four years — you realize that the most essential element for performance is the audience, the room, and the time — the event. It can be life changing even without microphones — and it’s different and more exciting than any other art as the work is made over every night in the presence of the audience. There’s a great deal of power in this moment, and — you don’t need all the toys. After that one performance, we chose theater again and haven’t looked back.

You are touring extensively – to present in very diverse contexts. Some of the contexts are those who offer new productions and co-productions from relatively traditional theater institutions, and some are festivals, like ours, and venues, which, while retaining the dance word in their title, are trans-disciplinary in scope. What observations, if not conclusions, do you have about these different contexts? How does it matter for you to work in/with contexts and venues who self-identify themselves with a particular focus/theme/genre?

I think just due to the nature of some of our work, we regularly present outside of traditional theater spaces — so even if we are commissioned by a traditional theater, we will often ask them to find us a space which is not a theater in which to present work. So — it’s more diverse in context than you know! We have really enjoyed the opportunity to share work with so many different audiences. I learn something about the work each time — when you are working outside your own language, outside your own environment — you have to discover what about the project also transcends its own place. Festivals are some of our favorite environments just because they do offer a common ground for many different disciplines and types of art, and the audience is usually quite open to have a new experience, which is best.

What are the elements that comprise the “choreographic” in your works? What is your take on “choreography” under the light of all of its expanded and re-formulated versions?

Choreography for us includes all physical movement, gesture, emotion. Often in traditional theater, these are improvised, but for us emotion, too, can be choreographed. In one of our pieces, the actors stand in front of the audience and go through a series of 8 emotional states. They must go through them in order, but the change from one to the other is prompted by the audience or by another actor. The emotion is “real” but also totally choreographed. Similarly in most of our shows, every movement the actor makes is choreographed. Choreography is the rules — and then the job for the performer is to find freedom within this incredibly complex system. Its a theater which models itself very much on life — we live our lives within an incredible amount of limitation.

Since you are visiting Istanbul for the first time, could you remind once more to the audience who may be curious, about the name you chose for your company? You are a company based in New York, and your works for reasons I save for the next question are so “New York”. Why are you “Nature Theater of Oklahoma?”

The name is taken from the last chapter of Kafka’s novel Amerika. The hero, Karl, has come to America in search of a new life, but he is tossed from bad job to bad job, and his situation is very bad. Then he sees an advertisement to join the “Nature Theater of Oklahoma” — they have a job for everyone, even with no experience, and it’s a very mysterious theater with angels blowing trumpets — not at all a realistic atmosphere, and we don’t really know in the end if Karl is saved or not because the novel is not finished, but ends with him in a train bound for Oklahoma. Oklahoma is also where Pavol first lived when he came alone to America from Slovakia at age 18. In a situation very much like Karl’s!

Your works exude a “New Yorkerness.” I use the term to denote both by some traces of the artists you say you were inspired by such as John Cage and Allan Kaprow (interview, Bomb), and also because of the practical exigencies you had to face in your artistic life in a city competing for really scarce resources – very similar to most independent performance groups’ and festivals like ours’ experiences in Istanbul. Could you comment on this? And, how have the conditions of production change for you, if at all, after you got artistic recognition in Europe?

I think the more we have performed and made work outside of New York and America, the more I have an idea (from outside) of what there is that is “american” or “new york” about us. This using the material of everyday life to make art I think is relatively American (taken from European dada, but really developed and grown up in America by people like Cage, Kaprow, etc….) It strikes me (as we are now in Vienna making a new show) that in Europe art is more a part of everyone’s lives, but life is not so often incorporated into the artmaking. You have more audience for theater and museums, etc. — in America, its a small part of the population that has this regular contact with “culture”. But we easily transition from high to low, and from life to art. There is not so much of a barrier.

As we have received more interest abroad in our work, I think this has helped stimulate interest in some of the arts centers in the US who are tuned into European circles. We have been invited to a few places in the US outside of New York, so our work is more widely seen in our own country than previously, but it has not, nor can ever really change our circumstances in a meaningful way I think. We will not suddenly be given a space of our own I think in which to work. Still no one really knows much about what we do in Europe — and if they did — the situation in the US I think is not about to change. There will never be the state subsidy which keeps us going for the next 3 years. We do tour a lot — but it’s also because the only time we get paid is when we perform somewhere! The real struggle is in finding a balance between performing older work and making time and space and finding resources to keep making new work. That difficulty I think will be a permanent one for us.

Narratives and narrativity play an important role in your works. But, it is a kind of narrativity, which is not an attempt to tell a story, but to expose the narrative construction of the self, of life, etc. How did you arrive at that? What is the significance of oral histories for you? Do you consider yourself as urban anthropologists?

When you make experimental work — it’s often a question the audience asks: where is the story? Our early work was very fragmented and collage like in structure. People would always ask for story. And when we came back to theater, and came back really because of the audience — to engage again with a live audience — we wanted that to be a real relationship. So we delved into this idea of story. And since neither of us have ever been any good at it, Pavol started calling people and asking them to tell him a story. This started what has become a major fascination with narrative — and especially our primitive need for narrative starting with orally generated epics — perhaps some of the first theater performances ever created. Why do people gather around stories and what is their purpose? That is a big question for us.

How did you choose to work on a classic on love – Romeo and Juliet? Why this story and why now?

We originally wanted to tell a “love story” as it’s a very uncool topic for a bunch of experimental theater artists! We are always drawn to the forbidden, and this seemed like a good place to start. However, when Pavol asked people for a love story — Romeo and Juliet frequently came up as a reference or touchstone for people, and so he started to just ask them to tell this story. In the end, everyone remembers this story differently, but we all have some memory — some trace — we were interested to have something in common with the audience when they walk in the room — we all know this story — or do we? In the end, I’m not so much interested in the tale itself, but the conversation that it provokes. How can we use this story to get at something much deeper and common to all of us.

How did you get together as such a great and talented ensemble of performers?

It’s been years of struggle! And it is an extended family… there are people who are in one show and then leave us for a few years, people have had children and had to drop out, but we will all work together again. There is a core, and then there are so many others whom we love to work with. Now this family also includes 3 actors from the Burgtheater with whom we made our most recent show, Life and Times, — I hope life is a constant introduction to such people.Our lives are continuously enriched by the people we work with…

How can you work (because your work seems to involve really heavy labor with so many intricacies of text editing, stage blocking, timing, choreography of gestures, and they are not improvised, as you mentioned in an interview) while you are touring, and while you are working on several presentations of an older work and the premier of a new one all at the same time?

It’s very very difficult!! But we appreciate that we are doing what we love, and when you do what you love you find 26 hours in the day if you need them. There is time for everything. And old work can also enrich new work and vice versa. It is like that for us.

As directores of NTO, you are collecting texts, editing them, directing them and live-directing them and coaching, writing program texts all at the same time. In a way, you are taking on many roles and responsibilities of a dramaturge. What do you think of the role of a dramaturge? Would you ever consider working with one? (I am asking this because currently, there is a lot of debate at the European dance and performance about the role of a dramaturge, whether it is still valid or not, or, if it is being re-invented). What do you think of the role of the dramaturge? Is it relevant for you?

I think in American theater the role of a dramaturg is a fairly limited one. So we are not used to working with them — it’s mainly in regular theater the person who sits with the director when there is no playwright or the playwright is dead. It’s very tied to this idea of “playwright” which is also a bit dead.

In the end, the work needs many people, and for us all the roles are quite fluid. Pavol and I have performed in our own shows as well. I’m interested in expanding all of these ideas — and questioning all of these roles. What is a director if the actors are prompting each other to move from point A to point B? What is the role of author in a piece which is made from recorded telephone conversations? What is a performer when the lights of the stage are equally shining upon the audience? What is a set designer when the performance is set in an electronics store? I would say we seek to expand everyone’s role. The only constant is that Pavol and I as the directors are the instigators and the shapers of the performance event. The rest is more arguments for more conference debates…

What would you say to those independent theater/dance/performance collectives in Istanbul – who have more in common to those in New York [as far as I have known and experienced to those in Europe]. How should they keep up the courage and motivation?

You absolutely have to know for yourself why the work you do is important. I think that is the biggest difference between working in a place like New York (or Istanbul) and somewhere that has more ongoing support. Some people work within a culture that values and funds and supports theater and performance — others of us do not. If there is no one telling you that the work is worth anything, then it is up to you to discover how and why this work can again be at the center of a culture. For me, I have to believe that everything I make has the power to change people’s lives — my own life as well. That’s central. Know why you do it and what it’s good for, or you can very easily fall into despair when that value is not reflected back at you by the culture in which you work.

Do you have any questions for iDANS, and to the audience of Romeo and Juliet?

Can you tell me the story of Romeo and Juliet? ha ha! No, really — I have a lot of questions but it will wait for the performance.


Nature Theater of Oklahoma/Romeo and Juliet


İst. D.T. Üsküdar Tekel Sahnesi

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