Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Nature Theater of Oklahoma
Poetics: a ballet brut
“Everything is divisible by six,” Pavol Liska explained today in the noontime chat: Spectacle of the Everyday. And with that, I immediately understood why I couldn’t quite get my mind around what was so damn delightful about Wednesday night’s performance of Poetics: a ballet brut by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma.
I was delighted by so many moments, connected to it on many levels, and went to bed last night struggling with it—trying to put my ideas into nice little boxes. This box is how the use of space helps communicate something about the role of the audience. This box is for how their vocabulary of gestures points to the absurdity of our social conventions. A box for their spatial relationships, communicating how individuals desire both collective and isolated experiences. A pop culture commentary box to put their music, t-shirts, sneakers, Gatorade, and rolling office chairs. Visually sparse, with repetitive action and no traditional story line to follow it was easy to take note of these details and choices.
The more I thought about these boxes, though, the further away from the piece I felt. In the end, what really gripped me as I watched was a heightened awareness of being in a theater, in the presence of other people, while also being less aware that I was watching a performance. That sensation didn’t fit in any of my boxes. But, I still couldn’t pinpoint their agenda. For such an uncomplicated piece, this bothered me.
At the chat, Liska explained their early development process. He rolled dice to determine the length of scenes. He broke the stage into a grid. He used dice to determine how many times each performer would move during each scene. Since there would be 4 performers, he used a dreidel to determine which performers would appear in each scene. This initial script, pages and pages of numbers based in chance operations, provided an unemotional base on which to build the piece. Dice! A dreidel! Duh!
There I was, looking too hard for the philosophy. I was determined to find a political message, a worldview, something, anything, for the piece to be about. After hearing Liska and his company talk, I realized that this piece is ultimately about the process of creating this piece. It is about performance, both intentional performance on a stage and the performance inherent in our everyday activities. It is about this specific group of people reassessing their own poetics. The audience is not manipulated. There are no illusions or realism to believe. Poetics is more concerned with real life. The act of sitting in a theater is real life. The act of dancing in front of others is real life.
Kelly Cooper, Liska’s partner and co-director spoke to this, describing Nature Theater’s mission to get away from the psychological character. No matter how skilled an actor or how convincing a performance, you’re always aware of the actor playing the character. “It always seems so fake,” Cooper said.
“Ahhh,” said the audience.
Cooper continued, “We found ourselves enjoying being in the same room with them (the performers), enjoying them as human beings. We wanted to see their faces, wanted them to look at us.”
Building from their responses to numbers and chance sequences, the company successfully constructed an elaborate dance out of ordinary experiences. Standing. Waiting. Sleeping. Watching. Being watched. Michael Jackson. Poetics is not about the refined technique, convincing acting, or complicated story that drives our more familiar theatrical experiences. Poetics is about rediscovering why theater is of any interest at all: people in front of other people using what is familiar around us to communicate a message, to amuse. It is not so much what is being communicated that matters. Rather, what matters is presenting the desire and urgency of communicating.
The audience, seated on stage facing an empty house, is given an unfamiliar perspective of the theater space, and the performance extends into unexpected corners. The audience is forced to notice rather than escape the confines of the building. It is as if Nature Theater of Oklahoma treats the theater as an alternative performance space. Poetics asks the audience to notice and redefine their relationship to the action. In developing this piece, Liska and Cooper challenge the definition and role of the director, the actor, and the audience as well.
The result is a performance of honest, compelling, shared humanity. It is silly, and it is fun. Though humor is at the heart of every scene, Poetics never defaults to easy laughs or pure spectacle. Each element—from the gesture, to the use of space, to the methodology—is unexpected yet in careful service to the piece as a whole. Poetics is not made compelling by dramatic structure or emotionally manipulative elements. Poetics is compelling because it finds the spectacle, the juice in our everyday life—moving through space, looking at each other, being looked at, and noticing how multiple bodies in a room effect each other.
posted by Kirsten Collins

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6 Responses to Nature Theater of Oklahoma

  1. anna says:

    Kirsten,
    This is a great, thoughtful piece on Nature Theatre, and eloquently captures a number of similar thoughts I’ve been having. I wish I’d been at the workshop!

  2. Scott Millar says:

    Gosh. People can squeeze a little concept out of anything.
    The problem with pieces like this are: once you the joke is finished – what’s left? You can travel the loop with it and try to find some rationale, but I refuse to romance the past and rethink things in an attempt to make history seem more meaningful and enjoyable then it actually was.
    Although POETICS: A BALLET BRUT was well executed and well acted, the only response I had was amusement. It is essentially a trite little number masquerading as something more. You could milk the same concepts out of seeing STOMP.
    Even if the concepts you defined are valid – it is rather easy for a performance to comment on and challenge convention, but a lot harder to do something useful with the critiques.
    P.S. I may not agree with your writing on this but it was very well done!

  3. Kirsten says:

    Thanks for your comment, Scott. One reason I connected so well with the piece is that I’ve studied theatre, and continue to spend a lot of time watching plays and other performance pieces that just aren’t very good. So, I’ve found their critiques of conventional performance practices very useful. Though I’ve only seen it on TV (an awards show, maybe?), I think STOMP is based more in showmanship and challenging or flashy choreography. Also a fun show, but I think Poetics offers more depth than a pure entertainment piece. For me, Poetics demonstrated that it is possible to work around the conventional pitfalls that I believe are suffocating theater as an art form.

  4. Bryan Markovitz says:

    Kirsten,
    I am happy that you wrote a description of what you appreciated about Poetics: A Ballet Brut. Without it, I would know less about how this performance fared with Portland audiences. I was not in Portland this year to see Poetics, which I suspect will soon hit the international touring circuit.
    Having said this, I do have some criticisms to offer, so forgive me if it seems like I am singling you out in my concern for a bigger issue, but I would like to make some views available on this blog and your post seemed like the most reasonable place to drop them.
    As with much commentary on this blog (and in most press published about contemporary performance), your post, at best, provides a cursory description of what you saw, articulates a trivial judgement of the performance, and, worst of all, offers no reflection on the judgement you actually make. If we put your experience of the performance aside (which is something only you can truly know) then we are left with a posting that reaches toward a critique of monumental issues that theater artists and critics have been trying to address for at least fifty years, if not longer. These issues strike at the very nature, meaning and relevance of theater and its role in a media-saturated “reality” obsessed culture.
    As a critical piece of writing (which, I propose is the proper use of a blog), your work would have fared better if you had described the methodology and formal techniques that Cooper and Liska present within the historical context from which they draw inspiration. Without knowledge of history, one can only hold a very shallow understanding of how long it has taken for work like Poetics to reach audiences in a mainstream performance venue. (Despite the use of marketing speak like “cutting-edge,” any contemporary art institution of PICA’s caliber is by nature, mainstream). What is remarkable to me about the praises sung for Poetics is that you and other audience members seem to be discovering “anti-artifice theater” at a time when many artists have exhausted this course of action, and others have moved completely away from the theatrical modes that Poetics’ “anti-style style” still clings to. What is most striking about the thought behind Liska and Cooper’s work appears to be that they have succeeded in making the very theatricality that they strive to eradicate more central to the work through its overt absence. I doubt that is an accident. From what I have seen of his past work, Pavol is a very perverse fellow.
    You might have served your readers better by placing Poetics into the context of history. Liska and Cooper’s work is largely derivative of experiments conducted by artists in theater, music and performance for the past half-century. The most obvious reference must be to John Cage’s work with chance operations. Others would include the long-standing tradition of breaking theater’s fourth wall. This goes way back, but Pirandello would be a fine starting point in the Modern theaterical cannon. Re-situating the audience on the actual theatrical stage is a practice that has been used by at least a handful of artists in the past twenty years, including Goat Island in Chicago and my own Portland-based ensemble, Liminal. Finally, the use of non-actors and non-acting also has a long history, but the 1970’s work of Richard Foreman most immediately springs to mind.
    This history is hardly exhausted. Precedents also exist in the work of artists since 1965 who have stripped theatre of its many facades and who have engaged in a highly self-reflexive analysis of the relevance and meaning of live performance in a postmodern landscape. I will only cite a few here, but anyone who saw Poetics and found that it raised compelling questions about the nature of “liveness” and the meaning of “truth” in a performance should learn more about an array of artists and writers who have done extraordinary and truly groundbreaking work in the field. The list includes, but is not limited to, Joseph Beuys, Allan Kaprow, Andy Warhol, Peter Handke, Bruce Nauman, Fluxus, the Wooster Group, Spalding Gray, Pina Bausch, Manuel Pelmus, Jerome Bell, Forced Entertainment, Philip Auslander, and the ruling prince of “non-acting,” Richard Maxwell. After spending an adequate amount of time learning about this history, I would suspect that a viewer of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Poetics would have a different understanding of their work beyond it’s mainstream capacity to entertain.
    The reason I articulate my thoughts is because I have watched this process happen before. Ersatz work is selected by performance curators who say (and usually believe) that they want to bring new original work to a broader audience, but who, I suspect, are ultimately drawn to work that is readily entertaining, more or less inexpensive to tour (or at least financially viable to splurge on), in-touch with zeitgeist trends and appealing to an educated and affluent audience demographic. My concern for this process is how it stalls the real progress toward a new kind of performance experience that might truly change the way we understand live art. This kind of work, which demands highly specialized sites and modes of viewing, has not yet found a way to co-exist with the survival interests of the contemporary arts performing circuit, which must sell a very limited kind of culture if it is to survive.
    As for the artists and audiences who seek a new poetics of the theater (which I believe includes the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma), the really interesting work is still yet to come.

  5. Bryan Markovitz says:

    Not that anyone will ever read this, but I thought I would note in my comments here that I received a fair amount of slack from my friends for commenting on a performance I never saw.
    I thought this was fair because my comments were ostensibly about the lack of effective critical writing about new theatre works. It still holds true that I have not seen Poetics: A Ballet Brut, but this week I did see the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s most recent work, No Dice, in New York. After seeing No Dice, I believe that my views are still valid tools for looking critically at this kind of work.
    The only thing I might add is that I am sure that Liska and Cooper are aware of the way their work re-deploys historic ideas of the avant-garde and theatre. My question is, to what end? Their work is very well constructed and enjoyable, and obviously I think it is important, but it ultimately leaves me with a sense of lack because I am left with the question posed by Shawn Marie Garrett in a 2001 issue of the journal Theater:
    “What can be done with worn-out irony? Show it unraveling, unsex it, drain it of cool. What hides behind slickness? The halting, the tentative, the shy, the uninteresting. What is unpresentable? Awkwardness. A humble goal for fledgling artists? Yes, especially compared with the dramatic gestures of the past hundred years. But if “truth” is altogether out of the realm of possibility in a culture of acknowledged and celebrated simulation, superficiality, and materialism, what’s left? If the presence of the actor and the integrity of the subject can no longer be trusted, what happens to self-expression? When self-expression—“Think Different”—is the M.O. of every Internet entrepreneur, inexpressivity becomes the territory of the artist and the subject of performance. This development, too, is ironic, but in a historical, rather than artistic, sense. Beginning from what they know, young experimental theater artists in New York are cornering a kind of individuality that flies below the radar of identity politics and eludes what Augusto Boal calls “the cop in the head.” Whether they are breaking free or further boxing themselves in remains an unanswered question.”

  6. Bryan Markovitz says:

    “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” – Groucho Marx

    Tonight, I listened to a few episodes of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s new-ish radio show / podcast, which I absolutely adored. I am so excited to be listening to candid conversations with theatre artists that I have admired and followed for so long, Pavol and Kelly included. While listening, I remembered the rant that I wrote (above) from days long gone.

    I have to say that I was a fool to compose those comments. A fool caught up in the critique-obsessed milieu of an art school MFA, which made my own cynical hubris swell with greater intensity than it usually does.

    While many of my opinions came from a place of real concern, they were really badly expressed. The blogger actually did a great job of sharing what she liked about the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and Nature Theater made good work for her to experience.

    It’s been seven years since I wrote those long comments. It’s likely they’ll never be read again, which would suit me fine. Still, if the original reviewer, or if Pavol and Kelly ever come across them, I hope they will accept my sincere apology for writing such a pompous and foolish diatribe.

    It’s bad enough that artists and the audiences who love them have to struggle with the challenges of making live theatre. We shouldn’t be trying to cut one another down in the name of some critical high-ground.

    Long live Nature Theater of Oklahoma and all those who make exciting art, then and now.

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