Discomforts, Obstacles and Artistic Infidelities. The Theatre of Kelly Copper and Pavol Liška

by Florian Malzacher

In: The Life and Work of Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Ed. Florian Malzacher. Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2019. 13-37.

The great Theatre of Oklahoma calls you! Today only and never again! If you miss your chance now you miss it for ever! If you think of your future, you are one of us! Everyone is welcome. If you want to be an artist, join our company! Our theatre can find employment for everyone, a place for everyone! Franz Kafka, Amerika

Only today, for one time only! The Great Theatre of Oklahoma! Kelly Copper and Pavol Liška had been keeping the name of the immoderately ambitious touring troupe from Kafka’s Amerika in mind for a long time – for the day they would found their own company. Not only because the unfinished novel had served Liška as a kind of instruction manual to his new homeland after emigrating from Slovakia (the same part of the world that both Kafka and Amerika’s protagonist Karl Roßmann are from), but also the grandiose gesture of the poster and the mind-boggling dimensions of the dubious-sounding Nature Theatre of Oklahoma held a powerful attraction for the two unknown theatre-makers who, with a combination of modesty and strength of will, had no doubts that they had something substantial to offer as artists.

In 1991, at the age of 18, an obscure job offer suddenly gave Liška, who had grown up in a small town in Slovakia, the opportunity to move to the USA. He had never been abroad before, spoke no English, and was actually supposed to join the Army – but instead, a few weeks later, he ended up in Oklahoma. He learned the language at night (when he wasn’t working) to be able to follow his classes in Philosophy and Writing at college during the day, constantly afraid of losing his student visa if his grades weren’t good enough. After a year in a rather desperate work and life situation in Oklahoma he transferred to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he met Kelly Copper in a seminar on Dadaist performance (a remarkably unpopular course with only three students in attendance) and the two became an inseparable pair. Copper graduated in 1993 and moved to New York.

While Liška was visiting her over Christmas that year they had seen Frank Dell’s the Temptation of St. Antony by The Wooster Group, Reza Abdoh’s Quotations from a Ruined City and Richard Foreman’s My Head was a Sledgehammer – in a kind of crash course one after another – and their entire concept of theatre was turned upside down. Liška, who was busy directing one of his own plays at college, came back and immediately told his fellow students: “that we have been doing it all wrong, and have to change everything. These three shows I saw in New York really made me realize what theatre could be.”

Since then Kelly Copper and Pavol Liška, who have called themselves Nature Theater of Oklahoma since 2004, have themselves created some of the most remarkable theatre works to be seen in the former capital of the avant-garde in recent years: unmistakable in their combination of conceptual rigour, an idiosyncratic mix of modernist art strategies (at times closer to the visual than the performing arts) and exultantly theatrical performance that refuses to shy away from apparently trashy surfaces while uninhibitedly poaching from all manner of theatrical traditions.

Even if their greatest success has come in Europe, their theatre remains unmistakeably North American – not least because in their works they draw on typically Anglo-American genres such as dinner theatre (in No Dice), musicals (Life and Times – Episode 1), show choirs (Episode 2), vaudeville mystery theatre (Episodes 3 & 4), Western movies (Pursuit of Happiness), Hollywood classics like Citizen Kane (Episode 7), North American landscape painting (Episode 8) and gangsta rap (Episode 9).

Most of all, however, they have been influenced by their home city of New York. Most of Nature Theater’s idols live or did live in Manhattan: Marcel Duchamp the inventor of the readymade; Andy Warhol, who turned the everyday into art; John Cage and Merce Cunningham, who made chance a protagonist; Ken Jacobs and Joseph Cornell and their filmic compositions of found materials; The Wooster Group with its fascination with technical perfection and information overload; and not least the unique Jack Smith, who celebrated trash and camp as original aesthetics – all of them have influenced Nature Theater, that consciously and enthusiastically roots itself in these traditions.

Among theatremakers it is first and foremost Richard Foreman and his handling of props and the audience that has left the most evident traces. Pavol Liška joined the legendary director’s team in the mid-1990s and helped on several productions: “It was the most formative experience for me, and sometimes I feel like I learned everything I know about directing from Richard Foreman.” Foreman was also the one who gave them the chance to show their first work in New York at his theatre in 1996. “Our first 3 or 4 shows in New York were an attempt to imitate him.” And even later, long after they had found their own highly individual artistic path, Foreman remained a mentor and role model: “I learned from him to shape every small unit of time, to be rigorous, and never make compromises. His shows were built like sculptures out of words, gestures, movements, props, scenery. He built perfectly constructed worlds, and we struggled to do the same. Richard Foreman is never too far away from my mind when I direct.”

Now the couple live in Long Island City, Queens – Manhattan with its famous skyline is now more distant but remains in view (at least for the moment) until the crush of constantly expanding skyscrapers will hide it finally from sight.