“Personnel is being hired for the Theater in Oklahoma! The Great Nature Theater of Oklahoma is calling you! It’s calling you today only! If you miss this opportunity, there will never be another! Anyone thinking of his future, your place is with us! All welcome! Anyone who wants to be an artist, step forward! We are the theater that has a place for everyone, everyone in his place! If you decide to join us, we congratulate you here and now! But hurry, be sure not to miss the midnight deadline! We shut down at midnight, never to reopen! Accursed be anyone who doesn’t believe us!”
— Franz Kafka, Amerika
The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma is a New York based theatre company under Kelly Cooper and Pavol Liska. They work in live performance – they came to Australia from presenting their twelve hour Life and Times: Episodes 1- 5 just played at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in the UK, you can read Lyn Guardner’s five star review here – but my main contact with the company has been through OK Radio, their weekly long-form podcast conversations with theatre practitioners from around the world.
These conversations are long ranging and discursive, often introducing me to artists I haven’t heard of, but also ways of talking about and considering art and practice: the ways that I can approach contextualising work and practice as a writer and as an audience member. Cooper and Liska, too, are very interested in questioning – and asking their guests to question – why art? Why this art? Why now?
At the Australian Theatre Forum, Cooper and Liska took the stage in their pyjamas: “we’re more comfortable that way,” said Cooper. “You can change if you want.”
For their speech they brought up Claudia Chidiac, an artist from Sydney. She took a while to warm into the conversation.
“We just try to find somebody that is much more nervous than we are,” said Liska.
“You found her!” replied Chidiac.
As Liska directed her into the conversation about her passions and about working with communities, though, she became more comfortable, and started to share her work. Most interestingly, Liska created a context where we could watch her questioning herself on stage.
“Theatre people are all very nice people […] And I wonder if that is our problem,” asked Liska. “We choose an art form where we can sit next to each other and touch each other and we’re very good people.”
“Revolutions are not often caused by polite people, or good people,” said Cooper. “Sometimes we wonder if we have to stop making art to get something done. I really like art but i have a lot of questions about what it’s good for and if it’s needed.”
“Ten years ago there was a period where the Australian artistic community nationally were making art in response to the governments refugee policy,” said Chidiac, “especially in regards to children in detention. There was a really strong period where people were creating theatre works in droves […] and we really began to see the pressure.”
From the audience came yells that the current situation is worse. Said Chidiac, though “it felt great to be a part of that.”
“It’s not over. There are still debates going. But I don’t feel that intensity from the artistic community,” she said.
In regards to the loss of intensity, said Liska “that seems ineffective. Forgive me, but that seems weak.”
Liska and Cooper quit making theatre for four years, and here at ATF and on their podcast they frequently reference this break: the need to leave theatre, the need to come back, and the new perspective they have to the work and to creating the work because theatre was something they choose to return to.
“We should say that OK Radio is basically based on our problems,” said Cooper.
The conversation moved from the stage to one between people in the audience and the stage. It was passionate and loud, with Liska and Cooper engaging and asking questions, but mostly allowing the space for the most visceral conversation of the Forum so far. Candy Bowers took the microphone and spoke much more powerfully than I can write.
I didn’t blog this conversation. It was too deep, too passionate, too divisive, and too much for me to be able to capture in a blog made on the run. Some very senior figures in Australian arts walked out. Perhaps this is me doing a disservice, to not write about some of the most important conversations that happened in Canberra, but I feel it would be a bigger disservice to think I could write about it. So I’ll just have to leave you here. Go listen to OK Radio.