Home | Kelly Copper (Nature Theatre of Oklahoma)

As I write this, it’s June 2nd 2020 in New York City and the city is under a curfew. We’ve been in lockdown for over two months. Thousands of people have died during this time. There were nights when all you could hear were ambulance sirens, and now, this evening, it’s police helicopters, and police sirens. I went out today on my motorcycle past broken glass and people boarding up shop windows… It’s dark times.

And I can’t say right now that I have a good answer for “why theatre?” Nor can I, in this period, imagine performing.

I’ve always come to theatre from a sceptical place, and with each project asked myself why do I need to do this? What does theatre do? What is its purpose? And this has been a necessity for me, not to take for granted that what I do, what I have chosen to do with my life, is important just because – because art is important, because culture is important – but to remember that this is somehow a special activity, and a strange thing that humans do, and that there’s potential – maybe – and a productive energy when people come together in a room, and that theatre is an excuse and an occasion for that and which shouldn’t be squandered or ever taken for granted. However, these days the theatres are empty and dark1, and the action takes place on the streets, as it should.

My partner, Pavol, comes from the former Czechoslovakia where the Velvet Revolution was largely driven by theatre people who stopped making theatre to make change in their government and their society. I think sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that this change can happen inside a theatre, or with a show (what kind of show?) – but this has never proven to be true.

I don’t want to be a downer, but…
Why theatre?
Fuck theatre, man. Right now fuck theatre. And theatre is fucked. People are desperate and sad this evening, and though I’d like to offer consolation – I can’t, or at least not with what I know how to do, which is theatre.

When I started thinking of writing something for this publication, weeks ago, I thought of saying something else, being more hopeful and optimistic, perhaps. Right now I can’t do it. Maybe another time. Hopefully better times are ahead.

I have been in my home too much alone, maybe, isolated and feeling useless, often wondering if there will ever come a point again when the work I love to do becomes necessary. My home, thankfully, is a nice place. It’s also where we usually make work. It doubles as our rehearsal room. So it seems especially empty to me at the moment.

Maybe now I should search for something uplifting to say. When we get through this time – and I trust that we will – we may come out of it at last with a real hunger and sharpened appreciation for what it means to sit close to other bodies, to share space as human beings.

There’s something we used to do whenever we performed in a new theatre, Pavol and I would always tell the actors to make sure they know every inch of the space: make sure you sit in every seat, we would tell them, know what the audience sees, how they hear, how the chairs feel, the light in the room, how they experience the space – because this space has to become intimate. Has to become home, first and foremost. Before you invite them in – the audience, your guests. Understand and appreciate that they bring their own brains and hearts and experiences into the room with them – that they’ve had their dinner or not, that they’ve had a bad day or not – but recognise that they have their own stories. Make sure you really look at them (which is why we leave the lights on in the audience) – and don’t treat them as a mass of people in the dark, but take time to really see them, and get to know them as well as you want them to get to know you, and discover again why you do this. We all know that theatre has its own rules and traditions, so they won’t talk back (or not usually) – but you can still experience them, and appreciate and honour their complexity, and be grateful that they’ve come.

Right now is maybe not the time for this – there are other things to do. But I wish someday to have this room again, this space, this place, this home – again. So that we can sit together and see and feel each other, and infect each other again with our humanity, with creative energy, which is right now the only thing I can think of that theatre can do that still needs doing.

Nature Theatre of Oklahoma is an award-winning New York art and performance enterprise under the direction of Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper. With each project, they attempt to set an impossible challenge for them- selves and the audience. Their performances demand total presence from everyone in the room. They use the readymade material around them, found space, observed gesture, and extreme formal manipulation to affect a shift in the perception of everyday reality.

1 Now, June 4th 2020, I hear some theatres have become more useful, finally, and most are opening their lobby areas as rest stations for protestors, handing out water and allowing use of their bathrooms…)