Melbourne Festival: Life and Times

Over ten hours with the Nature Theater of Oklahoma may have ruined theatre for me.

Ten hours wasn’t enough.

Life and Times
Life and Times

The eventual plan is a 24-hour show, and if the next 14 hours are as joyfully glorious, astonishingly complex, and deliriously insane as the first ten, then I have to make sure that I live at least as long as Kristin Worrell, whose life and times it’s based on.

Episode 1 of the Life and Times mararthon started at 2.00 pm, Episode 4 finished just after midnight and, despite hints of DVT from sitting too long in cramped seats and the mania of over-triedness and too much sugar, I wanted to go back in for Episode 5, which has been created but wasn’t brought to Melbourne.

There was only one marathon performance in Melbourne, so the next chance to see it is to join them in Paris for their next stop or hope for a return to Australia, with more parts. There were individual performances of the three sections earlier in the week, but seeing them meant missing director Pavol Liska introducing the show in floral pyjamas and the cast barbequing the audience burgers after Episode 1. And there were chocolate brownies with fresh cream after Episode 2 and extra-chocolatey hot chocolate waiting in the foyer after the post-midnight standing and squealing ovation for Episodes 3 and 4.

The Nature Theater of Oklahoma are from New York. Directors Liska and Kelly Cooper took the name of a troop from an unfinished Kafka novel called Amerika. Liska grew up in Slovakia and came to Oklahoma for work when he was 18. There he learnt English and went to philopsophy and writing classes at night, and worked during the day. He met Cooper in 1992 at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and in 2004 they founded their company in New York with a commitment to  “making the work they don’t know how to make”.

Since then they’ve toured to festivals in Europe, been commissioned, won awards and I want to go to New York and work with them.

Life and Times is a verbatim re-telling of 16 hours of phone conversations with 30-something company member Worrell. (She’s on the stage, but by the time it’s clear who she is, it no longer matters.) She was asked, “Can you tell me your life story?”. She stared with birth and told her unremarkable, white, middle class suburban story.

And by verbatim, I – um – like mean – it’s really like – well – like everything she really said. Hahaha.

There are wrong words and half thoughts and tangents that go nowhere and the endless ums and ahhs that come with finding and telling memories.

One of the, many, genius moments is also having it surtitled; so, from the first sung notes, it’s clear what’s going on.

Yes sung. Episode 1 is kind of like, umm, well, kind of a musical.

With choreography that’s part rhythmic gymnastics and part end-of-year school concert, it begins as a solo, then it’s a trio of women in grey 1970s t-shirt style uniforms who are eventually joined by three men and the four musicians – all of whom are the same person telling the story. And there’s a rabbit.

The juxtaposition of un-written, un-controlled words with composed music and precise choreography makes the umms and whatevers of the recitative and harmonies unexpectedly magnificent.

Dialogue and song are never written to sound natural, because natural conversation makes so little sense. But when it’s scored and controlled by rhythm and sound, this stream of blahblahblahs makes endless sense and draws us in with its perfect imperfections.

Meanwhile, her story is quite dull; as are most of ours. And this might be why this work is so heart-gripping.

Life and Times 1
Life and Times 1

With so much time being taken to recount the likes of a yellow bedroom and a scary Balinese mask, the audience have time to remember their own stories.

I don’t know if it’s possible to watch this show without the barrage of personal memories. Someone said to me it was so intense that he wanted his memories to stop so that he could watch the show!

I could see photos of my first birthday party that I don’t remember; I remembered being terrified when I wasn’t much older because a rooster (a rooster that attacked) was between me and the back door, and my mother told me to just ignore him; I remembered whispering secrets to a kindergarten friend, but I don’t remember her name or the secret; I remembered breaking my milk bottle on my first day of school and being more embarrassed than I could cope with; I remembered being friends with Vanna Morrasini in grade one and telling her she was wearing the wrong shirt, but it was just the summer uniform; I remember my grandmother buying me a new doll and telling me not to take it to school in case I lost it – I took it to school and lost it;  I remembered my cousin and I wondering if we could get married; I remembered my animal wall paper; I remembered eating almonds from an almond tree in our back yard; I remembered screaming when I saw the results of putting tadpoles in my goldfish tank.

And that’s what it’s like for the three-ish hours of Episode 1.

And Episode 1 is just birth to 8.

So going into Episode 2, there’s the attachment to this child telling her story – we know her so well by now and want her to be happy – and the simultaneous anticipation of what memories are going to come flooding back. And not all memories are welcome or expected.

Briefly, Episode 2 covers 8 to 12. It’s still a musical, but it’s moved into the 80s with recorded music, wonderful atrocious rock-eisteddfod choreography, and brightly coloured tracksuits. And a choir.

Episode 3 is the continued verbatim story (14 to 18), but presented as a parlour murder mystery. Complete with endlessly brown back drops with a painted fire place. And aliens.

And also throw into the mix, performers who look like people. There’s body fat, pale skin, frizzy hair, untamed beards, lanky legs, glasses and all manner of beautiful normality.  My first uncontrollable tear was the first scene when a woman who could wear my size of clothes walked onto the stage and danced.  One of my last was as a big-bellied, bearded American bloke dressed like a sea captain with an eye patch singing about the 15-year-old girl’s first real kiss. (Oh, those first kiss memories.)

Life and Times was ten hours of pure insane joy created by people who love life and theatre, and know that they will find like-souls all over the world. And it was spent with friends, writers and a good chunk of Melbourne’s theatre makers. A day at the theatre doesn’t get better than that.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *