Zur deutschen Fassung in der taz-Beilage vom 21. Mai 2015. [PDF, 5,9 MB]

More than 200 actors have gathered at the Dominican cloisters of Worms, none of whom Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper have worked with before. Most of them have brought their own costumes and props, gaudy flowers and dapper hats. Today, they will be shooting the double wedding of Siegfried and Kriemhild, and Gunther and Brunhild. The glamorous highlight of the saga of the Nibelungs. The woman playing Brunhild, in her late twenties and sporting a pierced lip, had originally only applied to be the artist couple’s penpal, but she was swiftly promoted to a protagonist. Kriemhild, an evidently capable woman in her late thirties, nabbed her part by replying to an ad in the paper. Things can move fast when Copper and Liska are at work.

Kelly Copper und Pavol Liska beim Filmdreh im Odenwald. © Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Kelly Copper und Pavol Liska beim Filmdreh im Odenwald. © Nature Theater of Oklahoma

In the summer of 2015, the two founders of the New York-based Nature Theater of Oklahoma were engaged in a three-week bicycle tour of the Odenwald, to shoot their own version of this most German of all German myths: “Nibelungen Cycle”. They work exclusively with local amateurs, rehearsal times are brief, a certain amount of chaos – not to be mistaken for dilettantism – is inevitable. This is not so much about a discourse-sprung new interpretation of Teutonic baths in dragon blood, but rather about the momentum that a clash of myths will set in motion in today’s citizens of the Odenwald during this performative happening.

“The more control we have, the more accidents we can invite.”

It may sound paradoxical that two theatre makers who are known for their perfectionism should subject themselves to this degree of unpredictability as film makers. But Liska doesn’t see this as a contradiction: “The more control we have, the more accidents we can invite.” It’s all about the energy of the moment.

Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska have reached a period in their work in which all genre-selectivity has been pulverised. They are not working at the interface of anything, but rather betwixt and between everything. Their film shoots are tightly choreographed play-along theatre. They process the shot material with the meticulous creative drive of visual artists. The completed films are then played back into theatre venues. Except, the “Nibelungen Cycle” is still not finished today. But the process of the Nature Theater’s creators is not all that result-oriented. In this dual creative system, the development phase is at least as important. In Copper’s and Liska’s work, content does not determine form, after all, even though their delight in formal experimentation is applicable to pretty much any subject imaginable.

“Germany Year 2071” is the title of a film that will be developed during Foreign Affairs this year as well as during the Impulse-Festival in the Ruhr region. It sounds like a trashy dystopia, like a futuristic German chainsaw-massacre. The artists will not be drawn on the exact nature of the project. Individual plot points can only be guessed at after conversations with the few people who know the script. The scenes are set in the periods “after the first big mistake” and “after the second mistake”. In the background, revolutions occur with the regularity of tram-traffic. One scene takes place on the building site of the “National Pride Monument” and will be shot on Schlossplatz. And because we are operating in the context of science fiction, there will be aliens and other foreigners.

This could, of course, lead us to construct connections with the current fuss about the so-called refugee crisis. But Copper’s and Liska’s erratic activities are never that banal. Their project takes a stand on political reality, but it doesn’t give a consistent picture of a country. As in the case of the Nibelungen, the actual narrative will not be a Berlin of the future. Instead, it deals with how Berliners themselves imagine this future.

Nature Theater of Oklahoma © Jasper Kettner

Nature Theater of Oklahoma © Jasper Kettner

Even accustomed as we all are to hybrid exploration of artistic boundaries, we might be allowed to ask ourselves how this can still be considered to be theatre. The answer is found in the element of participation. With cheerful persistence, Copper and Liska are working on the reinterpretation of the role of the spectator. Instead of providing consumption of art in the comfort of subsidised theatre seats, the audience is turned into protagonists, with varying degrees of involvement. Festival visitors show up to the shoots, which are announced in the programme as if they were performance dates, to be background artists at least. As part of the picture, not as its viewer. This expands the themes of collaboration and collectivity, so popular in independent theatre, beyond the structure of performance groups themselves and to include the audience – without subjecting spectators to the duress of involuntary play-along-embarassment. We are dealing with a joint artistic process, not with co-authorship. The two artists set the game and its rules, the participants fill the frame.

This is a working principle born of tedium. “Everything exciting happens during the first week of rehearsals”, is Pavol Liska’s conviction. From that point, things don’t get better, but instead go downhill. And in his eyes, the actual performance is the least interesting part of the process. Not to mention touring the world. Liska, who is never afraid of plain speaking, says with friendly composure: “I love making my work. And I hate watching it.”

Breaking operational routines has always been a significant driver in the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s cosmos. Initially, their distaste was directed at the kind of sleek stage language polished to the point of atrophy. In “No Dice”, they had their performers hurl out shreds of everyday conversations that were fed into their ears via iPods. Mixed from more than a hundred hours of recorded material – conversations about jobs, affairs, drinking problems and eating habits – it was a mixture of “Arabian Nights and Homer’s ‘Odyssey’”, says Liska. A request for friends to tell them the story of the film “Rambo – First Blood” resulted in the spirited multi-media poem “Rambo Solo”. Another time, Liska called thirty friends and asked them to recapitulate the story of “Romeo and Juliet” – which ended in polyphonous maneuvers around Shakespeare’s plot. (“Did they really have sex?”) They were less interested in the classic play than in the creative way that memory-gaps are filled. Then as now, capturing the electrical power of the unfinished, the sparks that arise in single moments, was an essential part of the plan.

Husband and wife Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper share an early fascination with tape recordings. As a child, Copper, daughter of a radio DJ, used her dad’s equipment to record herself peeing. And Liska, born in Slovakia, was introduced to the plays of dissidents like Václav Havel or Pavel Kohout on clandestine cassette tapes. For quite a few years, he thought that tapes were true form of theatre. The couple met at college, at a course on Dadaist theatre, moved to New York together and started making art. Initially without a voice of their own, as mere copies of the Wooster Group or Richard Foreman. Only after a stage abstinence of several years did they create the Nature Theater of Oklahoma – named after the propitious “theatre that will accept anyone” from Kafka’s “America”.

The project that established them as a festival favourite in this part of the world was titled “Life & Times” and represented a continuation of the principle of recognising the weirdly beautiful poetry of the mundanely normal. It was based on a 16-hour telephone conversation between Pavol Liska and company member Kristin Worral, in which she recounted her quite commonplace biography from the cradle to the present. The verbatim transcript, including all pauses and slips of the tongue, was used by format-nomads Copper and Liska as the libretto for an opus magnum in nine parts, which ran across all genres: from a crime comedy in the original set of Agatha Christie’s 1950s West End-hit “The Mousetrap” to a live-reading with the audience.

Its first episode, which the company developed in a residency at the Vienna Burgtheater – the Champions League of German language theatre -, reaches no further than Kristin’s sixth birthday. There’s the colour of her bedroom walls. The fight with her best friend. The peeing accident in school. And all of this presented by six performers in the manner of an All-American-Musical, including gymnastic dance numbers from the forge of socialist Olympics, as Liska himself experienced them. The final parts, however, were already developed as films. Episode 9 is a rap video, shot with extras who were assembled in an open call during the festival Steirischer Herbst.

What is remarkable in all their works is the couple’s technical perfection. Whether it is a musical, an animation featuring a cat, a film shoot looking like “Citizen Kane” – aesthetically, Copper and Liska always operate at the height of their respective format. Even though a certain coolness of quotation, reminiscent of the Coen brothers, cannot be denied. The spirit driving the Nature Theater of Oklahoma is of a decidedly American activity-driven character. Just do it. Copper and Liska have always left the meta-interpretations of their work to others; they have never pontificated about the conceptual foundation of their endeavours. This is in fundamental contrast to the local performance scene, which likes to arm itself with substantial theoretical baggage before it gets to work. Accordingly, the couple may have become regular festival features throughout Europe within a short time, but they also remained aliens within the industry, and exotic in a circus that operates according to curatorial fashions and discursive hypes. Which doesn’t bother them in the least. Professionals and hardcore-pragmatists that they are, they will latch on anywhere they find resources for their work, without feigning deeper emotional connections. Refreshingly, someone like Pavol Liska doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that instead of the “Nibelungen Cycle” they could just as well have taken a biking tour around the volcanoes of Iceland, if there had been an offer.

But there is the crux that in their New York home, their avant-garde enterprises have caused them to remain even more exotic. The American theatre landscape, which does not have any institutional system of subsidy to speak of, accordingly was not able to provide for the Nature Theater. One reason (aside from other signs of wear due to a “Life & Times”-marathon spanning several years) why the company in its former form has since been dissolved. Although it is quite clear that Copper and Liska have always been the heart of the Nature Theater and always will be.

It will be interesting to watch whether the European theatre sector will be able to continually create programme niches for their film performances. And, of course, whether the pair, as the notoriously self-critical troublemakers that they are in a consensus-driven community, will even continue in this artistic direction. Just about any aesthetic about-face is imaginable where they are concerned. Not, however, a loss of ambition: “The world is being a huge asshole at the moment”, says Pavol Liska. “Because we are not going out there and causing trouble with enough resolution.” Everything is too harmless, too insignificant. And that is what he and Kelly Copper want to change, rather than just complaining about it. “We want to cause chaos in the streets and film it.”

The film shootings for “Germany Year 2071” will take place at several locations throughout Berlin from 5 to 17 July 2016.

Free admission, limited capacity.

Registration online via the “Ticket” buttons here (€ 2 booking fee) or free of charge via phone and at the box office in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele.

By registering, you agree that you are taking part in a film shoot and confirm that the film images recorded there may be published as part of the film “Germany Year 2071”.