Christmas is like ice cream.
You have to eat it fast or it melts.
She pets Clara’s head.
Poor little one.
Eet is so cold in zis building.
It’s nothing like Russia.
No. I guess not.
George, you been to St. Petersburg?
Pause not long enough for anyone to answer.
I have been to St. Petersburg
And I’ll tell you
They really like Americans.
Maybe they just like American dollars.
They all try very hard to speak English
And impress us Americans.
Especially the ladies…
Have you been to Russia, George?
I have flown over Moscow one time,
But I’ve been to Czechoslovakia,
That’s a pathetic answer George.
He makes The Face.
Enough of this. Can we get some music? Is this a musical? And something up-tempo, Goddamn it. It’s the holidays. Something for the kids.
—from Christmas Cracker (a New York Holiday musical)
Shortly into any play written by Kelly, an unusual feeling begins to steal over the viewer. It’s a feeling that our time and brains are treasured—or even, really, loved. She seems to know that we could just as easily have spent our evening at home in our pajamas with ice cream and whiskey (“nice and creamy”), and she works hard to make our sacrifice worthwhile.
For over a decade now, Kelly has been creating some of the most joyful avant-garde work around, in collaboration with her husband, the director Pavol Liska, and their company, Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Much of Kelly’s playwriting operates by diagramming connections, placing disparate things next to each other so that they crackle with life and newness. She recently explained to me how her process of pulverization and re-constitution helps her to get out of her own way: “I fill my notebooks with stuff that grabs me, and I basically spend the rest of my process desperately trying to figure out how these things all go together… By the time I’ve written it down, retyped it, cut it up, and organized it into envelopes, I can’t remember if I wrote it or if someone said it on Fear Factor, and then there’s much less ego involved and it’s much more of a manipulation.”
For Fragment, which was presented at Classic Stage Company last spring, Kelly knitted together over 5,000 fragments from the lost plays of Euripides and Sophocles into a text that possessed a nimble, sharp sense of life even as it tangled with a number of alarmingly large questions:
The best thing is
as much as possible
let every man procure as much cake as he can.
look at me!
as often as possible
consent to this delightful song
make up your mind to say yes!
drink, smoke, eat!
delight in the revel!
this is it!
grapes swelling on the vine!
Listen yourself for a moment…
Oh! I wish I may never be anything other than dear to the gods, because even if they are slow, in time they fulfill everything.
This kind of assembly, which was also influenced by Kelly’s experience as a visual artist making collages of stills from old home movies found at flea markets, “short-circuits the critical voice that says ‘oh, that’s really dumb,’ because ultimately I’m just playing. And I think that’s also been part of the aesthetic for the Nature Theater of Oklahoma—how do you get back to this feeling of theater as play?”
Play and the belief that “theater is somehow more than a piece of writing” have moved Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s work further and further away from traditional models of writing for the theater. One of the company’s most recent creations, Poetics, arose out of a desire to explore whether “directing itself, without sitting on a play, was a worthwhile art.” The resulting performance strung together sequences of everyday movements (standing, slouching, sleeping) to create a transporting nonverbal ballet brut.
Their current work-in-progress, a four-hour “dinner theater melodrama” called No Dice, explodes with the magic of everyday speech. Kelly distilled No Dice from over 100 hours of the company’s recorded telephone conversations, painstakingly cutting and editing the sound recordings together on her computer. There is no written text (the excerpts printed here are transcriptions). iPods pipe her master recording into the actors’ ears throughout the performance, and the actors are charged with reproducing its words and timing as precisely as possible.
Yeah, I think that—
I think that’s a good—I mean
it’s not a—
—it makes you wanna eat
because they have commercials
for food throughout the WHOLE thing…
There’s like—you know—it’s
and, you know…
WADS of…s- LARD!
Screaming to be eaten!
—from No Dice
Kelly says that No Dice arose from her talks with Pavol about the oral tradition and the idea that “before there was writing there were these epic poets who told the story of the people. And it was stylized and it had rhythm and repetition and circular narratives and all of these mnemonic things in it… We were interested in how to get away from this literary theater into something pre-literate that was much more about the stories that people tell other people to live.”
When Pavol began calling up their friends to ask them for stories, however, Kelly says that “either 1) they didn’t want to do it, or 2) they’d give up in the middle of the story, or 3) they’d sort of be extremely detailed and dirty.” And they rejected the idea of pumping people for their personal histories: “It’s all about psychological barfing: unless somebody cries, unless you get the sweet, sweet milk of human tragedy! When Barbara Walters gets that person to cry, all of a sudden it’s worthy of our attention and important and that’s what we go to the theater for. But something in me just doesn’t care or doesn’t want to think of life as just—so much human suffering. I don’t think anybody needs to be told that. I think we live in that kind of world.”
Their decision to follow their subjects wherever they wished to go appears to have been the right one: No Dice is electric with the irrepressible individuality of its many creators, and its odd little scenes effectively tune our ears to hear the “cosmic murmur” of the everyday language that usually passes away unnoticed.
You know what makes me feel alive and gets me through the day?
Being connected to…
to the transcendent.
To the—COSMIC DANCE
— to the cosmic hum of the universe.
I like things… that… (pause) pull me in that direction.
To look at it.
—from No Dice
Although the shape of No Dice makes sculptural rather than narrative sense, Kelly was careful not to pulverize her material into nonsense. Instead, she “went through and picked full conversations, and then just poked holes in them. When you start to look at the conversations, people leave holes all the time. It’s not like when we speak, we make sense necessarily—it’s just that the other person translates for us or fills in our blanks.”
So how was your—dinner theater experience?
Oh my God! Um…
(extremely long pause—some attempt at speech is made, just open mouth and air…)
Ah! I don’t know if you could…um…um…
The actors just—(pause)
TRY really hard?...
but are probably…
going to achieve
(very long pause)
They will—achieve… a FRIENDLY kind of mediocrity!
Does that make sense?
—from No Dice
Kelly and Pavol demand—and get—extraordinary efforts from their actors. In addition to mimicking the recording, the actors must speak in strange foreign accents, memorize random sequences of hand gestures, and pay close attention to everyone else onstage. In a way, they’re asked to be models for how people should behave in the world; as Kelly says, “It’s about increasing the number of levels of perception, the amount of things you can pay attention to.”
Even more important, the actors’ struggles somehow keep them in the same room as us—as real as us. “As long as these things are impossible, there are always going to be holes that allow for you to see them,” Kelly explains. In more traditional theater, “there’s always something that that actor’s doing on stage that I find fake. I hate to see them pretend to have an emotion. When you’re in a movie or TV kind of situation, you can suspend your disbelief, but confronted with the fact of real people on stage, I just find it very difficult. There’s always going to be something so real about it anyway—so why not delve into that realness, that—those people are real people. We’re all working so hard to try and give you this—you know, this show. And it’s just never going to be as effortless as a movie, or as transcendently fictional—so then, I want to see the effort and the work.”
In No Dice, the efforts we see are suffused with a kind of caritas that extends even to the play’s foamcore set and catch-as-catch-can costumes. “I don’t want anybody to ever see it and feel like they couldn’t do it,” Kelly says. “The great thing about No Dice in the end is that you have that sense that everybody can be an artist. It’s the same thing with Duchamp on some level—like hey, I could just sign this urinal and make it art. There’s that generosity that art is not just for the people who have money to make it pretty—or who can write well even. It’s really got nothing to do with what’s always in this culture the loftiness of the artist in the beret suffering and being a genius and being so much more sensitive than everyone else. I want everyone to be sensitive!—and more attentive, and all of that. Art is not ultimately about talent and genius as much as it is about conception and perception and really that permission to play. Cage says that ‘art is everywhere. It’s only seeing that stops now and then.’ My ultimate hope is that No Dice finely tunes our ears so that we do hear the cosmic murmur, the hum—the theater going on all around us. That’s the goal, I think.”
No Dice was developed in residence at Downtown Art as part of Soho Rep’s Phase II program and will be shown “in-progress” January 18 – 27 in the Under The Radar Festival.
For more information, please go to undertheradarfestival.com.
Kelly Copper is the progeny of a disc jockey and a librarian.Amber Reed
Amber Reed, a writer living in Brooklyn, has also written about playwrights Sibyl Kempson and Kelly Copper for the Rail.