Cara versus Art: Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s “Life and Times”

Posted: September 13, 2013 in Cara Blouin, poetics, theater
Cara Blouin

Telling one “ordinary” woman’s life story as an epic performance experience is the kind of stunt I can really get into. There are lots of big-I Ideas in it about who can be considered a viable protagonist, about theater as a means for personal exploration, and also at what point it veers into self-indulgence. The scale has theatricality. There is something great about the idea that so much time and effort could be dedicated to not only taking apart, but also to presenting one life story to an audience.

So I was psyched to get a free ticket to go see Life and Times by Nature Theater of Oklahoma in the Philadelphia Fringe, (FringeArts? Live Arts? What are we calling it now? I don’t know. The one we are supposed to take seriously). I promised myself that I would not think about the money, because I knew that I was going to a show at the Wilma, and that I was going to go in there and everything was just going register as line items in some crazy alternate universe budget where PECO buys your lighting instruments and there are five well-maintained stalls in the women’s restroom.  I was trying to be open-hearted and learn from those who are successful in my field so I on-purpose decided not to think about what the LiveFringeArts hierarchy is—or about the money—and just go see Life and Times.

From the program, I learned two things. Firstly, Nature Theater of Oklahoma is not actually from Oklahoma. They are from New York. I hope this reference is not an ironic dig at Oklahoma? Oooh. I am getting judgy. Okay. Back to open-hearted. But wait. The story is about the sound designer for their company? Er. Ugh. I guess I assumed it was about some not-theater person? I guess I had thought that they’d be gazing at an outside navel? Whoo. Alright. It is fine. I am going to take it as it is.

The press materials also say that they asked the woman to tell her life story, and were surprised when it yielded sixteen hours of material. What they mean is sixteen hours’ worth of recorded speaking.

And here’s the thing.

I only saw the first part, and the first part is these six extremely talented white people in their thirties who are kind of hipster-looking, singing every word that this white woman in her thirties said about her ordinary childhood, without editing a single syllable.

At first, that is very charming. They are singing and dancing, and it is funny how often the protagonist says “um” and “uh” and “like, you know” in her rambling autobiography. And it is funny that the performers are being ironically earnest as they operatically sing the not very significant details about a first birthday party and playing hooky from swimming, and how they sing the “ums” and “uhs.”

But, oh, man, two straight hours of ironically earnest is too much ironic and not nearly enough earnest. It leaves a lot of time to think about the content, but not in a compelling way, in the way that waiting for soup to be done makes some space to idly consider one’s refrigerator magnets.

Around the time the play is discussing kindergarten I start to worry that this show is a joke on the poor speaker. How humiliating it would be to be asked to talk about every mundane detail of your life, and then to have your “like, you knows” and the insignificant nature of the earliest details you remember played for laughs. The joke is the triviality. Of your life. This is one of my worst nightmares.

Then around first grade, I start to worry that the joke is on me. Six young black men in the front row are getting visibly bored. An actress steps down off of the stage and holds one of their hands to her bosom as she sings, to the purpose I guess of maintaining their interest. This feels less like spontaneity than a contingency plan, and is totally devoid of context. Later, two old women give up and leave and the action on stage stops as six too-cool-for-school hipster stares follow them out. Are they daring me to listen? Are they smirking at the fact that I will politely do so? Oh man, I feel awkward. The six black guys also get up and walk out.

Good on them, really, because if I were listening to this person talk I would also not want to keep listening unless she were a dear friend who I cared about very much. But she can’t become a dear friend who I care very much about because she is manifested in six performers with blank expressions and repetitive modern dance moves who may or may not be laughing at her, and may or may not be laughing at me.

Okay, I am now also thinking about the money. Given so much room to wander around the Wilma, how could I expect my mind not to spend some time hovering around how much this ensemble cast would cost, and their costumes, and the “simple” set with its massive scrim and for-serious lighting, not to mention the two giant flat screen TVs with the subtitles?

I don’t want to be thinking about the money, because I want to be thinking about the work. But the contrast of financial investment in the performance and total lack of interest in the content is glaring. Why would you spend so many resources on creating this unless something about it was really important to you? I have to assume that the indifference with which the material is being treated is not the true indifference of the performers, since they work closely with the person they are singing about. So it must be an artistic choice?

That choice is to sneer at their friend by asking her to say potentially humiliating and very personal things for many hours, unedited, record it, and then trot it out with a lack of curation or context to an audience that is now in the uncomfortable social position of being really bored by it.

The performance seems designed, in fact, to demand that the audience not care. Firstly, because it is so very long. At the two-hours-forty-five mark the interviewee says, and so the performers sing “oh, god, this must be so boring for you.” It’s a big laugh line, given much focus by the staging. But also, by consciously being sure that production elements do not support or add texture to the story, by depersonalizing the speaker by robbing her of gesture, expression or even cadence and by leaning heavily on her unartful turns of phrase for comedy, the production ensures that no personal connection can be made with their subject.

I have to wonder why anyone would do that. And then, I have to wonder why so many people would give such time and talent to executing it. And then, characteristically, I have to wonder why it costs $35 to see it.

It’s not the publicized “ordinariness” (really a very specific kind of ordinary:  young, white, middle class) of the woman’s story that makes it dull, it’s that the only artistic, philosophical, or narrative question the show asks is “what if we sang this whole thing?”  The not very useful answer is “this would.” The experience is helpful, I guess, in illuminating that personal stories are not theatre in and of themselves, and that neither are ideas. It’s the craft of presenting content that makes it art, and the intention.

It occurs to me that Life and Times might mean something very complex and inspiring to the people who created it. I only saw the first part after all. Maybe this is the throwaway three hours at the beginning. It may also be a sixteen hour smirk meant to prove that you shouldn’t speak unless you have something to say. Or maybe it’s the theater version of those bedhead hairstyles that you do with super expensive products– a huge investment in a very precise, elegant shrug. Either way it feels like a misuse of resources in a world that doesn’t really need more calculated indifference to people’s stories.

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Comments
  1. darin harbaugh says:

    I think the issue with things like this is one of framing. The company is starting with a “text” and then they are performing that text. So how is the Ur-text being presented?

    The author is correct that by the act of theater, unless dance was used to elaborate on an audio playing of the woman’s speech, the performance inherent in any oral history is obscured by the production. No cadence, meter or inflection. It sounds like the only thing left is the “ums” and “uhs” and “likes”, whose purpose in speech is integral as idea holders, timing devices and the natural syncopation of spoken rhythm. Vonnegut once said that he and everyone else uses ums and uhs. The thing is that editors take these out of speech, interviews and journalism, leading readers to assume that people don’t speak that way. Vonnegut did and I know I do.

    How speech and story is presented becomes the focus of the creative act. If the text is seemingly banal and not tied into a larger message, then all that is left is the performance for performance sake. In this production it appears as if the performance is one large knowing wink.

    Irony without a critique or some larger revelation is just masturbation. It creates nothing except the self gratification of those involved. And it is easy.

    Sincerity is risky. Irony and snark in a vacuum is inherently very safe. It leads the viewer with only two choices, to get the joke or not. The problem is, that too often, the joke wasn’t funny to begin with.

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