Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper
On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, we chatted with Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper about their latest Fringe Festival offering, Pursuit of Happiness. Liska and Copper discuss how reality TV and the current state of American politics have influenced this part-dance, part Western movie, and part comedy of manners. Pursuit of Happiness, is one of the curated shows in the 2019 Fringe Festival, and it will be showing at the Mandell Theater on September 20th and 21st.
Listen to the episode and read the transcript below.
Conversation with Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper
Raina: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premier presenter of contemporary performing art. I’m Raina Searles, marketing manager here at FringeArts, and I invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.
Katy: And I am Katy Dammers, artistic producer at FringeArts. Today we’re excited to talk about the Pursuit of Happiness, a work by Nature Theatre of Oklahoma and EN-KNAP, that will be part of our Fringe Festival this September.
Katy: Today we’re pleased to welcome in the conversation, Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper from Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. Welcome!
Pavol: Hi, how are you?
Katy: Good! Thank you so much for joining us today remotely. I know you guys are not based in Philadelphia, so we’re excited that we can have this conversation. And just to start us all off since it’s Happy Hour on the Fringe, what are you guys drinking?
Pavol: I’m drinking a pineapple juice from this cleanse that I’m doing today.
Kelly: [crosstalk 00:01:17] And I’ve had a coffee.
Katy: Awesome. I’m drinking a big glass of water because we are in the midst of a heat wave in Philadelphia.
Raina: Yes, same.
Raina: So diving into Pursuit of Happiness, we’re going to talk a lot more about the piece and the history of the piece, but just for audiences contemplating coming to see the show, what can they expect when they walk in? What do you want audiences to know in advance about this work?
Pavol: Well they’ll walk in and see our set, which is kind of a saloon and they should come in … Ideally when you make a new piece of theater, you hope to undo people’s expectations. So whenever somebody always asks us what should people expect, it’s kind of a tricky question. You almost want to lie to people, because ultimately you don’t want to satisfy their expectations. So I don’t want to lie to you.
Katy: Well, and I know what you mean because I have seen the Pursuit of Happiness before. I thought when it premiered in the United States as part of Under the Radar, which is a festival every January at New York University’s Skirball theater, and I think the set is definitely the first thing that catches people, is that the piece is set in this kind of stereotypical western bar. And then for the first couple of minutes it starts with these kind of, they almost look like shots or some kind of a drink being kind of swished across the long bar. And it really kind of sets up this dynamic relationship between the players.
Pavol: And then it goes off into its own universe.
Katy: Very much so and totally defied my expectations as someone who was familiar with the work of Nature Theatre of Oklahoma but didn’t know EN-KNAP and certainly didn’t expect the piece to ultimately end up in Baghdad where it does, so think people are really in for a series of adventures in this work.
Katy: But I wonder Kelly and Pavol if you can tell us a little bit about the background of the creation of this piece. It was created in 2017 with EN-KNAP, which is Slovenian [inaudible 00:03:40] you would think, probably most well known, most renown contemporary dance ensemble. Tell us a little bit about how you came to be connected with EN-KNAP, and what it was like working with them.
Pavol: Well the artistic director Iztok Kovač kept inviting us to come and work with his company for several years, and since we were working on Life and Times at the moment, we could never really see ourselves leaving the project. And then we were in Grads finishing the project, and we were kind of left with nothing to do for the next couple of years. And it just happens that Ljubljana is about an hour away from Grads, and so he came over and we talked and then he took us over there to meet the dancers. We fell in love with them and went from there.
We went there for a couple of weeks and did the workshop with them to figure out if we were all a good match. And then we went home and we wrote the script and then came back and worked with them for two more rehearsal periods and created the show. And our focus changed after Life and Times. We’d been working on these recorded telephone conversations for 10 years and then we wanted to change direction and try something that we weren’t good at. So we really wanted to do writing, and because these people were dancers and had never really spoken on stage, we chose the most impossible task for them which is speaking as difficult language as possible. And at least one of the first part of the show is written in iambic pentameter, which we also had never written before. And so we just all tried to really challenge ourselves and take ourselves out of our comfort zone. And that’s what you get then.
Kelly: Yeah, I mean the surprise for us was we made it over the course of two years going back and forth many times and they kept us on our toes, because every time we went there and gave them something difficult to do and came back, they had kind of exceeded our expectations.
Kelly: The one thing dancers know how to do is work hard, and so they would work on the text in our absence and then we kept kind of having to reinvent the piece as we went and adding layers of difficulty.
Pavol: [crosstalk 00:06:20] I had to bring a lot of chewing tobacco to Slovenia because they learned how to speak, so we needed to somehow slow them down and make it more difficult. So most of them right now are chewing tobacco, real tobacco. So which at the beginning caused most of them during rehearsals to be fainting and passing out and throwing up.
Raina: Oh wow.
Katy: I’m curious if the idea for the themes in the piece came more from your end or if Iztok was originally thinking about these when he wanted to work with you.
Pavol: No, it came from our end. I mean after Life and Times, we have focused on going to a place and staying there for a while and really trying to figure out what is necessary for that particular place and making the work for the place and about the place. So we had made a film Nibelungen in the area where the story of Nibelungen happened. We went to Berlin and Cologne and researched and did work based on that research. And then we went to Austria to make our last film to work in the countryside and made the work about that.
We had been traveling with our shows one week here, one week there, constantly just on the road and felt completely disconnected from the place and really wanted to … And it felt like we were just doing exhibition games where we just showed the work that we had made someplace else and didn’t really feel like it’s necessary or integral to the place or needed. So we wanted to change our lifestyle and go to a place, stay there, make the work there and about the place. So we went to Slovenia and really kind of tried to figure out what is needed here. It all came from us. We weren’t told what to do.
Kelly: Yeah, and of course we bring our own preoccupations with us and over the course of that two years there was a lot of stuff happening in America that unnerved us, and sometimes when you go and … We were living in Louisiana for periods of time and with that distance you kind of look at things differently than when you’re living there. We felt very American, and out of our context, we were kind of able to think about some of those issues.
Katy: I wonder if you can tell us a little bit more about the research process. Thinking about the pursuit of happiness, this myth that really undergirds so much of American consciousness. Both in the colonial era, which, I’m seeing located in an old city in Philadelphia, I feel like we see all the time, but also for people who live all over the nation. I think that sense of the American dream and you’re really successful when you’re doing what you love, which is something that one of the characters speaks about in the work. What was your research process like in digging into that quintessentially?
Kelly: Well I think for this piece, I mean it started out as more of a personal look at happiness and trying to find it. We were in a bit of a personal hole, and also I would be lying if I said that we did a lot of research and that this work comes out of research. I mean for us mainly we usually start with a meeting point and in this case it happened to be an old 1930’s book that somebody had given us called Cowboy Dances, which we kind of just took in our baggage, thinking that maybe a place to start is with dancers, with dance. And it’s these really hard to imagine descriptions of weird dances and we just kind of tried to wade our way through this language, but it happened to be with the dancers, but it happened to be somewhat western themed and I mean even the bar came from the fact that there was a ballet bar in the room. So the bar started as a B-A-R-R-E, and then as you go, these things kind of layer on top of each other and more and then you follow the ideas that kind of present themselves rather than starting from ideas.
Pavol: Almost after the fact, you figure it out when you’re making work. You try to stay as open as possible to your intuition and instinct, and you’re trying to respond to different types of information. I mean we did watch westerns and we did I think, especially Kelly who was reading a lot of theoretical books or articles on American identity, and myth of the cowboy and the outlaw. But when you’re in rehearsal, it’s a much more intuitive process and then you can talk about it afterwards. Then once you have hours of material, then you see what do you have and then you shape it according to something that you feel like is relevant to the world. And it becomes yet something else.
Kelly: Yeah, I mean and it starts usually from personal and also kind of just utilitarian, like what’s in the room, who’s in the room. Keeping your eyes open.
Katy: And I was really struck by one of the lines that the dancer says pretty early on in the piece, that “Happiness is always in the past, a mutated form of melancholy.” And hearing you all talk about the process of developing the work, it makes me think so much of it’s relationship to your larger body of work with Nature Theatre of Oklahoma and kind of this sense of, I can imagine you all when you finished Life and Times, that was touch a huge series both in its construction and the amount of time that you spent on it. That’s actually when you were last at Fringe in 2013 with the series, and I wonder what that sense of melancholy has with happiness, both in terms of your own progression as a company, but also more broadly. I’m thinking of even slogans like “Make America great again” that might refer to a greatness that America had in the past. Whether that was actually true or probably not.
Kelly: Definitely we had come to a point in our work where we kind of broke ourselves a little bit on this monumental piece of work that was 10 episodes long and over 16 hours in performance and we had such ambition for what we were doing, but it completely wrecked all of us physically, emotionally, mentally and we were definitely in the aftermath of that. Just thinking about at what cost.
Pavol: Especially when you make theater, we put ten years of work and our life and our health into the project and then you look at what is left and you end up with three bags of dirty costumes in your basement. That doesn’t feel like you’ve really accomplished much in ten years. So you really have serious existential questions about whether all of this makes any sense.
We are American artists and we want to work in America and we want to be able to speak to this culture and be a part of the discourse, and when it takes such an effort … Now, thank God, Nick Stuccio and two others have brought the work of Life and Times to their festivals. But other than that, we don’t feel like our work here is what was relevant or really needed, necessary. And it might’ve been just self pity or it felt that way to us. And so we really, we we wanted to almost hide in Slovenia away from a kind of spotlight and just really focus on the work itself and where does the pleasure lie? It’s like we felt the same way we felt before we made No Dice, which also Nick brought through to Philadelphia-
Raina: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Pavol: Where we rejected any kind of ambition of success, but where we focused on just the work itself. No Dice was a new beginning for us and this Pursuit of Happiness was also a new beginning for us where we really ask these serious existential questions of why we make work and should we continue to do it.
Raina: So while you’re, you know, working on this piece that is centered around American values, most of your tour has been outside of the US. So in two years, what has the reception been in other countries?
Kelly: It’s not a surprise, but a lot of other countries do follow American politics. It’s not like whatever we do just happens here. We’re out there in the world and we do change things out there in the world for other people. And also this kind of political process that’s been happening here is also mirrored in many ways in places like Germany and Poland. And it’s happening everywhere.
Kelly: And so, I think they recognize themselves in it and it’s not foreign. It’s not foreign to them. It’s not like they’re looking at something that has no meaning for them.
Raina: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kelly: But for us it’s super important to do it back home. I feel grateful that we get to take it to Philadelphia.
Katy: Well I’m curious if you guys have any ideas. I got in New York almost two years ago now and so much has changed even in those past two years within American politics, but as you speak Kelly, really on an international stage as many countries, Brexit comes to mind in particular, are considering some of the same challenges that we are here in America. And I wonder, do you imagine that the work might be received differently now, 18-24 months later or might there be aspects of it that hit audiences differently or might-
Kelly: Yeah, there’s aspects of it that come into focus for me differently every time we do it. Certainly after the school shootings, after every school shooting, just the amount of guns on stage and the use of violence to kind of solve every problem rings especially strongly. But at the same time, you talk about how different things in the world change. Sometimes it’s also how many things in the world don’t change. I mean all of this stuff in Iraq, insert different country here, but the same story, the same thing going on, some kind of proxy war somewhere, so, the more things change, the more things stay the same as well.[FringeArts Commercial Break]
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Raina: You mentioned violence and I’d love to touch on that within the context of this piece, because there is this juxtaposition of the old time-y western bar fights and shoot out, but then also contemporary military activity in Iraq. In what ways have you found that violence is interwoven into the ideas of what it means to be American and to this idea of the pursuit of happiness?
Kelly: I think what to me rings true to me personally or what this is the kind of violence of imposing your will upon other people, even if it has a kind of altruistic sense. Definitely for me, thinking personally about the company and imposing my own pursuit of happiness onto other people and dragging them along with me into my dream. Not everybody in the end wanted to travel the world and do this really difficult show night after night that we were doing. And in a similar way, one of the characters in this show kind of drags everyone else along into his dream, which becomes a kind of a nightmare, so. And in the way that the US sometimes with ostensibly good intentions kind of meddles in foreign countries in a way that-
Raina: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kelly: Doesn’t always have a happy ending.
Pavol: With good intentions.
Pavol: We want to spread democracy.
Pavol: So we’re going to beat you up into it. We’re going to beat you into having a better life.
Katy: Well, what was so striking to me when I found a piece originally is that the violence was received kind of in two different registers simultaneously, which I think speaks to really the American paradigm in a lot of different ways.
Katy: Some people when they saw the violence found it really funny, actually.
Kelly: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Katy: You can tell that it staged combat, nobody’s actually getting punched. There are all these amazing sound effects-
Katy: Who mimic cartoons and the blood that comes out in the latter part of the work is actually bright red streamers. And I think much of the work talks about the sense of the role of violence and its depiction in popular media, but also even in staged theatrical works. And I know that there has has just been a lot of discussion in the last two to three years about what it means to depict violence and who is being depicted in that moment, and I think in the Pursuit of Happiness, one of the things I think it’s been successful at is showing violence that is kind of unnerving in its depiction, where we’re not actually seeing blood and guts on stage, but in realizing how perhaps possibly comical it is, it at least made me very uncomfortable, which I think was kind of the point. I thought that was very effective.
Pavol: Thank you.
Kelly: Yeah, I mean it’s an interesting challenge and something that I think has preoccupied us in the last several pieces that we’ve made after this. Just how impossible it is to represent violence in the theater. It necessarily has to be theatricalized and it’s never convincing like it is on television or movies. You can’t make it look convincing, and so what do you with that kind of impossibility? I like it as just the potential for somehow pure theater or I like the unconvincedness of it.
Katy: Well it kind of gets me back to I think that one of the central questions is the work, which we touched on a little bit earlier, but what is the role of art, which is this awful hard question that I feel like we wrestle with every single day when we come to work, and then I’m sure you all do as well as you decide to recreate another work. Who do we create the work with? Why are we using it?
And I appreciated in the second half of the piece when we’re kind of moving into this nightmare as you described it Kelly, there’s a moment when it seems like, oh, this dance that’s happening might [inaudible 00:21:51] mechanism between NATO and Iraqi insurgent forces and then ultimately, that totally spirals into chaos, but it offers for a brief moment the sense of art as a way to sum up a very tangible problem, which I think art very rarely if ever actually does. So as you continue to present this work, how have your thoughts about that [inaudible 00:22:17] shifted, if at all?
Kelly: Oh, I think we’re always kind of in this balancing act between our hopes for what we do and also just not being able to kid ourselves entirely, that it does do those things that we wish it does.
Pavol: Well I think the work itself is in a way a quest for relevance.
Pavol: It’s a kind of desire to be part of the discourse to be, almost like in ancient Greek theater where the theater itself was a place where the society came to dream of itself and discuss the irrational in our life, whereas the irrational seems to be repressed. We’re repressing the irrational nature of life, whether it’s in politics or even on television, where it could be a part of the conversation, but probably 95% of all life is irrational. We don’t understand anything. We deny the fact that we don’t really know why we’re here and what we’re doing. And if aliens are watching us from outer space, they have no idea what the hell we we’re trying to even do. And we don’t, we just kind of convince ourselves that we’re doing something that’s important, whereas it may not be important at all. And that’s what we … Every day we go into rehearsal, trying to answer that question, why are we doing this? And then if it’s not important inherently, which as American artists, we always believe … Sometimes we work with people in Europe who have state subsidies and they’re told that art is important. But we don’t believe that because we are spending most of our year in our apartment, in our underwear at the bottom of society where nobody’s willing to even acknowledge that we exist or that art is important. So we certainly have our doubts, and so if we consider that it’s inherently not necessarily important what we do, we have to create that value.
Kelly: [crosstalk 00:24:25] performance, we try to do that. I mean, I think every night we’re trying to articulate what that is with an audience. What this can be good for and who needs it. That’s, in a way, part of the actor’s job.
Raina: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Pavol: It’s like we [crosstalk 00:24:39] always have to undercut the actors and tell them “Look, what you’re doing is nothing. It’s shit. You’re just kind of dancing around and prancing on stage like show ponies.”, In a good way. We’re not cutting them down psychologically, but to kind of convince them that to have that doubt.
Pavol: That’s why it’s always interesting for us to work with Americans because they know that. Every American person who’s tried to be an actor or performing artist knows that you’ve got to go out there and work your ass off in order for something to happen. Whereas Americans sometimes take it for granted that they’re on stage-
Pavol: [crosstalk 00:25:18] Europeans, yeah … That they’re on stage and therefore it’s important. So we have to somehow create this existential crisis for them in order for them to be able to talk about these issues.
Kelly: And in order for them to really look out over the footlights and somehow express those doubts to an audience and to kind of enlist in their help in the search for that importance, or in that search for what it could mean tonight, not just in a rehearsal room.
Raina: Yeah. Well I think that that’s a really interesting transition to our final question. Thinking about what inspires you and specifically your highbrow and lowbrow inspirations as you go into the rehearsal room and start coming up with whatever your next idea is.
Pavol: For this particular piece I know I was reading War and Peace, especially the war sections, as far as highbrow is concerned. Lowbrow we were watching Spaghetti westerns and things like that in general for the work. I would say really horrible American television, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are our all time favorite and Survivor as far as-
Pavol: Lowbrow. Reality television, which in a way was what Life and Times was based on, they’re just recordings of things that happen and then you shape them just like in a reality TV show in a series, so Life and Times, ten episodes, it was like a Big Brother TV series in a way.
Pavol: I personally find inspiration in literature. Proust, Tolstoy.
Kelly: Yeah. And I mean the highbrow stuff, I guess I was reading during this was a book on Grands Goulets and also this book of cultural criticism by David Warshaw that was … There was a great essay called The Gangster As Tragic Hero and also The Westerner. These were two essays on two different genres in American film, if we were thinking a lot about some making at that time. It was mainly about how the western could be seen as a genre that was interrogating kind of American morality, and that was interesting for me to think about. And the gangster film as well, that those were two kind of flip sides of American moral works. And both of them equally, horribly violent.
Raina: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Katy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Katy: Well thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on The Fringe. The Pursuit of Happiness will be presented at the Mandell Theater at Drexel University September 20th and 21st as part of the 2019 Fringe Festival.
Raina: In addition to the performances, we will also be screening Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s video Life and Times episode seven in partnership with Light Box Film Center on September 17th.
Katy: And if you want to hear more from Pavol and Kelly along with numbers of EN-KNAP, your community partners here in Philly, about what the pursuit of happiness means today, join us for a conversation at our Fringe Festival bookstore on Cherry Street Pier on Saturday, September 21st.
Raina: Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, and download the FringeArts app.