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The text for this experimental theater piece comes from memories recorded in a series of long phone conversations

September 24, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 24--Most of us have vivid childhood memories -- whether it's giving up a favorite blanket, learning how to ride a bike or getting in trouble at preschool. But not many people have these recollections as the basis for an experimental theater production.

The Nature Theater of Oklahoma's "Life and Times" is based on a multiple phone conversations with Kristin Worrall, a member of the New York-based performance group's ensemble. Worrall's story isn't extraordinary, it's pretty average. But her experiences are universal.

The first-person story is divided into 10 episodes, with each episode based on a separate phone call. "Episode 1," Worrall's memories from birth to age 8, debuts at the Walker Art Center on Thursday. Nature Theater of Oklahoma directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper worked for years to create and refine "Life and Times." They have performed "Episodes 1-5" around the world and are currently working on 6-8.

"I always go into a conversation with curiosity, not a pre-planned agenda," Liska said. "If I wasn't really interested in talking to her, I wouldn't call her. It wasn't like I decided we're going to do a really epic project -- I'm going to call Kristin and she's going to give me the material. All of this was recorded seven years ago in the span of six months."

The phone conversations serve as the piece's text with every "like," "um" and "ah" left as-is. Set to a chamber pop score with operatic moments, the troupe delivers the recorded memories through music and movement. Philip Bither, the Walker's curator of performing arts, describes it as "quite an adventure."

"The idea is: Everybody's life is mythical in a certain way and if it's looked at in the right perspective it has a profound quality about it no matter how 'average' it may seem," Bither said. "When they rolled it out through this kind of funny musical version, I found myself both fascinated and laughing. At the same time I was very moved by this woman's early childhood memories, I found myself re-experiencing my own early memories."

Bither believes the Nature Theater of Oklahoma is "changing the face of American theater" and points out the New Yorker called "Life and Times: Episodes 1-4" a "masterpiece." Bither says the three-plus hour "Episode 1" is audacious and accessible. There's a reason it's the first show, not to mention the largest theater production, of the Walker's 2013-2014 performing arts season.

"I wanted it to be something of a statement not just how deeply we believe in this company, but also in some ways it's my favorite kind of theater in that it's both experimental and avant-garde and at the same time it's really embracing of its audience," he said. "Those things are often viewed as contradictory. In this instance it really works for a general public, critics and people who are interested in contemporary theater."

Amy Carlson Gustafson can be reached at 651-228-5561. Follow her at twitter.com/amygustafson.

What: Nature Theater of Oklahoma's "Life and Times: Episode 1"

Where: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

When: 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday

Tickets: $20 (Thursday) and $28 (Friday and Saturday)

Info: 612-375-7600 or walkerart.org

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