It was a simple but profound prompt: “Tell me the story of your life.” And in response Kristin Worrall dove into an elongated stream of consciousness that began to turn her ordinary life into extraordinary art. Nature Theater of Oklahoma strictly adheres to their mission of “making the work we don’t know how to make, putting ourselves in impossible situations, and working from out of our own ignorance and unease.” And with that in mind, the root material for the epic Life and Times series was a sprawling sixteen hours of recorded conversations by musician and company member Kristin Worrall and director Pavol Liska. On many levels it’s a remarkable narrative, and in the end, “Life and Times is beautiful because it’s particular—Worrall is a sensitive observer of her own life—and also because it’s everyone’s story. Worrall’s might be an everyday tale, but this performance is once in a lifetime.” (Village Voice). I took a moment to ask Worrall a few questions about a work shaped by her past that now impacts her present life.
You’re a musician, performer, and a member of Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Tell me a little about your background and your duties in Episode 1.
I’ve been working with Kelly and Pavol for 10 years. Before working for them I worked in the music industry (distribution) and was a sound engineer and assistant for a commercial music house. I started out as a sound designer with Nature Theater, but my role has since morphed into a performer and musician. I play the flute and glockenspiel and dance in Episode 1.
Liska and co-director Kelly Copper asked you to audio record your life story as material for a possible production. How much did you know about their intent going into it, and how did it all unfold?
In the summer of 2007, Pavol told me he’d like to call me one day soon and to make sure I had a lot of time and didn’t feel pressured to hurry. Once the calling began, it was simply my own response to the question “Tell me the story of your life.” One phone call turned into ten, and only at the very end of the calls did he propose that it be a show. Of course I knew he’d be recording the phone calls, but I didn’t realize at the time that I was the only person he was calling, so it took me by surprise.
Downloading a sixteen-hour oral accounting of your life is an impressive extemporaneous feat. How did you prepare (or not) for the task? Did you notice a difference in the nature of your memories as you progressed through your life story?
Although it was sixteen hours in total that we spoke, it was broken up into ten different phone calls (which happened by accident, not design). One call would be as long as two and a half hours, another may have only been an hour long. I remember it being fun if not a bit self-indulgent. I didn’t prepare at all, but definitely took it seriously. It took the form of a stream of consciousness, and after a while I’m sure there were times I forgot that Pavol was on the other end of the phone. For the later phone calls I began talking about people and relationships that I was still involved in, so it became more difficult for me to have perspective and ground events. And I think, too, I glossed over things that had more emotional and intimate import for me. After the end of the last phone call, I realized that what I’d recounted wasn’t what I consider my biography or my life story. It was a stream of consciousness, and I didn’t craft my language. And of course many important life events and details were left out.
After the recording took place, were you involved with shaping the work? And how do you feel about the interpretation?
The text of the phone calls is really considered raw material for Kelly and Pavol to shape. Though the project is titled Life and Times, I don’t consider it at all a direct representation of my life. The show is based on a meandering phone call, after all, and I appreciate the abstraction and formalization of the text. I’m honored Pavol chose to call me. My words are being turned into art!
One of the most distinctive elements of the piece is the verbatim usage of all parts of your speech – every particle and article is included. Was it surprising to hear all of your “ums,” “ahs,” and “likes” brought to life in song?
I admit when I first heard the text I was slightly mortified at how inarticulate I sound. However, I have to defend myself in that when a person is trying to recall things from distant memory, a fair amount of “ums” are to be expected to uttered.
In the text your words have essentially been synthesized into notes. It must be an interesting cognitive exercise when playing the music to have this simultaneity happening?
I love playing the music for Episode 1. As a flute player I am lucky to be the voice in the orchestration that follows the singing (as opposed to being the rhythm). It’s great when we’re really in tune with one another, and a real symbiosis is happening in the room. That’s the goal.
How have your family and friends received the work?
They’re amazed by it and impressed by the work we’ve done. And generally think it’s just incredibly surreal. It’s funny, too — they all remark upon how they can “hear me talking” in the shows — particularly in Episode 1, since the text was not edited.
Through the ten episodes of Life and Times — a magnum opus that will be realized in a range of artistic disciplines — your life story is being publicly celebrated and casually analyzed. That’s an extremely unusual situation for anyone. I imagine this experience must be humbling in some ways and probably an emotional one as well?
Absolutely. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the source of the material is my text since there are so many variables at play, and there’s so much work going into this project. But of course there are days when I’m feeling vulnerable and personalize events that are going on on-stage and can’t escape mental images that come up for me. It’s a precarious position to be in and certainly a surreal one. But ultimately I know that I’m in good hands and have hopes that the audience will feel the same way.
Nature Theater of Oklahoma will perform Life and Times: Episode 1 at the Walker September 26-28, 2013.