May 6, 2009

Fusebox: "No Dice" by Nature Theater of Oklahoma

Conceived and directed by Pavol Liška and Kelly Copper.

It's more an activity to be engaged in, starting out with ordering your free sandwich, than a performance to be observed.

I love the ideas in the script, the humor of the acting and costumes, etc., of course; but a key part of what makes this piece one of the most exciting things I've experienced in a long time is that it invites the audience to notice there's a dance/game going on concurrently with the actors' conversations, and successfully lures them to engage in the dance/game of trying to figure it out and how it relates to various levels of "reality." Our experience as audience was kind of like a continuation of the same processes the company used in creating and performing No Dice, starting with paying close attention to seemingly mundane conversations and then conversing with one another about what we think is going on.

I can't resist mentioning something my fave prof. in college (Alarik Skarstrom), pointed out, that the roots of the word, "conversation," mean "'to live with, keep company with, literally 'turn about with' . . . ." (see etymology here). In conversations repeated to the point of ritual, the actors in No Dice suggest something similar: "I think you're on the right track; I think things are starting to turn around . . ." [emphasis supplied].

Maybe the game we're lured into trying to figure out, taken by itself, is kind of dumb. Maybe it's just a trick to get us to renew our attention to eternal truths. Maybe it's just something to give us a pretext for connecting in ways or to people we hadn't planned on.

"Only connect." This advice is often attributed to Marshall McLuhan, who used the phrase well; but apparently it originated with E.M. Forster, with a somewhat different sense: "Only connect! . . . . Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer."

No Dice reminds us it's the intent that counts, and the actions you're sufficiently inspired to undertake, not just the words; that connection is an activity, in which we continuously choose to try – or not – to hear what the other was trying to say, not just a passive state; that art and life are continuous, except for those artificial distinctions we create for our own use, or fail to question.

It was a very fun journey, and as they say, it's the journey that matters.

So, I haven't come up with a better way to describe this piece further than to share my notes, below, mostly taken during the first 2 hours of this nearly 4-hour tour de force. SPOILER ALERT: since part of the joy and, I think, the meaning of No Dice is having the experience of figuring it out for yourself, if you haven't already seen it and think you may have the chance, stop reading now! (There's a tour schedule on the company's website at

A lot of these notes are shortened versions of what the actors were saying. My notes got more detailed as I became more convinced something worth noting was going on; then slacked off once I felt I'd figured out enough to relax and enjoy:

We're in a conference room with risers for the audience. There's a rather elaborate, obviously "theatrical" curtain/frame for the front of the "stage" area; other than that and a few office chairs, almost no set.
Catman, one-eyed, and a cowboy, working in an (invisible) factory. Slavic accents w/ French twist (or Bosnian)?
Gal in red wig and fishnets: Are you working?
I'm coding cars [?] – for a Walmart in Oklahoma.
Do you get compliments?
[Not cars; it's TARs: Time Adjustment Request forms.] Employees if punch-in; want to go on vacation.
Work 9 - 6, no pay for lunch break.
Can steal soda and pens. No stickies. But paperclips.
Work is good. Because I get bored here.
Redhead (who just encouraged him to steal sodas and pens): My job is to perk you up, make people more productive. To make what they're doing into art.
Cowboy: I'm supposed to be in a film.
Next on: Pirate with Hasidic curls and big beads.
[They're all wearing earpieces.]
"Dinner theater." It's fun because the costumes are goofy and it's like community theater and they try so hard, you have to love them. Food is part of the experience.
I'm just trying to find what makes us feel alive and gets us through the day.
What gets me through the day is seeing the cosmic dance.
Things go unrecorded, the creativity that we use – We take it for granted. We don't make anything out of it. How do we transform that cosmic murmur so we can see it. So we can hear the cosmic murmur constantly. [Punky blond is playing keyboard.]
Pirate's working on a story: he's been working on it 25 years.
Love quadrangle [but there are 5 on stage.]
People expect a story. But is it really necessary to have a story in order to tell people stuff?? Some people can't tell stories, so they need someone who can do it for them, because people need that in their lives.
[Directed acting? They all have earpieces.]
Catman starts singing wordlessly.
Reference to Moscow Cat Theater.
Russian accents?
Before that, pirate told a story about a magicians' library or archive, which was in "complete disarray."
[Script v. peripatetic – no real story. Timing often off; emotions frequently inappropriate.]
And you, you are having second thoughts about your life's mission?
I wish I would have some solid first thoughts so I could have some second thoughts.
Next, discussion of alcoholism.
Then workaholism.
I'm not eating, I'm not smoking, and I'm not drinking, because I'm talking. But at least I'm not watching tv. Discussion of all the tv she does watch.
Characters have a certain repertory of hand gestures they repeat, whether appropriate or not:
  • gripping bicep of other arm
  • finger-f*cking
  • finger-snapping
  • one hand swooping in a curve w/ 2 fingers pointing
  • one hand twisting near head as if turning off hearing
  • hands swooping back and forth in parallel
  • hands forming a loose globe in front of one
  • hands pointing/jabbing in divergent directions
  • stroking an imaginary, waist-height fat-roll
  • tapping one's stomach or solar plexus
  • one hand gesturing as if pulling something out of one's *ss
  • one hand petting the other
  • etc.
They're using these throughout the performance.
Close-together scene: I think you're on the right track, I think things are turning around, getting better, although real estate may never be good for us.
Note all characters sound like struggling actors in NYC.
Back to the factory. Cowboy may be sick. Discussion of Emergen-C and Claritin D. Can't afford to get sick, too much to do.
Has an audition.
You should act like a celebrity.
Ritualistic conversation closing: I think you're on the right track. Series of cliches about things turning around, "Even though real estate may not be the most generous to us." Words not exactly the same each time. "I think we're working our way towards each other."
Scene changes to dark, dramatic light: a gal in green gown and feathered headdress wants to be a diva. Her emotion is very sad even while laughing – very appropriately inappropriate.
Back to normal, daylight scene. Cowboy's friend got fired. Competition among remaining employees to process TARs quickly.
Tell me a story.
I came up with a great idea for a commercial for m&ms. People eat the m&ms and they make them dance in different ways, depending on the color. m&ms' or other sponsorships for the actors' company, to make more money. Cigarette commercials during breaks from their epic theater production.
[Talk about this production: short version would be 4 hours.] This idea would be completely original with us. So, like, don't tell ANYONE.
[The actors start dancing one by one, in different ways. Then they start overlapping, and it speeds up. The dances incorporate the hand gestures, in fact they're composed of them, at least upper-body. Then all in unison doing the exact same dance; maybe they were, all along, just with different styles?]
Discussion of various male actors including Mel Gibson.
[They're definitely re-playing scenes – still not sure the words are exact, but very close – but the roles are shuffled. Also, the scenes are in a different order.]
"Everything needs to be seen as a sign."
What makes me feel alive is being connected to the cosmic dance. It's like seeing your world from a distance. Imagine if you could hear the cosmic murmur. We don't hear ourselves, we just talk. The creativity that we use to talk right now, it all goes unnoticed and unrecorded. We take it for granted; we don't make anything out of it. How can we transform this cosmic murmur into something we can notice, to feel that connection? How can you go through your day hearing music constantly?
I could do this: my favorite scene from Celine and Julie Go Boating [what is this?]
[Meanwhile, Catman has apparently shaved his head and grown a mustache; NO, it's a different guy, dressed the same.]
Redhead dancing and singing with thick French accent now, You're a bunch of voyeurs, cosmic voyeur pimps! She "accidentally" knocks off her hat and red wig.
The punky blond speaks for the first time: We don't like to say when we go out or come in because we prefer to be here, I think. The question is, how do we enjoy ourselves while we're here with one another?
Fifty years ago, conversations were much shorter and much higher quality. Conversation was a form of enjoyment. One might even describe a civilization in terms of conversation.
[Room darkened; long, scrolling video projection of script, with original audio recording, of real conversation between Pavol and maybe his mom, who is confined to a wheelchair but has five younger male friends who take her dancing nonetheless. Apparently much of the script for No Dice was taken from such conversations.]
At the end, the actors all take off their wigs, etc., and address the closing conversation to individual members of the audience: "I think you're on the right track . . . ."
Not sure it's clear from the notes above, but there's a lot of very energetic dancing in the course of this production, as well as laughs.

After the show, one of the actors confirmed they'd used the exact same gestures throughout the performance, in the exact same order, and explained that all the gestures came from three sources: (1) 13 gestures from a magician's act, (2) a video of disco dancing, and (3) Pavol's mom (a different mom than the one whose conversations were used in the script). The earpieces were to iPod-type devices which, if I understood correctly, were each playing the same script; but as the hours went by, gradually got a bit out of sync with each other (presumably as intended). Which role was played by which actor depended on where that actor chose to place her- or himself onstage in that scene – so each performance is at least slightly different.

There's a good video about the company by Cast Your Art here, in which the artists explain they used playing cards to determine the sequence of the gestures. The script was culled from over 100 hours of recorded conversations.

There's a helpful discussion of the movie, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), directed by Jacques Rivette (which was referred to in No Dice but which I still haven't seen), at Combustible Celluloid, in which the author, Jefferey M. Anderson, explains,
Many critics have read many things into this movie, but the key thing to remember is that Rivette was a member of the "Cahiers du Cinema" team . . . . These . . . directors all learned movies by watching movies. Therefore, the drama that takes place inside the haunted house--in which the characters repeat the same lines over and over and do the same things over and over--is in effect like watching a movie. Celine and Julie at first become characters in the movie as well, unable to break out of their routine. It's not until Celine and Julie have been in the house several times that Rivette even shows us different camera angles of the action.

One possible explanation is that Celine and Julie Go Boating is a fantasy where Rivette and the audience can enter into a movie filled with ghosts and change things around. . . . The other important thing to point out is that Celine and Julie Go Boating seems primarily focused on the joy of cinema. Truffaut once said that a movie should represent either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema--anything in between did not interest him. Celine and Julie Go Boating has magic, poetry, singing, lots of laughter (the actresses seem to have giggle fits every time the camera is on them), as well as the ghost and murder story.

A third explanation for the movie is that it seems like we're watching realism; the long takes and natural sound. When in reality the whole creation is one of pure cinema. There is no reality in this movie. In a perfect world, there would be an old movie palace somewhere that plays Celine and Julie Go Boating over and over.
Nature Theater of Oklahoma's website is here. Additional reviews or articles covering the piece well can be found at The NYT here and here and at Time Out and Variety.

By the way, the company's name comes from Franz Kafka's first, unfinished novel, Amerika:
Personnel is being hired by the theater in Oklahoma! The Great Nature Theater of Oklahoma is calling you! It's calling today only! If you miss this opportunity there will never be another! Anyone thinking of his future, your place is with us! All welcome! Anyone who wants to be an artist, step forward! We are the theater that has a place for everyone, everyone in his place! If you decide to join us, we congratulate you here and now! But hurry, be sure not to miss the midnight deadline! We shut down at midnight, never to reopen! Accursed be anyone who doesn't believe us!

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