One of my favourite novels & films about the act of writing is Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, where the character of Grady Tripp is in the midst of writing his second novel – which has reached thousands of pages long with no end in sight. The key moment in the story is when Tripp realises that writing is about making choices and the mid-life crisis he’s having is blocking is ability to make those choices, both in life and on the page.
Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times (Parts 1 to 4) is full of a lot of very deliberate choices, particularly in the creation and development of the script – but also in its direction, production and acting styles. But where it reminds me of Wonder Boys is in its unfinished nature and its insistence that it not conform to typical narrative tricks or structures.
Life and Times is the story of the life of one of the ensemble of actors who works with the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. She has been interviewed by phone by the artistic directors of the company and the show has been developed around these recordings. Parts 1 to 4 comprise a marathon 10 hours of theatre, though it was presented in Melbourne in both three parts across a number of nights – as well as the full four parts in a day, which I attended last Saturday.
When the project is completed, there will be anywhere between 10 and 16 parts that stretch across a full twenty-four hours of experience. Part 4.5, for example, is a short animated film. Part 5 is a book for the audience to read in the theatre. Melbourne Festival only presented parts 1 to 4.
What we see on stage is a replication of these recording about this life, a typical middle class, white suburban life. The stories are embellished by theatrical trickery, to enhance our experience of interacting with these words – but in another way, what we get is very raw.
There’s been no attempt to sanitise the language or polish it up to make it feel theatrical or dramatic. As many of us would do, when trying to recall all the parts of our lives from birth through the later teenage years (the show so far), the speaker punctuates a lot of her stories with “ums” and “like” and nervous laughter.
Early on, I thought I might get tired of hearing so many of these awkward moments – moments that playwrights would normally polish out or not even put on the page to begin with. Dialogue on stage is most usually artiface, even when a writer is striving for naturalism. Life and Times strives for hyper-naturalism with the recreation of this exact phrasing, even though the rest of what we’re watching on stage is as far from natural as you could expect.
But as the show progressed, I fell under its spell. It is genuinely funny and uplifting. There are moments of darkness, but it doesn’t tend to dwell in them. The actors are fully commited to telling this story, while also embodying this woman’s life through deliberately choreographed movement and dance – and in parts 3 and 4, parody and farce.
The thing about telling the story of an unremarkable life, though, is the many moments that evoke memories of the audience themselves. As a playwright, some of my writing is inspired by moments in my life – even if it’s just based on a feeling, rather than anything resembling my actual experience. And in writing, I strive to tell stories that will connect with audiences. Usually, though, the point of storytelling is often to transport the audience. With this show, it feels genuinely like they want the audience to regress, to remember and to fill those awkward, repetitious moments with memories from their own childhoods.
The ten-hour marathon was broken up by three intervals, including a dinner break where hamburgers were prepared by the actors in the show. And much of the audience at the Saturday marathon was made up of actors, writers and directors of the Melbourne and Australian theatre-making scene. The sense of community was palpable. We were in this for the long haul. We wanted to be witness to this life and where it was headed.
Of course, unlike most theatre where stories end, Life and Times is still part way through its creation. The subject still lives. The show is still in development. And it’s a long way from completion.
But, in the meantime, the first four chapters of this unremarkable life is told in a theatrically remarkable way. And all those “ums” and “likes” and awkward “hahahas” are gaps into which our own memories flood, making connections in her life, in their lives and in ours that were not apparent before we were witness to this extraordinary show.