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Amerika: Not Kafka, Liska
Pavol Liska started his own theater company, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, a name taken from the ending of Franz Kafka's novel Amerika.

Theater director Pavol Liska has been lauded by New York Times critics and his professors at the School of the Arts for his ability to mirror and dissect middle-class American life and attitudes. The odd thing is: Liska didn't grow up in middle-class America. This unlikely chronicler of small-town U.S.A. -- who counts fellow Bohemian and novelist Franz Kafka as an inspiration -- grew up in small-town Eastern Europe learning to speak English from tourists.

There were few American visitors to Skalica, Slovakia, population 15,000, when Liska, now 31, was a teenager, but he always sought them out and offered his services as tour guide and translator. The effort improved his English and introduced him to someone who would later redirect his life.

In Kafka's novel Amerika, a teenaged boy immigrates to the United States, a country he is acquainted with only through his imagination and cultural stereotypes. Upon his arrival, he embarks on a series of misadventures that find him alternately victimized by one-time friends and championed by near strangers.

The irony of that book is not lost on Liska. At 17, he had just learned that he did not get into college and was headed for the army when he got a phone call that would open up a new world to him. An American woman he'd met months earlier, who lived in Oklahoma, was offering him the opportunity to come to the Untied States at her expense. But if he accepted her offer, he'd have to leave Slovakia in three days and with little beyond uncertainty waiting at the other end of the plane ride.

Like many people from Eastern Europe at that time, Liska thought of the United States and Times Square synonymously. His trip, however, literally brought him to the middle of America. Liska soon realized that Oklahoma was a long way from the Big Apple. "It was definitely not what I expected," he says, laughing, "but I was open-minded."

Like the protagonist of Amerika, Liska also lived through a series of misadventures. Working odd jobs and doing menial labor wasn't what he'd had in mind for himself when he left Skalica. But following an Eastern European tradition of never admitting defeat and reluctant to tell his parents that he was homesick, Liska says, "I wrote home that everything was wonderful and I was having fun." With the help of friends he eventually enrolled at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond. After one year, he transferred to Dartmouth College, majoring in theater.

Liska graduated from Dartmouth in 1995 and began directing plays. He also married and often collaborated with his wife, writer and director Kelly Copper. Liska worked at a feverish pace, supplementing theater productions with photography and video shoots. Four years later, burnt out and feeling as if he had nothing else to say, he walked away from the world of theater.

That was the beginning of his journey into becoming the director he is today, he says.

Liska spent the next few years working at nearly everything but theater. After a good deal of introspection, he reached a decision. "Theater is the only art form where I can truly express myself and fully reinvent myself," he says. "I also realized I couldn't do anything else."

One of his professors, Brian Kulick, who is also artistic director of Classic Stage Company (CSC), noted in a recent article that he'd easily learned as much from Liska as he'd taught. Liska's direction of the Anton Chekhov play Three Sisters, which opened the "On the Verge" new artist series at CSC, was lauded by theater critics. His directing style is bare-bones, no spectacle, no splash—just the actors and the script. The absence of elaborate sets and costumes presents an open stage where the actors and the script are the main attractions. Audiences love it. Theatergoers are eagerly awaiting his next project, Kasimir und Karoline, written by Hungarian playwright Odon von Horvath in 1931.

Currently in rehearsal, the production will begin a three-month run in mid-April (space for the production has not yet been determined). Kasimir und Karoline explores human aspirations through the interactions of two lovers. Clearly excited as he describes the play, Liska says, "It's about the willingness to sacrifice in pursuit of desire while acknowledging personal limitations."

Liska is in his element at the theater program at the School of the Arts. After re-entering theater work, he says he had to "start all over again," learning his craft. "Relearning theater through the rigor of the Columbia program has made me able to deal with a lot of work. It has also made be free to fail -- repeatedly -- in search of something better in the art form. And that's what makes me excited."

Published: Feb 10, 2005
Last modified: Feb 09, 2005

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