Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Hot, Hip and on the Verge

A dozen young American companies you need to know
—Sarah Hart

First question first: Are these the dozen companies that are heralding our theatrical future? Of course not. Hundreds of young, under-the-radar theatre troupes are capturing audiences and creating buzz in arts-friendly neighborhoods, storefronts, community centers, converted warehouses and basements, in cities large and small—confirming that the theatrical impulse is something utterly innovative and unquenchable.

American Theatre selected this dozen as emblems of the wave of American companies that have formed or come into prominence within the last five years—particularly companies with strong missions or aesthetic thrusts. Mostly, we put our ear to the ground to hear what local theatre-watchers were talking about. Our representative dozen is by turns tenacious and permeable, ambitious and on a budget, esoteric and low-brow. The work ranges from re-envisioned classics (with or without clowns) to new work by contemporary playwrights; it's vaudevillian, dance-centric, visual art–focused, music-infused, socially conscious, ethnically organized—and fun.

Of course, numerous other such companies exist in myriad forms, probably not far from where you're sitting. We encourage you to find them.

What Do You Believe?
—Nicole Estvanik, J.T. MacMillan (Photo)

If you can't name many "documentary cabaret" theatre companies, it could be because Steve Cosson's Civilians more or less invented the genre. "We're interested in the intersection between performance and real life," says the 36-year-old writer and director. The company's self-imposed mandate is to begin with research into real experience and then, using elements of theatre, create new works that resonate with the pressing issues of the day. The result? A signature style that New York Magazine has called "giddily sociological."

"It's a documentary process, but very up-front about its own subjectivity," explains Cosson. He founded the Civilians in 2001 with fellow University of California–San Diego grads as a breeding ground for new styles of collaboration, loosely based on the methods of the British company Joint Stock. The group's five projects to date have tackled the investigative imperative in varying ways, though music has been a constant. Canard, Canard, Goose?, the Civilians's debut, spoofed the group's own botched attempt to do an exposé on avian abuse. Gone Missing was a fugue on the theme of loss as voiced by New Yorkers; developed in 2002, it drew critical praise for gently evoking, without exploiting, the post-9/11 mood. A 2003 piece about the mates of dictators, The Ladies, showcased the Civilians's historical side, as does an upcoming project, Paris Commune, which was workshopped this year at La Jolla Playhouse of California.

The Obie-winning group's latest offering, Nobody's Lunch, ran this fall at the East Village venue P.S.122. As with past productions, the kernel of Lunch is a question: How do Americans form their beliefs? Troupe members interviewed some 125 people, including government employees, women named Jessica Lynch, a former cult member, a channeler of intergalactic entities and a vitriolic cabbie. They transcribed these encounters without notes or recordings—the Civilians's method allows for, even depends on, the idiosyncratic filter that is the human memory. Cosson shaped the material into interweaving monologues, punctuated by Michael Friedman's original songs. The final product was a wry, eye-opening vaudevillian show that a Village Voice critic described as "channel surfing with good cable." For the Civilians, it's not about answers. "It's more about encountering the limits of your own perception," says Cosson. (The main value of epiphanies, according to one character in Lunch, is that they "can be turned into a piece of advertising.")

Looking forward, Gone Missing, which traveled to London's Gate Theatre this past spring, will return to tour the U.S. And in the works are collaborations with playwrights Neal Bell and Jenny Schwartz, based on concepts that, true to form, could pass for dissertation titles: "masculinity as it intersects the personal and political" and "people in communities that resist modern technologies."