Sunday, April 23, 2006

Theater troupe gets creative with the facts For Civilians, interviews are just the start

by Louise Kennedy, Globe Staff

The work of the Civilians, a New York theater troupe that makes its New England debut this week at Zero Arrow Theatre in Cambridge, often gets labeled "documentary theater." But founder and artistic director Steven Cosson says that's not quite right.

"I don't call it documentary," Cosson says in a phone interview. "It's a mix between investigative and creative."

What that means for the Civilians show that the American Repertory Theatre and CRASHarts are presenting here, "(I Am) Nobody's Lunch," is that the Civilians' six actors interviewed a range of people -- from a Homeland Security planner to every Jessica Lynch in the phone book who'd talk to them -- to find out what they knew about what's going on in the world. Or, as Cosson puts it, "We wanted to know how people figure out what to believe. How is it that people know what they know? And our emphasis really is on how -- not on what facts do people have or not have, but on how they got them."

The Civilians have won praise for their entertaining mix of hilarious storytelling and serious thought, which distills the material they collect in interviews into a fast-paced, cabaret-style performance of loosely linked scenes about the various "characters" they've talked with. Their shows also include music; composer Michael Friedman provides original songs for ''Nobody's Lunch."

For this show, in talking to a diverse group of people about politics, the Iraq war, the Bush administration, and many other current topics, Cosson says, the Civilians "learned how to ask questions open-ended enough to let people tell us how they understand the world." So, for example, they might simply ask, "How do you know what's true?"

"We'd get a different answer depending on the person," Cosson says. "One might say, 'Well, I read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and then I go online and read the Guardian, and then I compare it all and put it all together to see what's going on.' Somebody else might just talk about their mother. One woman said the only thing she trusted was the squirrels and the pigeons."

That one didn't make the cut for the show, Cosson says, but the troupe did find room for other views that are just about as far from the mainstream. In fact, they talked to someone who purports to channel an alien -- and found it surprisingly enlightening.

"He's got a lot of information; he's, like, 40,000 years old," Cosson says. "Whatever's going on, however you take it, he's a very helpful character."

The Civilians have been conducting this kind of creative investigation since 2001, when their first piece led them to upstate New York to explore a rumor that the Walt Disney Company, after filming "Fly Away Home," had abandoned the starring geese to freeze to death on a lake. The Civilians soon found that legend to be false, and their resulting work, "Canard, Canard, Goose?," was as much a reflection on rumor and belief as it was a tale about a wild goose chase. But the geese made for some good laughs -- and brought the company critical acclaim.

As for ''Nobody's Lunch," says ART associate director Gideon Lester, ''I think it's the most mature piece they've done. It's the first time where the questions they've been investigating have been really serious. It's frivolous on one level, but the questions that they ask stimulate really provocative considerations of how content people are not to know very much about the news."

In an earlier version, the piece received strong reviews in New York. The Civilians have revised it extensively to keep it current, Lester says, and will take the new version to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer, then on to London in the fall. "It's got wide audience appeal," Lester says. "It's smart, sexy, very funny, and at the same time not empty of content."

One thing that differentiates the Civilians' work from documentary is that, when the Civilians do interviews, they don't use a tape recorder -- or even a notebook. Instead, they listen closely, observe, interact, then right after the encounter transcribe everything they remember about it.

"It's not like it's the real truth of the person, but another person's interpretation of that truth, turned into performance," Cosson says. Any presentation, he notes, is subjective, and this method is no different. But he does believe it provides "a kind of detail that is truthful and maybe different from what goes for truth in the theater. It's meant to scrape off some of what we think is true in theater and show something different."

As an example of how the Civilians reach a more complicated "truth" by talking with real people, Cosson cites an Egyptian student whom one actor called to interview shortly after all foreign students in the United States were ordered to register with the federal government. "At the end he said, 'Oh, you know, I don't want to talk about this over the phone. I think Arabian people's phones are tapped; I think the US is watching Arabs,' " Cosson relates. "If you gave that to an actor, I think most of them would give it a very intense reading, maybe sort of quiet, almost a whisper. But he actually said it fairly loud, and, maybe from the tension of talking about it, he giggled all the way through."

Ultimately, "there's something edifying in doing interviews with all different sorts of people," Cosson says. "There was a consistent thread of people feeling underestimated [by the government and the media] and wanting more. . . . So many people said, 'I don't care about Paris Hilton.' So who are all these people who do want to know? Is it really nobody? . . . We've all sort of agreed to be stupid, but we're not, really. It's this weird American phenomenon.