Thursday, August 10, 2006

True Lies

What does a 40,000-year-old alien have to do with the war in Iraq? One theatre company thinks it has the answer.

by Brian Logan

How do we know what we know? Can we really be sure what's going on in Iraq, or whether or not a Hollywood star is gay? And is CNN any more to be trusted than the philosophies of a 40,000-year-old alien channelled by a friend of Steven Cosson's aunt? If anyone knows, Cosson does. Cosson is the 37-year-old artistic director of New York theatre group the Civilians, who for his new show [I Am] Nobody's Lunch has asked America the above questions, set the answers to song and sketch, and will be reporting back all this month in Edinburgh.

The show, as with the previous work of this Obie award-winning troupe, is verbatim theatre - but with a considerable twist. Cosson studied under the British director Les Waters, and cites Waters' famous company Joint Stock as the major influence on his work. From British theatre in general (Caryl Churchill sits on the Civilians' advisory board), he learned that "theatre was an important place to take on social and political questions".

The twist is all his own. The Civilians' take on docudrama is unique. They don't present the public's words as stark, stripped-back truth. And this isn't verbatim theatre as campaigning journalism, seeking to score polemical points. Instead, the Civilians co-mingle docudrama with cabaret, spinning their interviewees' responses into improbable, inquisitive song-and-soliloquy revues.

"The work of my peers in America has gone the way of a lot of other art disciplines and become more insular and specialised," says Cosson. "I wanted our work to speak in the language of show, so you didn't need a Master's degree in postmodern theatre to understand it."

It's important to him, too, that the Civilians stay responsive to the surprising human variety that their inquiries reveal. "When I first began interviewing 'ordinary people', I realised that the world was a more complex and interesting place than I'd thought. That's exactly what you want, I think, from a good piece of theatre.

"I think of our investigative pieces as a concentrated, strange and very quirky conversation between different people. The most important principle is that we can't have a foregone conclusion about what we're going to find out."

With 2003's Gone Missing, which visited London's Gate Theatre, the subject was loss - under the shadow of 9/11, the company interviewed New Yorkers about misplaced items, or memories, or loves. With Nobody's Lunch, the field of inquiry is truth: how we acquire and establish it in a sceptical, media-baffled world.

The show was created at the height of American sabre-rattling in the lead-up to the Iraq war. "We felt in a constant state of alarm," says Cosson. "So we had to ask ourselves: what is it about what's going on right now that we are truly curious about?" Looking around themselves, at an America sleepwalking into an unprovoked war, Cosson and company found the answer. "The most important question was: how is everybody making sense of all of this? How is it that people are believing this, or not believing it?" In a country whose media "had failed in its job to report reality and to serve as an engine of public discourse", the company challenged itself to find out "what America was thinking, what your neighbour was thinking, what the other people in the subway were thinking. And why they were thinking it."

The result is an intriguing, funny and plaintive docu-musical (with beautiful songs by resident composer Michael Friedman), which combines the wildly divergent perspectives of a staffer at the Department of Homeland Security, an alien, an Arab-American cabbie, and everyone listed in the phone book who shares the name of the captured then (supposedly) rescued US prisoner of war, Jessica Lynch. Watching the show, it's hard not to conclude that western society is an information free-for-all, and truth, on any subject more taxing than tabloid gossip, too exhausting to pursue.

Cosson says: "So many people would tell us, 'We can't know what's true about Iraq because we can't see it. There are so many conflicting stories. It's too hard to sort out what's going on. The only way to know what's true is to see it.' And that's problematic. If you're going to live in a big country, and your country is going to go to war on the other side of the world, then you have to believe that somebody can tell you what is going on."

Are the Civilians those somebodies? Perhaps not, says Cosson. "No, our little play is not going to give the answer." But what his investigations have taught him is that "you have to participate in the truth. The truth is something that is made between people. At the moment, we have given over our responsibility to seek the truth, to know it and believe it. And by doing so, we allow ourselves to be manipulated. We have to work together as a society, as a culture, to get it back".

ยท [I Am] Nobody's Lunch is at the Assembly Rooms (0131-226 2428) until August 28, then at the Soho Theatre, London W1, from September 6.