Thursday, February 8, 2007

A month of reckoning The Civilians collaborate with CC students in an inquiry on evangelical faith

By Christina A. Roller

If diversified religious viewpoints are investigated through documentary theater, according to Tom Lindblade, "it's bound to ruffle some feathers."

The professor and chair of drama and dance at Colorado College hired The Civilians, a professional New York City theater company created in 2001, to work one-on-one with students from his Topics in Drama class and create a show within four weeks. Through performance and music, the production aims to illustrate the myriad of religious viewpoints in Colorado Springs, and the nation.

"Colorado Springs is sort of an intensified microcosm of what is going on in the country as a whole," says Steve Cosson, artistic director for The Civilians, who tour internationally throughout the U.S. and U.K. "The idea for the show goes back to the 2004 election and the increasing profile of the evangelical movement, as well as the idea that there was a great divide in the U.S. between the religious and secular.

The Civilians have immersed themselves in the Springs since June, collecting testimony from a wide variety of sources, ranging from mainline protestant churches to The Freethinkers of Colorado Springs. But only during the past month have five of the visiting troupe's professional actors collaborated with 14 CC students for a final staged production, titled Save This City.

"Our students are excited," Lindblade says. "They're all hittin' the pavement, running around; they're involved with the production."

Lindblade says the project aims to give students the experience of working with members of a professional theater company, to teach them a different way of making theater and involve them with the surrounding community.

The troupe was recently visiting New Life Church gathering testimony for the project when Mike Jones, former male prostitute, attended for the first time since exposing Ted Haggard for "sexual immorality." This topic will not, however, be the basis of the documentary.

"There are a lot of different worlds co-existing in Colorado Springs that are separate from each other and sometimes bump into one another," Cosson says. "The goal of the project is to recreate these experiences within the community on stage.

Though Cosson and Lindblade agree that Colorado Springs is a prime location to delve into the subject of religion, the show itself simply reports observations made.

"That's part of the beauty of it thus far," says Alex Hesbrook, ac CC junior involved with the project. "It's been as unbiased as possible."

The Civilians will later debut a larger show on the topic in New York City.

"Shakespeare said, 'Hold the mirror up to nature,'" Lindblade says, "but people want to see their nature, not somebody else's nature."

"I'm hoping that everyone relates to a part of it and that everyone's enraged by a part of it," Hesbrook adds.


Saturday, February 3, 2007

Avant God Troupe bases play on local religious climate


It may be hard to picture the Ted Haggard saga as part of an off-Broadway production, or visualize the city’s evangelical power base in a show-stopping song-and-dance number.

But hey, that’s what The Civilians do.

The Civilians, a small, critically acclaimed theater company from New York City, have used the same recipe for success since their inception in 2001. They take a weighty theme, mix in some witty dialogue and toetapping tunes, then plop it onstage like a whimsical Jell-O salad so the audience can sink into the off-kilter delicacy.

Their production “Nobody’s Lunch” riffed on the politics of truthtelling.

"The Ladies" delved into the psyches of historical characters such as Eva Perón and Imelda Marcos. The avant-garde company has developed into a critical darling in New York and London.

Now, the troupe has set its sights on American religiosity.

“We knew that we wanted to spend time in a community with a strong evangelical presence,” said Civilians director Steve Cosson. “And really, why go anywhere else but Colorado Springs?”

The Civilians are working with a dozen students from Colorado College on the production, titled “Save This City.”

They’ve interviewed more than 100 locals so far — the transcripts from which are enough to fill a two-inch-thick binder — and those interviews will form the guts for the show.

The combined Civilians and CC troupe will present a show Thursday-Feb. 10 at CC’s Armstrong Hall — dramatizations of these interviews paired with a few original songs. The real off-Broadway event will probably take about a year to polish, according to Cosson. If they find a producer, they hope to show the finished play in Colorado Springs.

“This is very much how we figure out what the show is,” Cosson said. “We always figure out our subjects by putting material in front of an audience.”

One subject is a given: the public debacle of the Rev. Ted Haggard, who was dismissed from the pulpit of New Life Church in the wake of a sex-and-drugs scandal.

Cosson made his first visit to Colorado Springs in June, months before male escort Mike Jones leveled career-sinking allegations against Haggard.

Cosson and members of the troupe came to town every month or so thereafter to conduct interviews and connect with the drama students at CC.

As fate would have it, they planned one of their visits for the weekend of Nov. 4 — the weekend Haggard was officially fired.

“Just speaking personally, it was an utterly surreal experience,” Cosson said.

“When you’re working really in-depth on a project, it takes over your whole life. For the past few months, all I’d think about was Colorado Springs and the churches here and New Life, and Friday morning I’m listening to the BBC news and it’s all about Ted Haggard.”

Many of the interviews gathered after the fall took on a Haggard-esque tinge.

At a recent rehearsal, actors dramatized several interviews that focused on the pastor: a hurting New Life staff member; a Christian lesbian advocate who worries about Haggard’s family; an atheist who admonishes the audience to “let Ted moo!” (a reference to last year’s mooing dog ads that argued people are born gay).

And on Sunday, they escorted Jones as he attended Haggard’s New Life Church for the first time.

The Haggard saga may give the show a storyline — an unexpected feature for the freeform troupe.

Typically, Civilian shows are a potpourri of thoughts and comments that fit into a theme.

“We weren’t anticipating there would be this sort of internationally important news event in the middle of this,” Cosson said.

“And now there is. We have to take it onboard.”

But there’s more to Colorado Springs’ religious landscape than Haggard, and Cosson says he wants to make sure the final show does justice to the city’s complexities.

In the morning rehearsal, students and Civilians cast members showcased a host of real-life characters.

One actor, playing an Islamic woman, admitted she wore a crucifix and prayed with the rosary.

Another, representing a college student, recounted how she held her friend’s hand as her friend had an abortion — “watching this life come out of her.”

Civilian actor Marsha Stephanie Blake played a lesbian Christian who moved to Colorado Springs in the mid-1990s.

“If you’re going to combat Nazi fundamentalism, at least do it in a scenic place,” she said.

CC student Hugh Johnson channeled a local choir director who hopes to leave Colorado Springs.

“You talk to the people here?” exclaimed Johnson. “They’re crazy!”

Crazy or not, the city is a microcosm of America, according to Cosson. Perhaps a more intense version of America, but the issues are the same everywhere. And Colorado Springs — like the nation, according to Cosson — is deeply divided.

These are tough issues to voice in a relatively short time frame. Condensing nine months worth of work into a 90-minute production will require some deft editing.

“Whenever you’re working with real people and real life, the responsibility of trying to tell the story with accuracy and truth and subtlety and nuance . . . already presents a host of challenges,” he said. “But to address this story in this place at this time this year? I really can’t think of anything that would present a bigger challenge.”



WHAT: The Civilians and Colorado College students will re-enact faith-themed interviews they’ve gathered from Colorado Springs residents. They also will perform a handful of original songs.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Feb. 10.

WHERE: Armstrong Theatre, 14 E. Cache La Poudre St.

TICKETS: $5, or $2 for CC students. Purchase at the Worner Campus Center Information Desk, 902 N. Cascade Ave.


Thursday, February 1, 2007

In search of evangelicals New York actors craft a musical on Springs faithful

By Jean Torkelson, Rocky Mountain News

COLORADO SPRINGS - Surrounded by rehearsal-room grunge - black walls, scuffed floors, Styrofoam cups and a broken-down piano - a New York acting company is honing its take on what makes evangelical Christians tick.

The company, called The Civilians, is crafting a musical about the Springs' most famous demographic.

"Even if your tongue come notarized, I'm not gonna believe ya!" snaps actor Marsha Stephanie Blake, interpreting a zesty line she got from a worshipper at the city's Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church.

Since April, troupe members have interviewed Christians of all flavors - liberal to conservative - including members of disgraced pastor Ted Haggard's church.

On Wednesday, the troupe gathered in a rehearsal room at Colorado College to massage a musical out of hundreds of conversations. Next week, they will perform an early version at the college's Armstrong Theater for both the public and the folks they've interviewed. The working title is Save This City, but the actors insist they're not trying to be snide.

"We're theater people from New York, so there's an assumption about our motives," says producing director Kyle Gorden. "They think we're doing an exposé or satirizing or somehow beating up on the poor Christians, which is absolutely not the intent of the show."

Past productions have focused on such esoteric topics as the Disney Corp. and existentialism, but no topic has proved as chewy as evangelicals, the biggest production yet.

"There are issues of religion and the question of America as a divided country," says director Steve Cosson.

The concept of real life took a turn in November when the bigger-than-life daddy of evangelicals, Haggard of New Life Church, admitted to "sexual immorality."

"That stirred up everything," says Cosson. In a bit of theater-worthy timing, The Civilians were at New Life the weekend the story broke.

Church members were very willing to talk - "We were stunned," Cosson says - but the troupe doesn't plan to focus on Haggard or on Mike Jones, the male prostitute involved with him.

"We don't want this to be the 'Ted and Mike story,' " says Cosson. "We're interested in the community as a whole."

Indeed, Colorado Springs became something of a character itself: "We want to focus on the town as a microcosm for the country," Gorden says.

So the company branched out to interview politicians, like the current and a former mayor, and even Catholic Bishop Michael Sheridan. The actor who talked with Sheridan, Alison Weller, said he seemed bemused by it all.

"He kind of laughed, 'Oh, does that mean somebody's going to play me?' " she recalled.

The short answer: Yes, but only if he makes the cut among hundreds of competing interviews.

In rehearsal, Weller depicts two of the evangelical extremes: first, a sophisticated liberal pastor who performed a gay marriage - "I lost some members of my congregation over that," sighs the character.

Then Weller switches to a fluttery, wide-eyed lady who chirps, "Oh, I've had visions since I was little...!"

And how does the company think the subjects will react to seeing themselves caricatured?

"That's the big question, really," says Gorden. "We have no desire to satirize or make fun of people. But at the same time, I think almost everyone in the audience will hear something on stage they'll find challenging."

The Civilians

History: Founded 2001. The name is old vaudeville slang for people outside show business.

Based: 1412 Broadway, New York, N.Y.

Web site:

Finances: Supported by box office, grants, foundations

Performing: Feb. 8-10, Armstrong Theater, Colorado College, 14 East Cache La Poudre St., Colorado Springs. Performances at 8 p.m. each night, plus Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. Discussion with 18-member cast follows.

Cost: $5.00

After Colorado: Will sharpen the show in New York, then take it on the road to regional theaters and special venues.

What critics say about past productions: "Quirkily clever," (Evening Standard, London); "Sharp as a tack," (The London Times). or 303-954-5055


Colorado Springs Gets What It Deserves: A Musical! An interview with The Civilians.

By Noel Black

On February 8, 9 and 10, the New York City-based investigative theater troupe The Civilians will give Colorado Springs residents chance to see our local culture in the mirror of a cabaret-style musical theater production based on interviews with over 100 locals. Not surprisingly, it'll be about how evangelical Christianity has affected our lives.

The production is titled Save This City! and all the words and lyrics come verbatim from the interviewees (full disclosure: I was one of the hundred plus) who included everyone from Mike Jones to Will Perkins. Though they hadn't even begun to assemble the interviews into a coherent storyline at the time of this interview, member Stephen Plunkett was able to tell me that, "There's a lot of military stuff, a lot about New Life, and a lot about the queer community."

After the CC "run," which will be preliminary sketches of the future production, they'll take their research back to New York for further development, and it will premier more officially "within the next two years."

We spoke with Steve Cosson (founder), Alison Weller and Stephen Plunkett about their experiences in Colorado Springs over the past several months as they conducted research with a group of students from Colorado College.

Newspeak: So you got to go out to New Life Church with Mike Jones, the man who massaged Ted Haggard. What was that like?

Steve Cosson: It was exactly what I thought it would be. The public message had always been "We pray for Ted, We pray for Mike." I knew that a lot of New Life people had invited him to come to church, so I knew that a lot of people would want to say hello and welcome him. And that's exactly what happen. I'd say about 25 people came up and shook his hand and blessed him. Everyone who came up seemed very heartfelt about it. The one thing that didn't make the AP. I told Mike to meet me by the big Angel. An older man who was an usher came by and said, "Hey, did you pose for that thing?"

NS: So how did you get started with this investigative style of doing theater?

SC: It was always something I was interested in, but the model for The Civilians has a lot to do with Les Waters who had been a member of the Joint Stock Theater, which was an English theater in late 70s. It was a very political theater and interested in the theater of social questions. They developed plays and projects came out of these investigations into real life. Caryl Churchill and David Hare were both Joint Stock writers. So when I was in grad school at UC San Diego, Les would lead the class through JS style process. The thing about the JS process is that a lot of the process had an investigative aspect and a creative aspect. So, for example, they'd go live in a town for a while and work in the fields with people and Caryl Churchhill would write a play based on it. It would still be a play, but it would be very rooted in the social reality of the material. I refer to what we do as investigative theater rather than documentary theater, where documentary theater has more of a journalistic approach. We write songs, for example and Michael Friedman composes them. What we show in February will be excerpts of the interviews we've done and some of the music Michael has composed. We already have 12 songs.

As far as Why? It's really a laborious and expensive way to make theater, but I do it because I want to create theater that's really engaged and important. And I find too much that especially in the theater, you end up seeing plays that reaffirm what you already know. It's sort of the liberal humanistic philosophy of the theater that there's a normative set of ideas. And the whole point of going out into the real world is that you'd get past your ideas and deal with how people actually are. People and social questions are always terribly complex and contradictory. And I think a big reason I work this way … it isn't that I want my audience to come out with a new set of thoughts and information, but I want them to be able to think differently and reevaluate their perceptions and have that experience of thinking differently. So the process is very related to the product. We come here and put a lot of time into really listening to people and learning from them. And we have to let go of what we might think and have to encounter what it really is so that the audiences wherever we take the show will have a parallel experience.

NS: Tell me about what inspired you to do this in Colorado Springs?

SC: When I started the civilians in 2001, one of the things I wanted to do was to go work on a subject that was very different from us in our company and one of the first ideas was to do something about conservative Christianity. After the 2004 election, the subject seemed more and more important and our company had grown and had more resources, so it seemed like the time had come. I had thought about Colorado Springs, but one of our writers, Jim Lewis, had gone to CC and he hooked us up with the college. And there's no better place to do this project than Colorado Springs because of New Life, Ted and his relationship to politics, his presidency of the NAE during the Bush Presidency … Three of us came out in June and went to New Life and I think the first time we really sort of got it, like "Oh! this really seems to be the center of America right now. I mean, you're in the middle of this church with 7,000 people and the minister is talking about his relationship to George Bush and Ariel Sharon and other world leaders. I think the world we come from knows that the evangelical movement is this big influential thing in politics, but they don't really have an understanding of the scope of it or what it means, or what that kind of Christianity really means, or what it is beyond its political effect on the national elections. And other than that they find it kind of scary and freaky.

Allison Weller:
I think they don't get how it plays out in people's lives.

SC: It plays out in an extraoridinarily wide variety of things. I think the non-evangelical believes that the evangelicals are monolithic—that they think the same way, behave in the same way and believe in the rapture. But everyone we've talked to is still an individual with their own distinct lives.

NS: Nevertheless, there is a culture.

SC: There is a culture, and there's a few things that we're trying to understand better. Right now, we're trying to understand what it means to have a personal relationship with God. The evangelicals' God is part of everday life, it's a way of life, and you have a relationship in the same way that you have a relationship with your parents or spouse. And I think we're still working to understand what that means and how it plays out in a life. So far it really seems to range from "I know what God would want from me, so I try to live accordingly, " to, "I have visions on a regular basis and I'm hearing the voice of God."

AW: There's a discipline to it and a level of commitment on a daily basis that I wasn't completely aware of. I wasn't aware of how much time and how disciplined every single day a lot of the people would be. I grew up Catholic, and discipline would be going to church on Sunday. But for a lot of evangelicals it's all pervasive.

Stephen Plunkett: I also find that it gives them an extra resolve and power because of that personal relationship and it gives their convictions a strength because they actually believe they are the convictions of God.

NS: What other things have really surprised you while you've been here?

SC: One thing that's been really revelatory to us is just the amount of shit going down in Colorado Springs ALL THE TIME, and on so many fronts. Whenever we do something like this we try to find dynamic and interesting people who are leading dynamic and interesting lives and you have to dig around a bit. But in Colorado Springs you just walk out the door. I think it's because the social environment and that so many things are brought to the the surface and the fronts where these various communities rub up against each other are really heightened and intensified. So everyone, Christian or not, is sort of involved in the question in a way that … like everyone here had to deal personally with the fall of Ted Haggard. So something that we would take for granted, like being a high school student who doesn't believe in God, is a very intense experience here. We've been overwhelmed by the vast amount of material we've collected so far.

AW: I've been surprised at how open everyone has been to talk to us.

[Steve Cosson leaves for an appointment]

NS: How do you feel about the process?

AW: I love it. I always feel like in my alternate life I'd like to be a journalist. So it's great to do something that combines both things.

SP: I look at it mostly as an opportunity to learn about a lot of different people. As an actor, it's good to spend time with people and learn what makes them tick. I like the journalism side, but I mostly feel like it's important to do something topical.

AW: I get a writerly joy out of it from talking to people and finding the golden nuggets that drop out of people's mouths, and everyone has a story of some sort. It's really exciting.

SP: If you ask people the right questions, they'll tell you their best stories that they've told a lot and that they tell really well.

NS: What can you tell me about the production so far?

AW: Literally the entire time we've been here we've been doing interviews and going to services. I'm not bullshitting you: we have no idea.

SP: Part of our process is that we interview people and then get together as a group and present the people we've interviewed as characters. There's a lot of military stuff, a lot about New Life, there's a lot about the queer community. We have some gay military personnel.

Tickets are $5 for the general public, $2 with a Colorado College ID, and $2 for students. Tickets are available at the Worner Campus Center Information Desk, 902 N. Cascade Ave. or you can call 389-6607 for more info.