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.