Thursday, February 1, 2007

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.