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