Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Theatre for the people, by the people

The Civilians do Colorado Springs

They call what they do "investigative theatre." They call themselves The Civilians.

"'The Civilians' is an old vaudeville term that was used to refer to people not in the industry," said producing director Kyle Gorden. "Our shows are not about people in the industry. They're about normal people. We do vaudevillian inspired work-it's theatrical and entertaining-to tell stories about real people, stories we hope are relevant to people's lives."

The New York-based company, modeled after London's Joint Stock Theatre Company, was created in 2001 by artistic director Steve Cosson and since then has launched shows on everything from the profound sense of loss associated with September 11 to the media's handling of U.S. Army Private Jessica Lynch's rescue during the early days of the Iraq War. For that play, entitled (I am) Nobody's Lunch, company members interviewed soldiers guarding the New York City subway system with empty guns, a distraught official with the Department of Homeland Security, and every Jessica Lynch in the United States' online phone directory to find out what they knew about the particulars of the rescue. The cabaret-style show highlighted a culture awash in misinformation.

What makes The Civilians' approach to theatre different from that of other companies, according to Cosson, is that every show is an original piece, written with the help of interviews conducted by the company members themselves.

"Our motto is we create original theatre from investigations into real life. All of our projects combine a journalistic and creative approach," he said.

Cosson draws a distinction between the kind of documentary style theatre that gave us The Laramie Project and the shows brought to life by the fifty members of The Civilians.

"I think of our process as being more exploratory than factually oriented. It's different from purely documentary theatre because that tends to focus on a factual event, whereas we tend to start more from a subject or idea and explore it through a lot of different avenues. We sometimes start out thinking we're going to write a certain show, but our interviews and research might take us in a completely different direction," he said.

Eight members of The Civilians recently returned from Colorado Springs, where they were engaged in their most ambitious project to date: a show called Save this City that examines through monologues and musical numbers the often explosive combination of religion and politics as it is acted out daily in the city that has become the de facto headquarters of the Christian right. The Civilians created the show with the help of students from Colorado College who worked with the company as part of the school's annual Topics in Theatre course.

During the three-week course, Civilians members and Colorado College students interviewed hundreds of people, visited churches, took part in prayer services, and worked hard to piece together what is often a very divided town. The show's title comes from a sermon delivered at New Life Church, one of the many influential evangelical churches The Civilians visited, during which a minister said it was the church's mission to make it hard to go to hell in Colorado Springs.

"Issues of church and state, of homosexual rights, abortion, and international politics are important to everyone, but in Colorado Springs, it's like the volume is turned up," said Gorden. "Things are dealt with in a bigger way and on a daily basis by everyone in that town. You get a feeling it's a constant war, that people are at battle every day."

While The Civilians were in Colorado Springs, drama came to them. Two of the city's top clergymen, Ted Haggard and Tim Reynolds, were fired from their posts after it was revealed they were gay. A short time later, two other ministers quit under similar circumstances. Cosson said the scandals, which received national media attention, packed the churches, particularly New Life where Haggard was a founding member.

"At the Sunday service there were thousands of people and truckloads of Kleenex and TV trucks from all over the place," said Cosson.

Such events can obviously be the stuff of high drama. But The Civilians were in Colorado Springs no only to collect a vast amount of material in a short time. They also had to make an entertaining show out of what they gathered. Cosson described the writing process he, other company members, and the show's musical composer, Michael Friedman, went through as a feat of stamina aided by instinct. At the end of each day, actors would return to the class and deliver monologues they had prepared based on interviews they'd conducted. Then they would present a case for that monologue's inclusion in the final product. That product was created over the course of only two days by Cosson, who edited and wove together the actors' wide-ranging monologues, and Friedman, who composed a selection of songs for the show.

Emily Ackerman portrayed several characters in the roughly two-hour show, including an evangelical with a history of drug abuse. She said it was difficult when a few of her monologues ended up on the cutting room floor because of the personal bonds she formed with many of her interview subjects.

"The people I interviewed-I know them now. I know their stories and I sat there as they cried and their kids ran around or they gave me some coffee or made lunch. They're not characters in a script. They're real people," said Ackerman.

The company invited the play's subjects to its three performances, ratcheting up the stakes for actors like Colorado College junior Alex Hesbrook who were charged with portraying people who in all likelihood were sitting in the audience.

"I've never played anyone who actually could watch me be them in a play. That was such a nerve-wracking and intense emotion, but in the end you actually got to see what people thought about how you represented them. We got to have direct contact with people who shared intimate, personal details with you and that was a unique experience in theatre," she said.

The Civilians held talkbacks after each of the show's four Colorado College performances during which people on both sides of the political and religious spectrum voiced their opinions about the company's work.

Ackerman said the post-show discussions were enlightening and often passionate. The comments of Nancy Jo, an evangelical transgendered woman who lost her family and job but not her faith when she came out as a woman, were particularly moving for Ackerman because she had the responsibility of telling Nancy Jo's story on stage.

"I wanted to do her justice. It would be easy to do a caricature of her, but she said after the show that I got it exactly right, that she was very pleased, and on top of that, we had evangelical pastors coming up and telling us that Nancy Jo's story made them think about things they'd never thought of before,' Ackerman said.

Tom Lindblade, the head of Colorado College's theatre department, said working with The Civilians gave his students a new understanding of Colorado Springs and themselves. Bad reviews, most of which came from people who felt the company failed to give and equal voice to the city's secular population, were especially educational.

"People often say they want theatre and art to hold the mirror up to nature, but what they really want is for the mirror to be held up to their own nature, not all of nature. They want to be validated, but validation doesn't necessarily mean reinforcing what you believe to be true. It means realizing that this is the city you live in, warts and all," he said.

Save this City will likely change a great deal as Cosson, Friedman, and other Civilians sift through the hours and hours of the members' interviews and other research in an attempt to write a show they hope will be performed by several regional theatres around the country in the coming year. It already has a new title: This Beautiful City.

No matter how the show takes shape, two things are certain, said Ackerman. She learned during her brief time in Colorado Springs that church makes good theatre. And theatre makes good church.

"Every service we went to started with a rock band. People got up and danced and moved around. They spoke in tongues. If the pastor was good, the service was theatrical. It was theatre. Many people who came to our show said they felt like they were going to church. They felt like God was in the building and through this play people will be reached," she said.