Sunday, July 1, 2007

ACTING IN GOOD FAITH What business does an edgy New York company have getting intimate with Colorado Evangelicals?


It may not have the obvious allure of New York City or Los Angeles, but Colorado Springs, Colo.—an unassuming city that peeks from under the eastern edge of the Rockies—is a perfect subject for the theatre. In fact, it is theatre. From the airplane, for instance, the manmade swaths of swimming pools and parking lots looked like they were battling for space with the natural dominance of the mountains. And down on the ground, the quaint old buildings of the city's historic district were at valiant odds with the chain restaurants and budget motels that bordered every inch of the freeway.

Photo by Tom Kimmell of Emily Ackerman and Alison Weller in The Civilians' This Beautiful City.

But those aren't the conflicts I flew in to see. And they aren't what prompted the New York theatre company the Civilians to spend five weeks discerning the character of a community whose most prominent clash is defining contemporary America. Colorado Springs is theatre-in-the-making because it is the epicenter of the nation's Evangelical Christian movement, and its roughly half-million residents are fiercely divided about the role that particular faith should play in their lives. When I arrived for a four-day stay in February '07, I saw signs of their disagreement everywhere.

Granted, my sensitivity was heightened because I knew that the Civilians—a six-year-old Obie-winning troupe whose specialty is a kind of interview-based documentary cabaret—had been discussing Evangelism with everyone who would meet with them. They were presenting the first draft of their observations at local Colorado College, staging workshop productions of a musical that eventually would be named . (The official production will bow in June '08 at Washington, D.C.'s Studio Theatre, following further development this summer at Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in Utah.) From the moment I arrived, I looked for signs of how the locals might react to having their thoughts turned into theatre.

My first clue came immediately. Waiting in the airport's baggage claim, I overheard two young white men with dark suits and gelled hair. "I just got here. I came to start a church," one said. "Praise the Lord," said the other, "Praise the Lord." If praise could be shouted at the airport, then a musical about Evangelism would surely elicit a response.

Before settling on Colorado Springs, Civilians founder and artistic director Steven Cosson knew he wanted to examine Evangelism by dramatizing a community where believers have a foothold. "It felt like an excellent way to explore how religion and Christianity are impacting the entire country," he says. Most people have an opinion about Evangelism's role in national affairs, and the Civilians's method of shaping real people's words into theatrical events—complete with songs, monologues and the occasional dance routine—seemed like a viable way to let those opinions interact. When This Beautiful City began, Cosson was in talks to collaborate with Actors Theatre of Louisville, whose Kentucky home has an Evangelical megachurch. However, that congregation didn't want to talk.

Fortunately for the company, Jim Lewis, a Civilians-affiliated playwright and dramaturg, grew up in "the Springs." He knew about the influx of Evangelicals in the early '90s that helped create everything from small fringe congregations to multiple megachurches, including the behemoth New Life, whose immaculately clean campus includes an arena-sized chapel, a bookstore and a full-service cafeteria. Lewis also knew about the opposition that was generated when Evangelicals rose to local prominence, essentially making their faith part of the city's everyday routine. Thomas Lindblade, chair of drama and dance at Colorado College, told me there was a time in the city when a political bumper sticker could provoke a fight in the street. And while that type of hostility has waned, the friction over Evangelism still exists. Lewis encouraged Cosson and the Civilians to document it.

Their work was made possible largely because Lindblade wanted them there, too. He sponsored the troupe's residency by having them turn their methods into a class. For five weeks, the Civilians's delegation—five actor-dramaturgs, plus Cosson, Lewis and composer Michael Friedman—trained 13 students to work alongside them, interviewing locals and then performing what they heard (Cosson and a few others also made several visits before the residency began).

Yet despite this support, finding interview subjects wasn't always easy. Focus on the Family, which is based in the Springs, declined to participate, and some parents balked once their children had met with the Civilians, posting messages on local websites about supposedly inappropriate statements made by the artists. Inroads were made, however, when some local pastors began forwarding e-mails about the project to their congregations. Connections at Colorado College and some old-fashioned cold-calling helped, too, and eventually the troupe and the students spoke with hundreds of people. They talked with everyone from New Life members to atheists, from Catholic priests to students fighting for gay rights.

John, a young Evangelical minister who dresses like a Banana Republic ad, told me he was initially hesitant about being interviewed. "You're always told don't participate with this sort of thing because it will be a joke or be scornful," he said, just before heading into a workshop production with his family. However, he said he felt comfortable after the actor-dramaturgs proved they would listen carefully to what he said without telling him he was wrong.

Cosson coaches the Civilians to ask non-judgmental questions—"How did you get to Colorado Springs?"—and then to try not to show a personal reaction. A middle-aged activist whose website sells tchotchkes like a "Born Again Atheist" button, told me this neutrality fosters open discussion. "I never knew that theatre could be used to do something constructive," she said. "I think this is really interesting, to approach something so divisive in a non-confrontational way."

The general enthusiasm before the workshops became an electric energy after the shows were over. I could feel the crowd's eagerness when the Civilians walked on stage, turned on their tape recorders and asked for reactions. Though responses varied, they were never mild, and they were rarely predictable. Few of the artists, for instance, were prepared for why one woman in the first talkback was so angry.

"I am really sick of all the attention being paid to this perversion—this sick version of Christianity," she declared with evident agitation. "I believe we become what we listen to, and I want to know why you spent all this energy focusing on something so destructive."

Civilian actor-dramaturg Marsha Stephanie Blake summed up the company's surprised reaction when, at a pub later that night, she noted, "I was afraid it would be Christian people who came up to the mike and got pissed off, but it wasn't—it was the liberal people."

Of course, there were some unhappy Christians, too. Several people argued at the talkbacks that the facts of their lives had been inaccurately portrayed, including one elderly woman who said a scandal at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church was misrepresented. The church's former pastor, Benjamin Reynolds, left his pulpit in 2006, and the consensus is that he was banished after coming out of the closet as gay. Though Reynolds's own words about his sexuality appeared in the show, the woman insisted there was a different reason for his dismissal. She didn't clarify what it was.

This is not to suggest that everyone in Colorado Springs was furious. Many people loved what they saw. But the fact that audiences could experience the same production and have such disparate responses only emphasizes what an explosive subject Evangelism can be.

Consider the first-act musical number "Take Me Along." It's modeled after a rock-and-roll worship service at New Life, which made national news (while the Civilians were in town, no less) after founder and pastor Ted Haggard was exposed as having had sex with a male prostitute who allegedly also sold him drugs. While the scandal does impact This Beautiful City, it isn't mentioned in the song. Written by Friedman, the tune features a peppy melody and sing-along chorus about God. That's fairly innocuous, yet "Take Me Along" evoked an intense reaction in the crowd. On the upbeat side, I saw several audience members jump up and sway along as Civilian Stephen Plunkett, guitar slung across his chest, led the cast in song. Those dancing in the crowd seemed genuinely joyful, and a woman named Mimi, whose blonde braid reached the middle of her floor-length skirt, later mentioned the number as a highlight. "I saw more of God in this than I do in most of the churches I go to," she told me.

Conversely, other locals—particularly those less sympathetic to religious conservatism—saw a threat in moments like "Take Me Along," as well as in monologues from Evangelicals describing the power and satisfaction of their faith. "I felt like I was at a church revival," a woman avowed in a talkback. "You didn't show the ugly, and those of us who are not part of that community feel it. You need to make some kind of effort to show the ugly."

Cosson responded that he thought there was plenty of unpleasantness on display. In its current form, This Beautiful City is a series of stand-alone monologues and songs, held together by major characters who emerge to tell their life stories. Of those central figures, two speak specifically about suffering in Colorado Springs. There's Pastor Reynolds, and there's Nancy Jo, a formerly Evangelical civil designer who was previously a man. When she came out as transgender and began living as a woman, she promptly lost her job, her family and her life savings. We also hear from an atheist who is leaving town to escape harassment and a gallery owner who fights to present banned art.

Yet for some, there was "no ugly." For others, there was no doubt too much. Cosson says he's mindful of how tempting it will be for audience members to focus on particular elements of the show at the expense of its other perspectives. For him, the potential for such strong reactions not only challenges the Civilians to develop a more thoughtful piece of theatre, but also proves why This Beautiful City needs to exist. He says, "The social and political questions that are being worked out here in Colorado Springs are of great importance because they're affecting the entire country."

Just what are those questions? "It's very much about American freedom—the separation of church and state, the freedom to practice a religion of your choosing. And there's the idea of the American experiment, that it's possible to create a new life in a new country. But—and this is something we want the show to capture—there's also the paradox that we have the freedom to create ways of life that actually restrict the freedoms of others."

And then there's that other pressing question: How do you encompass such a massive, sensitive issue—not to mention the identities of actual people—into a successful musical? If This Beautiful City is going to evoke all the facets of a national debate, the Civilians will need to move carefully. One step this way, and they could turn complex ideas into reductive entertainment. A lapse in the other direction, and they could seem to be mocking the lives on stage.

Judging by the work at Colorado College and an April reading held at New York City's Public Theater, the show is on track to become (to borrow a phrase) a fair and balanced presentation of the issues. While individual moments roil with opinion and emotion, the overall piece feels strikingly even-handed.

This quest for equanimity also has affected how the Civilians create their work. Previous documentary projects have centered on abstract ideas more than actual places and people, and that gave the group liberty with its data-collection methods. For instance, Gone Missing, which explores various reactions to loss and made its commercial Off-Broadway premiere in June at the Barrow Street Theatre, was built from interviews that the Civilians rewrote from memory. But that method leaves too much room for error to be useful for This Beautiful City. For this process, the Civilians taped and transcribed all of their interviews for the first time.

Kyle Gorden, the troupe's lanky and soft-spoken producing director, says, "In terms of the volatility of the subject, this is the most dangerous work we've done. We want to be able to demonstrate that someone said what we're saying they said, in case something comes up from a P.R. standpoint or there are legal issues."

It's easy to imagine a litigious attack on the show. Among the characters are a Jewish serviceman who says the military in Colorado Springs, which houses NORAD and several U.S. Air Force bases, uses Christian propaganda to promote anti-Semitism. There's also a gay former soldier who protests military homophobia; and Pastor Ted's son is shown supporting his father after the revelation of his homosexual affair. His interview was taped several weeks before the elder Haggard announced he'd been "cured" of his homosexuality.

Along with the protection allowed by transcripts, Gorden says the releases signed by interview subjects now include an addition that the Civilians have rights to use a subject's likeness in perpetuity.

But these new methods aren't all about a fear of lawsuits. Taping conversations meant the Civilians and the students could interview far more people without fear of confusing them in their memories. The process also allowed the troupe to tape and possibly stage audience feedback. Perhaps most important, though, taped conversations allowed the artists to listen more than once to what subjects told them. Most of the actor-dramaturgs were encountering a world that was radically different from their own, and a single pass at an interview might have hindered their ability to put aside their assumptions.

Company member Alison Weller worked on several Civilians pieces before heading to Colorado. She says, "This project felt more complex and intimidating than the others because it's the first time I've had to submerge myself in a community I knew nothing about. As a Catholic who grew up in New Jersey with a very liberal sensibility, I had a very specific and, as I learned, not very accurate view of what Christians with a capital 'C' are like. In listening to people, I realized how little I actually knew—how their views are much more complex than I understood."

Yet for all their new insights, many of the artists remained skeptical about Evangelism, particularly its disapproval of homosexuality and its staunch political conservatism. Several of the Civilians and the students told me they didn't want the piece to be interpreted as just a "pro-church" show.

As strong as they are, you won't see any of these company responses being performed in This Beautiful City. That's another first. Earlier works have let the artists speak for themselves, or have contained fictional segments that suggested the Civilians's take on a subject. For example, the comedy (I am) Nobody's Lunch begins its inquiry into metaphysics by having an actor come on stage and explain why the Civilians are interested in the subject. Cosson says, "Since we're shaping the material into a script, our subjectivity can't entirely disappear, but I never wanted to do a show about what happened to the Civilians in Colorado Springs. I want to make the audience care about the city and the people."

The lessening of the Civilians's presence in This Beautiful City is most obvious in Friedman's songs. "Before," he says, "the songs were always our little commentary on what we were creating, because before we were like the people we interviewed. We were New Yorkers; they were New Yorkers. But this time it felt important not to have a point where we stepped out and said, 'Okay, this is our response to what you see.'"

So for the first time in one of his produced works, Friedman has turned interviews into lyrics. While not every song in This Beautiful City is "found poetry," the bulk of them are, and he says this type of work has been gratifying. Friedman explains, "I find it as complicated as writing a lyric, because you're trying to stay true to a person's voice and turns of phrase while still structuring a song. In setting these songs, I've found a person's natural speech rhythms can be expressive in ways I would never have access to by just sitting down and trying to write an arty song."

An interviewee's own words find their way into "Cowboys," in which a twentysomething Evangelical explains how God made him realize he didn't need boats or women to be happy. The man sings:

I was lying in my bed one morning with my girlfriend
She was hot
She wanted to get married
And she turned to me and said
Is this going anywhere?
And I felt God tugging on my heart
And I said no.
And I left.
Man, she was gorgeous.
What was I thinking?!

The song is a comic highlight, backed by a bouncy piano rhythm that matches the singer's short, slangy sentences. Friedman says he had been toying with a jaunty melody, but he didn't know how to use it until he heard the cadences of the young man's speech.

On the other hand, music has also helped reveal truths about This Beautiful City's interview subjects. Friedman says turning speech into lyrics requires a bit of tweaking—such as dropping pauses or repeating words for emphasis—but those changes can free a person to make a clearer point. "I try to fix the lyric so I can get across the reality of how they seem in an interview," he says.

For this listener, the benefit of Friedman's editing is most obvious in the song "Urban Planning," drawn from an interview with Nancy Jo, the transgender Evangelical. Her story is especially dramatic because even though she lost so much by coming out, she has refused to abandon her faith or leave the city she helped design. I sat next to Nancy Jo during a workshop performance in Colorado, and I was struck by how her Southern accent and elaborate way of speaking are just as charming in real life as they are when Civilian Emily Ackerman portrays her on stage.

But I didn't comprehend the poetry in her language until I heard "Urban Planning." Friedman pares away Nancy Jo's vocal tics and flourishes, leaving a haunting song about a revelation she had. She sings:

So my doctor says draw something.
So I draw a city.
Cause I've always liked cities.
I have since I was a kid.
So he tells me it's beautiful.
But where are the people?

I had never thought of the people.

They move.
They get in the way.
They get in the way.

I'm looking at buildings.
He says, 'That's kind of an issue.
Have people hurt you?
Have people hurt you
a lot?"

But it's paradise.
But it's paradise.
Almost paradise
That I've made.

Crucially, Ackerman doesn't sing the song. She stands by silently as Weller assumes Nancy Jo's voice. As "Urban Planning" transfers to another body, it's as though the show is asking us to look at this woman's soul as it steps out and bares itself. The implication is that people are regularly showing the deepest parts of themselves, and if we learn to listen for the songs in their casual speech, we might have a better appreciation for the communities we pass through every day.

Ultimately, everything in This Beautiful City asks us to listen carefully to who's around us. But as they complete their work, the Civilians's most challenging task may be convincing audiences that all the people on stage—even the ones who aren't like them—deserve serious attention.

Discussing the reading at the Public, Cosson says, "In New York, there were a lot of things that got laughs that weren't funny." For instance, no one in Colorado Springs—whether they were Christian or not—laughed when a character described how she spoke to God in her car, but that detail drew several chuckles from the crowd at the Public. Cosson muses, "I think there was an assumption, especially at the beginning, that this New York theatre company was going to find humor in people's beliefs. I interpret that as an instinctive reaction to put some of this uncomfortable, emotional stuff at arm's length."

Closing that distance is now a major goal. "I'm reminded of how much we're going to need to do to make the religious material accessible on its own terms," Cosson explains, "to make it clear that it's not just an us-them story."

Asked if she thinks her theatre will have trouble convincing Washingtonians to care about a Colorado town, Studio Theatre founding artistic director Joy Zinoman replies, "I find the Civilians's work to be as compassionate as it is political, and I'm hoping the piece will be compassionate about the motivations of people who do things my audience may not do." (The Studio will provide the Civilians with scenic and costume designers and three weeks of rehearsal space before mounting a full production of This Beautiful City.)

I think the show's compassion is partly what caused anger among liberal audiences in the Springs and provoked laughter at the New York reading. But in This Beautiful City, extreme believers sound more complex and human than they do in TV soundbites, and for lefties like me, this makes it harder to dismiss Evangelism as a monolithic opponent to my political views.

And that effect runs both ways. Mimi, the long-braided Evangelical, told me the show not only gave her a religious experience, but also challenged her beliefs. "It brought me to a crossroads and touched my heart about gay life. I just hadn't thought about the pain it must cause to be homosexual and be told you're an outsider all the time," she said.

In other words, along with relatable characters and catchy songs, This Beautiful City could have uncomfortable, necessary revelations for everyone. If the Civilians can maintain that balance when the show premieres, the religious debate in America could gain an important new voice.

Arts reporter Mark Blankenship is a 2005-06 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, with support from a grant by the Jerome Foundation.