Thursday, August 30, 2007

Bittersweet lemonade of a show

by Mark Kennedy

(Also published under varying headlines in Deseret Morning News, WSVN Online, Q92 FM, The Ontario Intelligencer, Brandon Sun, CBC, and others)

Gone Missing - Where: Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., New York. When: Through Jan. 6. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays. How much: $50. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit

NEW YORK -- If you've ever lost something -- say, a cell phone or a favorite ring -- and never gave it a second thought, congrats.

But if it really bums you out -- still stings, even years later -- an edgy off-Broadway theater group feels your pain.

The Civilians offer a thoughtful and sometimes loony show about forgotten wallets, missing childhood sock puppets, the lost island of Atlantis, squandered inheritance and even an absent Gucci pump, size 6.

"I think it challenges people to re-evaluate their relationship to their attachments," says Stephen Plunkett, one of the show's six performers.

With a mix of monologues, dialogues and songs, the actors in "Gone Missing" read missing dog posters, recreate radio interviews and portray a handful of regular folks talking about their missing stuff.

There's a story about a wife's diamond ring stupidly lost down the shower drain and a woman's lament about her still-prized Agnes B scarf which, she fears, is now likely balled up in the back of some dude's SUV.

At various points in the show the actors -- each wearing identical gray suits -- burst into original songs by Michael Friedman, turning the show into a kind of docu-cabaret.

"I think the upshot of the show is that: You lose everything. That's just a reality. And that's not necessarily an answer," Plunkett says. "It just sort of tosses it up to you to be like, 'How do you feel about that?'"

The quirky approach can produce something else lost -- audience members. The company recalls one very drunk woman getting up and leaving during a recent performance at the Barrow Street Theatre. "The music is great, but I don't know what they're talking about," she loudly announced as she stumbled up the aisle, slurring her words.

"You either go with it or you don't," says Robbie Collier Sublett, another performer. "You can't twist somebody's arm about it and sometimes they stop going with it three-fourths of the way through."

The play, born in the months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has been staged in Tennessee, New England, California, London, Kentucky and Colorado. This is its second time in New York

"The running gag is it's the show that won't die. It's been around for a long time," says Sublett.

"It's our 'Fantasticks,'" jokes actress Colleen Werthmann.

The Civilians, who take their name from an old vaudeville term for people not in show biz, is the brainchild of artistic director Steven Cosson. A 38-year-old graduate of the University of California at San Diego, Cosson asks his 28-actor company to conduct interviews themselves and capture their subjects on stage.

"The first thing that hooked me on talking to real people as a way of making theater was just wanting to speak to people in the first place. Making theater was just a secondary bonus," Cosson says.

His philosophy -- based on techniques formulated by Les Waters at London's Joint Stock Theater Group -- encourages portraits of people saying extraordinary and ordinary things.

"It's like an intuitive impression," says Plunkett. "It's hard to articulate, but you just sort of listen to someone and give yourself to them. It does something to the inside of you."

Werthmann, Damian Baldet and Jennifer R. Morris were in the play's debut in 2002, which means they did the original interviews. They estimate audiences are seeing only about 30 percent of the material culled. Actors new to the show have either studied the original performers on DVD or gone back to the subjects in person to learn their inflections and mannerisms firsthand.

"It's like a true oral tradition," Werthmann says.

During interviews, the actors use tools that therapists employ: Ask open-ended questions, never interrupt, stay neutral and plumb for accidental revelations.

"Anybody to be a member of this company has not only to be a capable actor in the traditional sense but also a gifted character actor," Sublett says.

"An empath, in a certain way," Werthmann says.

Sometimes, the actors don't know they've stumbled onto something sublime until they present it to the group. That's what happened to Baldet, who interviewed a hotel security guard.

The guard told a story about losing his Palm Pilot in New York and later getting it back -- a ho-hum story until the day is revealed: Sept. 11, 2001.

"I think people are interesting to other people, even when what they're saying is not that interesting," Baldet says. "There's no great plot point in his story. It's just a little nugget of random humanity."

The Civilians, who previously dealt with the subject of truth in their show "(I Am) Nobody's Lunch," are already hard at work tackling their next topic: evangelism. It promises to be juicy. Members of the company went to Colorado Springs, Colo., just as the Rev. Ted Haggard was ensnared in scandal last year. He was forced to resign his post at New Life Church when a former male prostitute alleged having a three-year cash-for-sex relationship with him.

The Civilians just happened to find themselves in the maw of a still-unraveling storm. They spoke to supporters and critics, atheists and believers.

"I'm always saying with our projects, 'I want to figure out how the personal, how the individual experience, fits into a bigger context,'" Cosson says. "How does it fit into larger political questions or social questions or historical or economic forces that we don't normally perceive in our day-to-day lives?'"

The show that emerged -- "The Beautiful City" -- is still being edited, but Cosson says it doesn't come to a neat conclusion -- just as "Gone Missing" doesn't offer an answer to loss.

"If a play gives an answer, it's a bad play, and it's probably a bad answer," Cosson says. "I want to stir up people's reactions in order to get them to think more deeply."


Sunday, August 26, 2007

What? And Leave Show Business?


From left, Chet Carlin, Damian Baldet, Joan MacIntosh, David Greenspan and Roslyn Ruff. Photographs by Michael Nagle for The New York Times

I consider myself a worker,” said David Greenspan, who has been an actor, writer and director in New York for nearly 30 years. “I’m facing the same things that workers are facing throughout the country.”

Mr. Greenspan is right of course. It really doesn’t matter whether you write plays or pave highways when you’re buying groceries. But there is a notable, and curious, difference. Every night thousands of theatergoers fill seats in Manhattan to watch theater people at work for a couple of hours, without really thinking of it as work.

But it is work, work that is supposed to pay rent, buy food and sustain people (and in some cases families) for the long periods of anxious unemployment that are an inevitable part of a performer’s life. Given what stage actors make and what New York costs, staying afloat has always required improvisation, shrewdness, discipline, luck and a kind of obstinacy that some people call passion and others call craziness, and is probably a little bit of both.

But these days it is harder than ever. Government support for the arts is meager, leaving nonprofit theaters squeezed and scrambling to cut expenses — and cast sizes — while the cost of living in New York has skyrocketed. What follows (see links above) are five working New York City theater professionals talking about the part of the show business life that happens offstage.

The Earner: Damian Baldet

AGE: 36
CURRENT INCOME: $506 a week
LAST SEEN IN: “Gone Missing,” now playing at the Barrow Street Theater

During Mr. Baldet’s first few years in New York, days went something like this: a shift as a hotel concierge from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., a walk up to the theater for a quick nap in the basement, rehearsal from 6:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., a subway ride home, four hours of sleep and all of this all over again.

“By the time I got to rehearsal I was so blind exhausted I thought there was no way I could be creative or enjoy it in any way,” he said. “My performances were just completely about keeping my mind together.” He added that he fell asleep onstage during rehearsals more than once.

Mr. Baldet, over a burger at Sardi’s, talked about that period in the kind of joking way you can talk about something that wasn’t funny at the time.

But he and his wife of six years, Alison Weller, an actress, promised each other this life, even when they were making roughly nothing for acting off Off Broadway, quitting one paying job after another to make room for rehearsals and begging parents for money month after month.

That last part got a little tense, Mr. Baldet said, and led him to question whether this really was something he should be doing. Asked if he’d thought about quitting, he said yes, and then no, and then yes, and then he talked about his fantasy of being the archetypal breadwinner.

“I have said to her,” Mr. Baldet said, referring to his wife, “ ‘If we have children, I’m quitting.’ And she said, ‘If you do that, you will crush your soul.’ The gist of it was: ‘If you do that, you wouldn’t be you, and then what’s the point? Why would you have a family at all?’ ”

So, he concluded, he wouldn’t quit.

He’s much better off than he was in those early years, having toured for two years as Timon in “The Lion King,” earning $140,000 a year.

“It’s more than I’ve made combined since I started working when I was 15 years old,” he said.

He used the money to pay down debt, buy things he had been needing, like a computer, and take his wife on their first real vacation. When those two years were up, Disney offered him a job as an offstage understudy in the Broadway version of “The Lion King.”

It was good money, but the vast majority of the time it would mean not performing. He declined. Besides, Ms. Weller had gotten a job on Broadway in “Coram Boy,” which was sure to bring in good money for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Baldet is now off Broadway again in “Gone Missing,” taking home around $400 a week after taxes (the minimum salary for an actor in an Off Broadway production in a 199-seat theater). His wife, who had been unemployed since “Coram Boy” closed 25 days after opening, joined the cast of “Gone Missing” two weeks ago.

“It’s not enough money even with the two of us,” he said. “I probably should get another job. I really probably should.”


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

'Gone Missing' finds humor in cop stories


August 15th 2007

Turns out that New York's Finest are also New York's Most Theatrical.

The evidence can be found at "Gone Missing," a bittersweet Off-Broadway musical about loss that uses the small and tangible - a mislaid wallet, say, or scarf - as a way to tap into yearning for what's irrevocably left us.

But one of the hit show's most memorable characters doesn't lose things. He finds them. And oh, the things that he uncovers.

Gary Gorman is a retired NYPD cop who worked for years in the Emergency Services Unit, a squad called in to particularly sticky situations, from hostage crises to building collapses.

The theater company The Civilians - which created this show, like all its productions, by interviewing dozens of people - found Gorman through tours he gives about jumpers on the Brooklyn Bridge. Gorman's crime-scene tales of dead bodies and severed heads serve an important purpose: The lost scarf, no matter how beloved, is still a scarf.

Gorman's observations, in contrast, "snap you back into perspective on what's important," says Civilians artistic director Steven Cosson. "The stories Gary's character brings into the play are what make the rest of it work."

Ironically, they also make people laugh. Gorman and Stephen Plunkett, the actor who plays him, tread a fine line in bringing humor to what could be a grim subject.

"Obviously, finding someone's head is not something to make light of," says the amiable Gorman. "But you have to" - he forces a laugh - "to keep yourself going in that type of work."

Gorman loves seeing his experiences burst into life on stage. "I'm a ham," he says. "To see yourself portrayed by other people is flattering."

There's an unexpected payoff as well. "Most police officers desensitize themselves. You really have to," Gorman says. "Seeing this performance made me a little more sensitive. Because sometimes you can get too cold."

As an actor, Plunkett loves sharing Gorman's charm and humor, not just the grisly stuff, with audiences at the Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow St.). "There's this great joy that Gary takes in communicating these stories," he says. "It's fun to have that running through your veins every night."

And it's nice to play someone you like, he adds. Looking at Gorman, he says, "How could you jump off a bridge with this guy telling you not to?"


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Theater Review (NYC): Gone Missing

Written by Tullis McCall

Oh - just go see this.

Go see this if you are in love with someone and want an evening that will bind up the little scratchy gaps you are feeling right now. Go see this if there is someone you love as a chum and want to share an evening that will sweep you into an intimate dinner conversation. Go see this with that person you've been meaning to ask out but you are too nervous or you just haven't found the right place or you are afraid of going to something that will put you both off your feed.

Or, if you are like me, go see it alone. Who cares - just go.

When you leave this production you will be thinking about people you miss, people for whom you are grateful, or you may be wishing you had more people in your life that you would miss were they gone. You will be thinking about little items from your past: the time you thought you lost that letter, or the time you left your wallet on the counter at the liquor store, or the time you said goodbye to someone and walked away quickly so they wouldn't see you tear up. You will be thinking about the story of the pet who came back home, or the one who didn't. And you will certainly be thinking of time and the way it slips through you like bran.

Or you might be thinking about world losses as they do here: Atlantis - if it was a continent, how did we lose it? Or universal losses: Romantic revenge - "If you've lost your self-confidence, your direction, your respect for yourself - I have them and I'm not giving them back." Then there are the corporal issues, such as what happens when a body loses some of its parts?

The performances are spot on, with the exception of the women's tendency to do that bent elbow, limp wrist thing that actors do on stage (never off stage) when they don't know what to do with their hands. Each actor plays several parts with the added bonus of women playing men and visa versa.

What has gone missing for you? It's here somewhere in this elegant piece. Compiled from interviews and enhanced with a score that includes harmony, low down swing, soft rock and multi-lingual serenades, Gone Missing zips in and out of lives that are a whisper's length removed from our own.

At the evening's conclusion, the actors leave behind a little of the wrapping that contained them. They leave us a memento, something by which to remember them when they are gone. The mementos remain like the stories we tell, like small stones placed on a grave or on the side of a path. They are proof that we passed this way.

Gone Missing, written and directed by Steven Cosson; music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. With: Emily Ackerman, Damian Baldet, Jennifer R. Morris, Stephen Plunkett, Robbie Collier Sublett and Colleen Werthmann. Sets by Takeshi Kata; costumes by Sarah Beers; lighting by Thomas Dunn; sound by Ken Travis; choreography by Jim Augustine; production stage manager, Robert Signom III; Andy Boroson, David Purcell and Steve Gilewski, musicians; Mr. Boroson, music director. Presented by Scott Morfee and Tom Wirtshafter; in association with the Civilians, Kyle Gorden, producing director; Mr. Cosson, artistic director.

At the Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street, West Village, NYC; (212) 239-6200. Extended through January 2008. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.


Monday, August 6, 2007

New plays incubate at Sundance

Playwrights, directors and actors find a fertile creative environment in a setting far from the Broadway stage at the Sundance incubator

By Ellen Fagg

SUNDANCE - The song lyric is arresting: "God is not interested in your happiness."

On this Wednesday morning, Michael Friedman is at the piano in the barnlike rehearsal room of the Sundance Theatre Lab, teaching six actors his song "Freedom." The composer for the New-York based The Civilians theater company, Friedman is working on the score for "This Beautiful City," a play with music about the explosive power of evangelical Christianity in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Actors are looking over the fourth rewrite of the script, still something of a mess on day nine, the midway point of this exclusive three-week summer camp for playwrights.

"This beautiful pile of crap" is how Friedman jokingly describes the play before getting down to the business of explaining today's changes. "On the first 'God is not interested,' " the young composer tells a vocalist, "sing loud and sing ugly."

God is not interested in your happiness. Voices blend as a godhead of women follow that line with this: "So you have to learn to live without it." And then a trio of men sing: "Freedom is not so you can do what you want. The only freedom is the ability to do what you ought." The song builds until hitting a blunt, unsettling resolution: "It's a paradox."

"This Beautiful City" is one of eight ambitious, quirky projects at this year's lab, selected from more than 700 Sundance submissions. What's unusual about the reality-based work is that the lyrics for "Freedom" - like the play's dialogue and characters - grew out of interviews The Civilians conducted during an 11-week residency in Colorado Springs last fall.

The theater company's interest in exploring the emerging political power of the Christian right sparked the project, which became a partnership with Colorado College. "Our mission as a theater company is to pursue what we don't know," says Steve Cosson, The Civilians' founding artistic director. Friedman describes a moment when he was talking to Colorado Springs residents and realized he was at the crossroads of a sweeping cultural movement. "In New York, we are so unaware of how Colorado Springs is affecting us," the musician says with the insight of an anthropologist.

In a case of cosmic happenstance, the company happened to be attending the New Life megachurch on the November Sunday when minister Ted Haggard resigned amid allegations of a sexual relationship with a male escort. "When Ted Haggard got outed, our play got hit by a truck," says Cosson, one of the play's three writers.

While the play directly addresses the collision between homosexuality and Christianity, its themes are more broadly focused on the paradoxes of living in a place that some people consider God's kingdom.

"For me, not being a religious person," says Friedman, "that's the central question of the show: 'What will your personal freedom bring you?' "

Creative courtship: Listen to The Civilians or other theater artists talking about the Sundance lab, and it's as if they're talking about a creative courtship, where Sundance functions as a matchmaker, setting up emerging and established playwrights with a crew of actors and creative advisers.

Then through a dramatic ménage À trois among playwright, director and dramaturg, the creative aim is as simple as falling in love: You just have to be brave enough to create something new.

That kind of risk can be a challenge for artists in the current economic climate, as arts groups locally and nationally fight for economic survival.

Like a scientific laboratory, the lab hopes to provide a safe place for creative experiments. "Plays are not created in seven days," says Philip Himberg, Sundance's producing director. "Darwinism is the model. There's no such thing as spontaneous combustion. We try to understand the artist's process and establish the right environment."

That concept of nurturing new theatrical works has deep roots locally, thanks to the Utah Arts Council's ambitious launch of the state's first playwriting conference at the Sundance Resort in July 1980. The next year, Robert Redford adopted the fledgling program, which has expanded as the Sundance Institute evolved into an international brand name.

With an annual budget now approaching $1 million, Sundance theater programs have evolved into a year-round support group, with a playwriting retreat at northeastern Wyoming's Ucross foundation, and a lab for new musicals and ensemble works at White Oak, Fla. It's also expanding internationally, with two Nairobi artists attending this year's lab, and plans for a 10-day workshop to support local talent next year in Kampala, Uganda.

Despite the lab's nearly 30-year history, few theatergoers are aware of its national influence because Sundance doesn't produce plays. Recent examples of its graduates are two quirky Broadway musicals - "Spring Awakening" and "Grey Gardens" - that were the talk of this year's Tony Awards. Theater brand names nurtured by Sundance include epics such as Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and Robert Schenkkan's "The Kentucky Cycle."

Sundance also can claim Moisés Kaufman's "The Laramie Project," about the hate crime that took the life of Matthew Shepard, and "I Am My Own Wife," Doug Wright's unusual play about a charming, shape-shifting German transvestite. Both shows have been produced at regional theaters around the country, and drawn audiences when performed at Salt Lake City theater companies.

"What we're proud of is the audacity and independent spirit of those works," Himberg says. "We're not about producing hits. We're about sending work out into the country."

Yet the Sundance official, like nonprofit administrators worldwide, is quick to offer the numbers that quantify the lab's track record. So far, Himberg says, 85 percent of Sundance-incubated plays have gone on to full-scale productions at regional theaters, while 21 have received Tony nominations.

"American theater doesn't treat playwrights well," says Mame Hunt, the lab's lead dramaturg. "This is the place where they are at the center of the world.

A good start: "This Beautiful City's" creators arrived at Sundance with a rough outline, cobbled together from hours of interview transcripts. In that form, the project already had received national attention, thanks to staged readings earlier this year at Colorado College and in New York City, and a commitment for a world-premiere production next June at Washington, D.C.'s Studio Theatre.

During the lab, the writers kicked out six new drafts for every-other-day rehearsals, and Friedman wrote three new songs. The play now features a dozen key characters based on real people. The work blends theatrical styles, including moments from interviews, direct-address monologues and naturalistic scenes. Most of the play's songs are structured with layers of voices and other elements juxtaposed against each other, to create what Casson describes as a "new and synergistic third voice."

In the cliff-hanger that ends the first act, audience members eavesdrop on conflicting witness accounts of Haggard's downfall. A dramatic highlight of the second act is "Take Me There," a song that draws upon the motifs of Christian pop, intercut with snippets of prayers and church speeches, to recount with dramatic urgency what happened inside the New Life Church the day Haggard was exposed.

With "This Beautiful City" and other interview-based works, the theater company aims to tell stories grounded in a particular time and place. They want to create theater, not journalistic reportage, not a didactic documentary or an op-ed piece. "We're trying to balance the story," Casson says. "Various people have their truth to tell, but this is a play being created by a secular theater company. Our actors perform and sing the Christian point of view. This is our show."

A show, that is, shaped at a place where playwrights are at the center of the creative universe. "Everything shifted around and moved and got juxtaposed next to other stuff," Cosson reported this week, after returning to his New York office. "The most helpful thing about Sundance was just having a fresh audience, and then getting responses from Sundance's creative advisers. We came in with a very, very rough draft, and now we have a pretty solid draft."

* ELLEN FAGG can be contacted at or 801-257-8621. Send comments to

Taking shape at Sundance
Besides "This Beautiful City," other plays in development at this year's Sundance Theatre Lab included:

* WORK: Noah Haidle's "Local Time 11AM-1PM."
Description: Inspired by TV's "24," but "without Kiefer Sutherland or terrorists," the play opens with two simultaneous stories performed on opposite sides of the stage that appear to have little in common.

* WORK: Ann Marie Healy's "Have You Seen Steve Steven?"
Description: Teen protagonist Kathleen's fairy-tale passage into adulthood devolves into "Twilight Zone"-esque terror.

* WORK: Danny Hoch's "A Word Is Born."
Description: "A musical prelude to rap culture, its generation and its word."

* WORK: Naomi Lizuka's "Ghostwritten."
Description: A retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fable, exploring the relationship between America and Southeast Asia and challenging the idea of what's foreign and what's familiar.

* WORK: Rob Grace and Bradford Louryk's "The Untitled Lucrezia Borgia Project."
Description: Multimedia one-man play illuminating "the multiplicity of our complex identities," based on a collection of Borgia's letters.

* WORK: Tarell Alvin McCraney's "Wig Out."
Description: A love story set in "drag ball houses" in contemporary Harlem, considering such concepts as fidelity and loyalty to self and family.

* WORK: Tracey Scott Wilson's "The Good Negro."
Description: Intimate stories offer a look inside the history of the American civil-rights movement.


Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Gone Missing

The Civilians is the name of a quirky downtown group that combines earnest docudrama with self-referential musical satire, and chances are you’ve never heard of them.

But I’ve been following this brilliant gang for years, hoping they would get a break. Well good news: The Civilians have revived “Gone Missing,” a 2003 musical meditation about loss, for an extended Off-Broadway run. Now, it’s your chance to discover this superb company.

On paper, even on video, what the group does so well might sound like a college stunt: six performers dressed in matching grey suits, dancing robotically, slip in and out of dozens of characters, who give their thoughts on loss, both material and metaphysical.

Between sound bites, they break into various styles of song: salsa, indie rock and bouncy show tunes. The fragmentary text was generated through interviews with real people, as well as found material from posters, classified ads and interview transcripts from the Public Radio program “Fresh Air.” There are memorable lines from cops, shopkeepers, professors and others about losing shoes, wedding rings, cell phones, as well as segments about nostalgia, grief and even losing one’s mind. We hear from a guy who specializes in helping people get rid of clutter and an Englishman who temporarily loses language.

Keeping all these disparate elements together is a wonderfully witty score by Michael Friedman, while director Steve Cosson displays a pitch-perfect ear for tone, which shifts from goofy triviality to profound drama. The six actors, who play multiple characters with amazing precision, all deserve shout-outs: Emily Ackerman, Damian Baldet, Jennifer Morris, Stephen Plunkett, Robbie Sublett and Colleen Werthmann. Once you find these guys, you won’t want to let them out of your sight.

While they’ve been a familiar feature on the Off-Off Broadway scene for years, I’m happy to say that more New Yorkers than ever are able to check out The Civilians. I bet you’ll like what you find.

– David Cote