Friday, March 28, 2008

Civilians take unique approach

Auds find Off Broadway company's 'Missing'

by Sam Thielman

NEW YORK -- Steve Cosson likes to be surprised, especially when he's working on a show.

"It's what makes it exciting," says the artistic director of rising Off Broadway theater company the Civilians. "I want to find out what we don't know already, and a great way to do that is to go out into the world and just sit down and listen."

As Cosson describes it, the Civilians' approach to making theater sounds an awful lot like journalism: The entire troupe travels far and wide researching a piece around a given subject, conducting interviews and comparing notes along the way, sometimes for years. It may sound like an arduous process for director Cosson and writer-composer Michael Friedman (Cosson admits that a single show can run "a couple hundred thousand dollars" to research and produce), but it's paid off in spades for the company.

The Civilians have been around since 2001, but it wasn't until last year's "Gone Missing" that the company landed a breakout hit. The trim 80-minute process-driven show was about lost things, from car keys to Atlantis. After being workshopped and vetted everywhere but Atlantis, the show was originally scheduled for a six-week run from mid-June at Off Broadway's Barrow Street Theater. But it opened to such positive word of mouth and enthusiastic reviews that six weeks turned into six months, extending into January.

The company has always depended heavily on grant money to cover travel costs, and since a critical mass of people checked out "Gone Missing," there are now enough grants and donations for the Civilians to stretch a little, including a three-week stint at the Sundance Theater Lab and $150,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation's prestigious NYC Cultural Innovation Fund.

"They brought together a small panel to choose these," says Cosson, sounding a little thunderstruck. "The other grantees were like, Carnegie Hall, and then us."

Part of the attraction may have been that the Civilians are premiering not one but two shows this season. "This Beautiful City" just bowed at the Humana Festival and is headed to D.C.'s Studio Theater June 11, and "Paris Commune" opens at the Public Theater on April 4. Both shows have been in development for years ("Paris Commune" had its first workshop in 2003), and the coincidence of nearly simultaneous productions has raised the Civilians' profile even further.

Then there is the group's subject matter: Cosson, Friedman and their cast were in Colorado Springs interviewing for "This Beautiful City," which explores evangelical Christianity, just as New Life Church pastor Ted Haggard shocked his congregation by admitting to an affair with a male prostitute. It's hard to imagine a scandal that would allow the group a clearer window into the hidden parts of the community they were investigating -- one of those surprises that so fascinate Cosson.

"When we started our project, Ted Haggard had a lot of stature as an evangelical leader," says Cosson. "The city is about 500,000 people, and it grew a lot over the period of time we spent there. We went in not expecting it to be a story with anything particularly dramatic in it."

"Paris Commune" is a much different story. For one thing, the show takes place in the past, and the company had to radically adjust its methodology in order to create it. For another, it's one of the longest-gestating projects in the Civilians' history.

"We'll leave it alone for a year, year-and-a-half, even, and then we'll get funding to do a two-week workshop at the Public," says Cosson. The show takes place in the then-vacant palace in Paris during the Revolution of 1871. It's a difficult piece according to its director ("one of the hardest things you could write a play about"), but it's finally coming to fruition with the help of the Public's LAB series, which is dedicated to giving full (if basic) productions to raw work.

There's still more from these guys: Friedman is writing the music and co-writing lyrics for Playwrights Horizon's "Saved," a high-profile Off Broadway tuner adaptation of the satirical indie film, while on the overflowing back burner there are two more shows, one musical about urban development in Brooklyn and one retelling of the Gilgamesh epic.

At the end of the day, though, the Civilians are less interested in getting into more and bigger theaters and more interested in changing what goes on inside the theaters they're already inhabiting.

"One of the big ideas I had when I started the Civilians was to break out of all the niches we create for theater to live in," Cosson enthuses. "I like the idea that you won't necessarily know what you're going to get."


Humana Festival discovers "This Beautiful City" The journalistic musical examines Colorado Springs' rise to evangelical capital of America

By John Moore
Denver Post Theater Critic

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When New York actor Stephen Plunkett first set foot in the New Life mega-church in November 2006, "it was baptism by fire," he said.

It was the Sunday morning when founding pastor Ted Haggard's resignation was read to an overflow crowd of more than 18,000. Everywhere Plunkett looked, he saw national media spilling into the aisles alongside weeping evangelicals.

This was the start of a continuing creative odyssey in which six members of The Civilians theater company would infiltrate and explore Colorado Springs' rise to unofficial evangelical capital of the United States. The actors' interviews with hundreds of Coloradans, from former and fervid New Life parishioners to liberal activists to Air Force Academy cadets to surrounding church leaders, resulted in "This Beautiful City," an original musical in the journalistic tradition of "The Laramie Project."

The goal: "To responsibly explore how faith intersects with public life, and ultimately, how that reflects what's happening in our country," said Civilians actor Brad Heberlee, who also performed in the Denver Center Theatre Company's "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball" last year.

"This Beautiful City" was one of six featured works at this weekend's 32nd Humana Festival of New American Plays, the most prestigious of its kind. Stagings are slated for top theaters in Washington and Los Angeles before an anticipated New York run.

Natural home for evangelism

It tells the explosive and even surprising story of how the confluence of Focus on the Family, the Air Force Academy, Fort Carson, NORAD and the anti-gay Amendment 2 movement made this city at the base of Pikes Peak the logical place for evangelism to germinate and grow over the past 25 years.

That's about when a 19-year-old Haggard, fasting at the south base of Pikes Peak, first envisioned what would become the largest church in Colorado. "What is the purpose of New Life Church?" he has asked rhetorically ever since. "To make it hard to go to hell in Colorado Springs."

The Civilians chose Colorado Springs even before Haggard's downfall because co-writer Jim Lewis is a native and Colorado College graduate. But Haggard's lurid sex and drug scandal with a male prostitute was no doubt the catalyst that has propelled their piece into the national dialogue.

And New York actress Emily Ackerman didn't want to come.

"I was scared to go," she says flatly. "All we've ever heard in New York about conservative Christians is that they are mean and hateful and hurtful, and that they legislate against friends of mine."

But instead she found warm and friendly people eager to explain who they are. People who welcomed her to their dinner tables and shared their intimate stories. "I realized that, actually, they have a really strong, incredible community . . . and they wanted us to be a part of that, because it works for them," Ackerman said.

"This Beautiful City" is a lightening-rod piece of theater, to be sure. But while it is agenda-driven, it drives all sorts of agendas, and you hear from all sorts of people.

From those who put the pieces of New Life back together. From homophobes, radical activists and the transgendered. From evangelicals who scraped themselves up from gutters to find new life at New Life. From the Jewish father of an Air Force cadet who cites the general who told The New York Times that "it is the Air Force's official policy to evangelize anyone who comes into the service 'unchurched.' "

And perhaps most refreshingly and unnervingly, from Marcus Haggard, eldest of five siblings. Not many have heard from Marcus, who in 2004 started the Boulder Street Church as a satellite of New Life.

Turns out, not many have asked. Plunkett did.

"We share a bond because we're both preacher's kids," said Plunkett, who took 45 minutes to work up the courage to ask Marcus about his dad.

"He said, 'Of course I'm willing to talk about this,' " Plunkett said. " 'Not talking about this is what got us into this problem in the first place.' "

Plunkett portrays Marcus in the play as a nice and open young man who, when hearing about his father's liaisons, admits to an initial shock that soon dissolved into, "Huh. . . . Yeah, there could be some truth there."

Marcus, who resigned last month to return to school, was most disappointed that his father lied when busted. "It's like when a criminal gets caught, and all of a sudden, they're like, 'Oh, I'm sorry,' " Marcus is quoted as saying. "No, you're not! If you hadn't gotten caught, you'd still be doing it!"

Another gay pastor

Haggard's fall propels but does not define the musical's second act, which is poignant and presciently paralleled with the much quieter resignation by the Rev. Benjamin Reynolds, senior pastor of the nearby Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church. He came out as gay to his Colorado Springs congregation just a week before Haggard was outed.

Actress Marsha Stephanie Blake interviewed an Emmanuel choir member who practically reveled in Haggard's downfall. Part of the reason is race.

"It's black versus white, and the two communities very rarely intersect on any level in Colorado Springs," said Blake, who is black. "A lot of black people I talked to said the economic development of Colorado Springs hasn't included the black population, and now there is a huge divide. A lot of black people feel like the white evangelicals are crazy — and they use that word. They believe the white evangelical view of the world is not equivalent to the black, Baptist Christian view of the world."

Blake portrays the choir singer, whom she describes as "quite a lovely, open and maternal lady," as also extremely homophobic. She also plays the male successor to Reynolds, who delivers an electrifying sermon that makes the pure, soul-stirring and theatrical power of evangelical oratory plain to anyone in the audience, regardless of religious belief.

The purpose of "This Beautiful City" is not to deliver a blistering satire, but to start a dialogue "because we are all sinners, and we all struggle," Ackerman said. To do otherwise would have been a disservice, Blake said.

"When you ask people to tell you their deepest, darkest secrets, then you have a responsibility not to use that to make fun of them," she said. "But we've been attacked and complimented by both groups, and I think that's kind of good."

The Civilians have performed rough readings of their musical at Colorado College, which hosted them in residence for five weeks in 2005, and in New York.

"The things people laughed at in New York were not at all the things that they laughed at in Colorado Springs," Ackerman said. "When I said, 'Every day I pray to Jesus in my car on my way to work,' people in New York laughed at that. But in Colorado, people were like, 'Yeah, I do that, too.' "

While the rise of evangelism isn't new to Coloradans, Blake thinks "This Beautiful City" will deliver a bigger shock to a New York audience.

"That's because I am a New York liberal, and I do think this piece is frightening. Just the idea that this rise in evangelicalism is not contained to Colorado Springs. It's spreading. And it's creeping into various parts of all our lives without our even realizing it. So it is actually quite threatening."

John Moore: 303-954-1056 or

[Photo Caption: Emily Ackerman, left, with Katie Gold, Elizabeth Gilbert and Ashley Robinson in "This Beautiful City" at the 2008 Humana Festival of New American Plays.]


Saturday, March 1, 2008

This Beautiful City


By Charles Whaley

Commissioned and developed by the group of New York theater artists called The Civilians, This Beautiful City, the third of six full-length plays to open at this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theater of Louisville, is an unsettling, fiercely intelligent dissection of the American Evangelical movement. The city is Colorado Springs, the movement’s unofficial headquarters, with its myriad churches and conservative political organizations such as Focus on the Family that grew up around the 14,000-member New Life Church founded in 1984 by the charismatic Pastor Ted Haggard.

While The Civilians were interviewing local people and visiting churches during their 10-week residency at Colorado College, Haggard’s explosive downfall came when a male prostitute, upset over Haggard’s hypocritical stance against a gay rights referendum, revealed their three-year relationship as well as Haggard’s drug habit. The mega-church minister first denied, then admitted his guilt. With the fallout, the White House denied that President Bush had weekly conference calls with Haggard but conceded that Haggard made a visit or two to the White House.

The Civilians’ brilliantly synthesized findings emerge in the play written by Steven Cosson (whose direction never loses momentum) and Jim Lewis (whose hometown was Colorado Springs) augmented by Michael Friedman’s forceful, all-embracing music and lyrics performed by Scott Anthony (keyboard), Anthony Gantt (drums) and Ben Short (bass).

Cast members (Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, Stephen Plunkett) who along with the authors did the interviewing bring their subjects to compelling life. Ian Brennan and Dori Legg also portray people in the time leading up to, and after, the 2004 election.

A writer for alternative newspapers who grew up in the Colorado resort town and returned in 2001 tells how “it was like a zombie movie or something” when the Evangelicals “just sorta invaded” right after he went to college. “Around that time, New Life was getting huge -- Ted Haggard -- and, you know, they built that monstrosity of a building out there…And then there’s Focus on the Family -- ”it’s like the biggest conservative Christian media empire in the world.”

Four military installations -- all dominated by conservative Christian Evangelicals -- are nearby: the Air Force Academy, Fort Carson, Ent Air Force Base, and NORAD. Military cadets and faculty talk openly of the heavy-handed crusading they embrace or at least tolerate for fear of recriminations. “This is bigger than Ted,” says a military activist. “And it’s not just the Air Force Academy, it’s the Marine Corps, Navy, Army. This is a story that threatens the fundamental security of this country. All 702 of our U. S. military installations -- all of them -- have an Officers Christian Fellowship on them.”

A non-gay community activist says of the Christian right, “They’ve got a big picture, and it has to do with big things like dismantling government programs and privatizing public education, because the more they can dismantle, the more people need the church to provide those services. Faith-based initiatives, all that. Right. And what do you think that means for the Christian leaders? Power and money. This gay marriage panic is just a means for an end to them.” “We all think there’s simple, easy solutions to everything,” and the Evangelicals make that sound appealing. “I think there’s a piece of it where we are willing to relinquish everything if someone will just tell us there’s a right way to be in the world. But the truth is the world is complex. It’s more complex than ever before.”

This thoughtful, probing examination of what has become a major threat to the U. S. Constitution deserves to be widely seen. Some trims would improve the overly long second act and, hopefully, that will be done before the play moves to The Studio Theater in Washington, D. C., which also produced it in association with ATL and The Civilians, whose earlier Gone Missing won plaudits at ATL and in New York.