The Political Civilians

The Civilians have quickly become one of America’s most exciting and political theatre companies.  Founded by Steve Cosson in 2001 with some of his fellow graduates from the University of California-San Diego (UCSD), they have developed into one of New York’s most essential companies with interests and influences across the country.  At UCSD Steve had trained under Les Waters, a director and member of the British Joint Stock Theatre Company.  Cosson and his fellow artists have spent the 11 years since 2001 adapting the Joint Stock methods with their own intuitions to create their own company.

The Joint Stock Theatre Company was founded in 1974.  Featuring artists such as Max Stafford-Clark, Howard Brenton, and Caryl Churchill, the company focused on new work and developed a style of writing scripts through company research.  Their method gave birth to such contemporary classics as Stephen Lowe’s The Raggged Trousered Philanthropists, and Churchill’s Cloud Nine.  As influential as these productions were individually, however, the Joint Stock Theatre Company is most remembered for their innovative methods.  The Company operated as a democratic collective, in which everyone had equal pay, and equal decision-making power.  For each production, before any script had been written, the company members would decide upon a topic of exploration, then they would each go out and research the topic, some living in the environment of the topic, others interviewing living people, etc.  After compiling all this research and experience, the actors would feed it back to the writers, who would develop scripts that were work-shopped over an extended period by the entire company.

With a few alterations, Steve Cosson and The Civilians lifted this method of research fueling the production. The Civilians do not function as a democratic collective; Cosson is the artistic director and they have a strong group of Artistic Associates, all of whom trade ideas for topics before Cosson decides the next topic to be explored.  The Civilians’ method also pulls from the research more directly.  While the Joint Stock Theatre Company actors would compile experiences and research that they would then give to the playwrights who would pen a script, The Civilians work directly from recorded transcripts that are then compiled and edited into a playscript using only the exact words that were given in the research period.   This process puts The Civilians’ work in immediacy to their topic in a way that the Joint Stock Theatre Company never did.  And it is this transparent process of actual research and testimonies being arranged to form The Civilians’ productions that has given The Civilians their place as a political theatre company.   By working directly on the issues and feelings of actual people, The Civilians’ work is “of its times” in ways that few other companies are.  Their engagement of people as they are now and in relation to each other has inherently progressed to productions of political nature.
The Civilians’ insistence on working on contemporary issues has  led to some extremely fortuitous luck.  The Civilians had decided to explore the Evangelical Christian movement by spending some time in Colorado Springs, considered by many to be the hotbed of the Evangelical movement with the presence of institutions such as Focus on The Family and the New Life Church.  While researching and conducting interviews around the town about the dynamics between its new Evangelical residents and its older secular hippies, theTed Haggard scandal broke, with reports of his methamphetamine abuse and extramarital homosexual affair.  Through their proximity to the issue they Civilians crafted a musical This Beautiful City, that had its finger right on the pulse of that important issue.
A couple years after This Beautiful City, the Civilians turned their curious eye closer to home, and began looking at their backyard, investigating the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn.  The Atlantic Yards project was a development initiative to build several high-rise buildings and a new stadium for the Brooklyn Nets NBA team.  The development required the seizure of large sections of neighborhoods by eminent domain. The furor over the project spilled over into racial tension, accusations of classicism, and kickback against gentrification across Brooklyn.  The Civilians gathered hours of interviews with effected residents and key players.  They pulled from transcripts of town hall meetings and the developers’ press releases.  The Civilians crafted an entire musical, In The Footprint, by culling entirely from the words of the involved parties.
Even the productions that don’t seem explicitly political, such as Mr. Burns, which examines our fascination with pop culture and myth through re-telling an episode of The SImpsons, and their most recent production,Pretty Filthy, an investigation into the porn industry, contain incisive critiques of the human condition right now in human history.  The Civilians’ relevance is slowly gaining some well-deserved recognition.  They are currently in a close collaboration with New York’s The Public Theatre, as they workshop many of their developing projects at the Joe’s Pub.  And The Civilians have been commissioned to develop a play about climate change through a grant with the National Science Foundation.  For this work The Great Immensity, The Civilians have traveled to Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal and the arctic Canadian city Churchill, where they have been conducting interviews both with scientist experts and the indigenous community to explore this sometimes-divisive political issue from a truly humanitarian perspective.  This exploration of political issues from a place of individual personal testimonies give  The Civilians’ work both a heart and a unique perspective.