An Interview with Steve Cosson of the Civilians
by Sarah Kozinn
TDR: The Drama Review 54:4 (T208) Winter 2010. ©2010 New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
"The group’s work has been produced at theatres all over the country: at the Public Theater and the Vineyard Theatre (New York City), at Center Theatre Group, A.R.T. (Cambridge, MA), La Jolla Playhouse (La Jolla, CA), HBO’s US Comedy Festival (Aspen, CO), Studio Theatre (Washington, DC), and the Actors Theatre of Louisville (Louisville, KY) to name a few. Since making their first show with only “six dollars and a pack of gum,” the company has expanded ambitiously. Currently, they have their hands full with a diverse range of projects varying in topics and styles. They are working on: You Better Sit Down: Tales From My Parents’ Divorce, a play made from the artists’ interviews with their divorced parents (first performed on 13 November 2009 at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, NY) that has also been made into a series of short video clips broadcast online through the WNYC website (http://culture.wnyc.org/articles/ civilians/) where audiences can contribute their own divorce stories; Let Me Ascertain You, a musical about the porn industry that was performed as a cabaret at Joe’s Pub in New York City on 4 June 2010; the commissioned Nottage: Childs Musical, a musical by Pulitzer Prize– winner Lynn Nottage and acclaimed composer Kirsten Childs that looks at how the Atlantic Yards development is changing the face of Brooklyn; and several other commissioned projects. Though the company is composed of a changing group of associate artists who are actors, dancers, composers, choreographers, writers, and directors (64 of whom are listed on the website), Cosson began the company by “collecting” artists he enjoyed working with—several of whom, like Michael Friedman, Anne Washburn, Anne Kauffman, Jenny Morris, Damian Baldet, Trey Lyford, Christina Kirk, Caitlin Miller, and Colleen Werthmann continue to work with the company."
By Zachary Stewart
TheaterMania offers a brief history of one of America's most inquisitive and controversial theater companies. ©2015
"Since 2001 The Civilians has been the leading investigative-theater company in America, regularly taking audiences on surprising and tuneful journeys into little-known pockets of our world. Their style and methods are form-pushing, with many of their scripts created by piecing together interviews and exhaustive research. This puts them firmly in the realm of the experimental (this is not your grandmother's musical theater). Just don't call them a "downtown troupe."
"I don't know what that means anymore," said Steve Cosson, the company's founder and artistic director, when I asked him if there were any common misconceptions about The Civilians. "Why does everything have to get positioned on the grid of Manhattan?" Cosson is quick to point out that The Civilians have worked with theaters around the country, not just the ones below 14th Street in New York. He further adds, "No one in the theater likes the word "troupe." You're a troupe of dancers or commedia dell'arte players. We're a theater company with a mission.""
By Jonathan Mandell
Howlround, March 13th, 2016
"They’ve gone to the San Fernando Valley in California to explore the nation’s pornography industry for Pretty Filthy; traveled to Bogota and its annual beauty pageant in a women’s prison there for Another Word for Beauty, which The Civilians and the Goodman Theatre commissioned from playwright Jose Rivera; visited Colorado Springs, Colorado, in search of the Evangelical movement in the United States, for The Beautiful City. They’ve studied income inequality, considered what it means to be masculine, and tried to figure out what makes Americans Americans. They may be the most vibrant socially-conscious, avant-garde, investigative theatre company in the country. (Are there many other socially-conscious, avant-garde, investigative theatre companies in the country?)"
Read the full publication here.
By Jules Odendahl-James
American Theatre Magazine: On the Real: Documentary Theatre, Theatre History
"In the contemporary moment, when the blur between the real and the represented is daily, systemic, and overarching, companies such as the Civilians, which bills its work as “investigatory theatre,” deliberately avoid the label “documentary,” arguing their theatre asks more questions than it answers, does not press any particular political agenda or audience action, and embraces theatrical devices such as music and dance to expose dimensions of absurdity, hyperbole, and non-linearity—essential tools to understand the complex social, political, and cultural forces that shape our daily life. This new moment in documentary theatre’s development is one marked by a mix of urgency, intensity, and hybridity. The Civilians, for example, deliver their content across multiple media platforms, including but not limited to theatre and concerts, including via podcasts."
By Amelia Parenteau
American Theatre Magazine: On the Real: Documentary Theatre ©2017
"To find out more about the practice and implications of documentary theatre, I gathered some of the field’s veterans for a frank conversation about their craft, how it’s changed—and how it’s changed them. I found, of course, that they were aware of each other’s work. How could they not be? With the Civilians, Steve Cosson directed and helped create This Beautiful City and The Great Immensity; Leigh Fondakowski served as head writer on Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project, and most recently unveiled Spill at New York City’s Ensemble Studio Thea-tre; KJ Sanchez, who with American Records created such shows as ReEntry and X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story), is working on a commission from the Guthrie Theater about recent immigrants to the Twin Cities; and Ping Chongcontinues his ongoing Undesirable Elements, which began in 1992, with a project with teens facilitated by NYC’s New Victory Theater."
By Eric Grode
New York Times: Theatre ©2013
"Opening night on Monday will mean the end of Mr. Friedman’s mad dashes to the C train to juggle rehearsals; 11 days later, “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play” begins previews at Playwrights Horizons. It is Mr. Friedman’s eighth collaboration with the Civilians, each of them directed (and in many cases created) by Steve Cosson. This piece, written by Anne Washburn, brings a macabre twist to the real-world interviews that have been a crucial component of Civilians pieces like “Gone Missing” and “In the Footprint.”Here, people’s hazy post-apocalyptic memories of one episode of “The Simpsons” yield the last surviving piece of culture, which morphs by the late-21st century into a surreal, pop-music-infused pageant."
Read full publication here.
By Steve Cosson
New York Times: Opinion Pages: Room for Debate
"While researching a play, I visited Churchill, Canada, the “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” on the edge of the Hudson Bay. Because climate change is accelerated the farther north you go, I didn’t meet a single person there who wasn’t aware of climate change as a present crisis. Many residents told me they were going stir crazy because they couldn't spend much time outside until the Bay froze and the bears, who become town residents during the warmer weather, went away.
Climate change is real in Churchill, and it is happening now. The play that it inspired held workshop performances before Hurricane Sandy hit New York. The difference in audience reactions before and after the storm was palpable. Pre-Sandy the tone was "This is an important problem for the future, and in other parts of the world, but not one that is affecting New Yorkers." That changed after the fall of 2012. Since then, audiences have embraced climate change as a pressing issue affecting people worldwide. Now more people stay during question and answer sessions after the show to discuss the situation and ask what they can do."
By Steve Cosson
CNN.com: Opinons ©2017
"Politicized art-hating is again on display in the flap over a new Shakespeare in the Park production of "Julius Caesar" with a Trump-like lead. Donald Trump Jr. asked in a tweet, "how much of this 'art' was funded by taxpayers," and Fox News identified it as a "tax-funded play," though the National Endowment for the Arts said none of its funds went to the production. But after right-wing media got hold of it and a social media campaign fanned the flames, corporate sponsors Delta and Bank of America duly withdrew.
My play isn't Shakespeare, though I'm honored to share this kind of targeting with "Julius Caesar." My case throws into sharp relief the political agenda behind defunding art that some powerful people don't like. It's an appeal to twin contempt for climate science and public support for the arts, a coded invitation to ridicule both."
Read full publication here.