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The Civilians Explore Everything From Disney's Geese to California's Porn

TheaterMania offers a brief history of one of America's most inquisitive and controversial theater companies.

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Jennifer R. Morris, Gibson Frazier, and Colleen Werthmann in Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, a commission of The Civilians directed by Steve Cosson, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)

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."

That mission, heavily influenced by London's Joint Stock Theatre Company, is to "create new theater from creative investigations into the most vital questions of the present." Of course, in the beginning, some of those questions didn't seem so vital. Their inaugural musical Canard, Canard, Goose? explored allegations that Disney had abused the geese used in the 1996 Anna Paquin film Fly Away Home. That first investigation turned out to be a "learning experience" for everyone involved.

Fourteen years later, the company has refined its process. Their latest creation, Pretty Filthy, is a musical about the rapidly changing adult film industry, slated to debut at The Abrons Arts Center (January 31 – March 1). According to Cosson, the creative team spent quite a lot of time in California's San Fernando Valley in preparation. As we prepare to get Pretty Filthy, we thought we'd take a stroll down memory lane and highlight some of the most significant productions in the company's 14-year history, with side commentary from Steve Cosson.

Canard, Canard, Goose? (2002)

Jennifer R. Morris, Damian Baldet, Colleen Werthmann, Aysan Celik, Brian Sgambati, and Aimee Guillot in The Civilians' Canard, Canard, Goose?, directed by Steve Cosson, at HERE Arts Center.
(© Leslie Lyons)

This was The Civilians' first show. It was also the first fully produced score by Michael Friedman.

Cosson: "We based the show on one flimsy story about the alleged abuse by Disney of geese in upstate New York. We had no reason to believe it was true, but we decided to go to this small town in the Adirondacks and whatever comes of that, we were going to perform it."

As it turned out, Fly Away Home was filmed entirely in Ontario. There had never been any evil Disney goose handlers in upstate New York.

Cosson: "It was a really valuable learning experience for everyone who worked on that show, most of whom continue to be core members of the company. Whatever the project, we know something will happen if you take the leap into the unknown. It's good for artists to be somewhat uncomfortable. "

The Ladies (2004)

Maria Striar, Alison Weller, and Nina Hellman in Anne Washburn's The Ladies, directed by Anne Kauffman, at Dixon Place at Chashama.
(© David Gochfeld)

This exploration of the lives of Eva Perón, Madame Mao, Elena Ceausescu, and Imelda Marcos was the first Civilians collaboration with Anne Washburn and Anne Kauffman. The playwright and director would return to work later with the company: Kauffman in 2011 with Maple and Vine; Washburn in 2013 with Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play. (Both of those shows were presented at Playwrights Horizons.)

Cosson: "When we did Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns a lot of people said, "This is a huge departure for you," because it was a scripted work by one writer, not the product of a group investigation. It wasn't really a departure though. Our third show, The Ladies, was a play…written by Anne Washburn."

(I Am) Nobody's Lunch (2006)

Brad Heberlee, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Daoud Heidami, and Jennifer R. Morris in The Civilians' (I Am) Nobody's Lunch, directed by Steven Cosson, at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Leslie Lyons)

Created during George W. Bush's second term, this musical was an attempt to reconcile what members of the company saw as the blatant dishonesty of the government with how average Americans were responding (or not responding) to that perfidy.

Cosson: "(I Am) Nobody's Lunch was really the first show where we started from a feeling of being overwhelmed by a topic. We had no idea how to engage this insanity in a play; therefore, we had no other choice but to try and do it."

This Beautiful City (2008)

Brad Heberlee, Stephen Plunkett, and Emily Ackerman in The Civilians' This Beautiful City, directed by Steve Cosson, at the Vineyard Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

This look into the evangelical Christian movement in the United States brought The Civilians to its epicenter: Colorado Springs, where several of them lived for a brief period.

Cosson: "This marked a significant step in our evolution. At that time, it was the most ambitious investigation that we had undertaken. It was the first time we were able to pull together a company and do interviews and research on a full-time basis."

Ted Haggard, the evangelical pastor who was famously exposed for soliciting a male prostitute and using crystal meth, is a central character. Haggard attended a performance of the show at the Vineyard Theatre on March 10, 2009.

In the Footprint (2010)

Born out of an earlier workshop titled Brooklyn at Eye Level, this piece explored Atlantic Yards, a major development project that completely reshaped a vast swath of Brooklyn. The Barclays Center is a major component of this highly controversial redevelopment. Composer Michael Friedman was brought on to musicalize the dissonant voices in this ongoing conflict.

Cosson: "Michael's got such a talent for taking the voice of a real person or story and finding the song within it."

Here's Friedman and the cast performing "The Four Brooklyns":

Due to the stir caused by In the Footprint, the documentary film Battle for Brooklyn, and persistent protests, in August 2014 Forest City Ratner quietly changed the name of the development to Pacific Park.

Paris Commune (2012)

This ambitious project was an attempt to bring the revolutionary fervor of 1871 Paris to the stage. Cosson and his company worked on it for nearly a decade, presenting iterations at the Public Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, ArtsEmerson, and BAM.

Cosson: "As it went through its various incarnations, I was learning a lot about how to structure a script. There were some stops along the way where I had to learn by going all the way to a dead end and turning around."

The Great Immensity (2014)

The Civilians received $697,177 from the National Science Foundation to develop this show about climate change. This toxic mixture of government spending, scientific consensus, and the arts was enough to get the attention of Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who included the show it his 2012 "Wastebook." Once again, Michael Friedman was able to turn a barrage of facts and figures into toe-tapping good fun:

Cosson: "The Great Immensity was the most ambitious and challenging show we've undertaken."

Pretty Filthy (2015)

A promotional image for The Civilians' Pretty Filthy, directed by Steve Cosson, at Abrons Arts Center.
(© courtesy of The Civilians)

This latest show explores the rapidly changing pornographic film industry, again set to a score by Michael Friedman. It premieres at Abrons Arts Center this month.

Cosson: "Because of the Internet there is this new generation of young people who have grown up with more access to porn. The thing that brought porn into everyone's home, however, is also making the business of the industry really fall apart. It parallels journalism and the music industry. If the consumer is getting their product for free, how does anyone actually make money to create the thing?"