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Investigating the Human Condition -- then Putting it Onstage

An Interview with The Civilians’ Steve Cosson

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Investigating the Human Condition -- then Putting it Onstage

"I really enjoy the research aspect of making theatre," says Artistic Director Steve Cosson, of his work with The Civilians. "Going from the text out into a place or period, or something more abstract, to ask 'What is the visual language of this play?'"

Photo courtesy of The Civilians.
Updated April 14, 2011

No matter what Shakespeare said, sometimes a rose by any other name really wouldn’t smell quite as sweet. It’s hard to imagine the aptly named Brooklyn-based theatre company The Civilians, for instance, with any other possible moniker. As a name, 'The Civilians' conjures up a sense of shared humanity, social awareness, and just a touch of quirk -- perfect for a group that bills itself as “the center for investigative theater,” staging works that explore the aspects of 'civilian' life both large and small.

Since its founding in 2001, The Civilians has gone from upstart to a theatrical force to be reckoned with on the national level. The group’s projects can range from the gently humorous to the topical and tragic -- from the surprising impact of a lost shoe, to the little comedies (and heartbreaks) that accompany divorce, or to hot-button social issues such as evangelical Christianity and controversial property developments.

The Civilians has produced ten original works of theatre to date, ranging from Canard, Canard Goose? to Paris Commune, This Beautiful City, Brooklyn at Eye Level, (I am) Nobody’s Lunch, Gone Missing, and You Better Sit Down: tales from my parents’ divorce. The group, a nonprofit, often produces in joint or collaborative productions, and thus far its works have been produced in over 40 cities worldwide, from New York’s Barrow Street Theater, Public Theater, and others, to the national level at the La Jolla Playhouse, Center Theatre Group, and internationally at the U.K.’s Gate Theater, Soho Theatre, and others. The group is perhaps most well-known for Gone Missing, and the musical’s 2007 seven-month Off-Broadway run at the Barrow Street Theater achieved critical raves, as did its production of This Beautiful City, an exploration of evangelical Christianity, which received Drama Guild, Lucille Lortel, and Drama Desk award nominations.

The company’s latest works include In The Footprint, a musical on the controversy surrounding Brooklyn's largest development project, The Great Immensity (recently seen in a staged reading), which explores climate change, and Maple and Vine, which explores one couple’s fascination with the 1950s.

Led by Artistic Director Steve Cosson, who also writes and directs many of the group’s highly collaborative stagings, The Civilians has expanded over the past few years while managing to retain its quirkiness, as well as its willingness to address tough issues center stage with a sympathetic and discerning eye. I had the chance to talk with Steve recently about his work and approaches, as well as about what sets The Civilians apart as a company.

Angela Mitchell: Steve, I have to tell you first off that I saw Gone Missing a few years back during its Barrow Street run, and the “Gone Missing” and “La Bodega” songs are still burned on my brain.

Steve Cosson: (laughs) You’ll have them for life!

Angela Mitchell: It’s a good thing! So, jumping in, was there one thing or one specific show that made you want to work in the theatre? I’m always curious if there is a big “ah-ha!” moment.

Steve Cosson: Gosh, one show… I don’t know if I have one show. I think that the first Broadway show I saw on tour was Annie, when I was nine or something like that, and I thought it was pretty incredible. I grew up a lot on TV, in the suburbs of D.C., so I didn’t have that experience like a lot of people do, of the aunt that always brought you to the theatre, or to Broadway shows. I think “The Muppet Show” was probably my greatest influence, from the early childhood.

Angela Mitchell: I loved it. And Henson was such a genius.

Steve Cosson: And later in life, when I was actually trying to decide what to do with myself, I saw a number of productions, you know, when I was in college, which are burned forever in my mind, by artists that I continue to admire and follow. One was an early production of Theatre De Complicite in London, and another one was Robert Lepage’s Le Polygraphe, a fairly early work of his that for me really exploded the possibilities of what theatre can be and what a play can be.

I’ll throw in two more for good measure – all in London, from when I was a college student: Fuente Ovejuna, from the Cheek by Jowl production, and I also saw Deborah Warner’s Electra with Fiona Shaw playing the title role. As a college student, it was so hard to get tickets, and my friends and I had been going to the box office at 7 a.m. and not getting tickets after two hours, so for the Electra tickets, we actually went to the Barbican in London and slept in the box office the night before, and we beat the crowd by a good seven hours! And I think we might have been the first people to do that since the security guards had no idea what to do with us -- but they let us stay, and brought us tea.

Angela Mitchell: That’s a great story. And I have to confess that I was an Annie child.

Steve Cosson: Well, soon after, I might have gotten the recording and realized I hated the music, though! That I was more taken in by the spectacle and the scenery, all the sort of automatic scenery sort of passing by.

Angela Mitchell: As a writer, director, and artistic director, you wear a number of hats. How do you compartmentalize – or do you?

It’s definitely hard to compartmentalize, I think the most important is actually being able to separate the producer from the artist. And so I’m only able to do that because I have a staff, and when we produce, we are almost always working with another theatre, so often we’re a coproducer but we have a producing theatre that’s doing the heavy lifting of bringing the show into being. I might produce the development of the show but when it gets into production there are other people making it happen, which is a lifesaver.

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