The ATC Youth Ensemble Deconstructs This Beautiful City
“At ‘Straight Camp’ they even showed us pornography! Heterosexual of course. To show us what we should like. Of course if we liked it too much they probably would have sent us to 'Porn Camp'!”
So said one of the many insightful if oppressed characters in this summer's annual documentary play from the American Theater Company’s Youth Ensemble, the profound and inspirational This Beautiful City, devoutly directed by ATC associate director Sonny Das and produced by Grace Cannon.
As artists, we must prepare for our work, build a structure and be willing to adapt. And as humans in an age of climate change, we must prepare for the major shifts that are already impacting our ways of being.
The play takes place in Colorado Springs, Colorado about ten years ago, and was first performed about that time in New York. The play was created by The Civilians and written by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman—whose authentic and tuneful songs were brought to life in this production by a highly-skilled small band under the musical direction of Aaron Benham and 2014 Youth Ensemble graduate Amelia Mroczkowski.
The program notes do an excellent job of summarizing the piece at one level: “Ted Haggard is the leader of the New Life Church, and this small city in the Rocky Mountains has established itself as the Evangelical capital of the world. The community reflects on their place in a culture rapidly swept up in the new religious movement. Atheists, Baptists, Alternative Thinkers, LGBT Activists, and Cowboy Wranglers all share their perspectives on the effect of the Evangelical movement on their lives and their sense of home through story and song.”
But the play also puts us in the position of asking what we would do if our economically struggling town could get an economic shot in the arm by being “invaded” by Evangelicals. Would the economic benefits outweigh our concerns over the potential oppression?
It also illustrates the stark contrast between the natural beauty of the area—which can't help but inspire anyone with a soul to have spiritual thoughts—with the rule-filled, judgmental Evangelical groups. For as Wayne Dyer said, the moment you organize spirituality into a religion it usually loses the very essence that inspired it. And of all places this majestic area requires nothing artificial, as evidenced by the fact that in 1895 Katharine Lee Bates was inspired (yes, while on the pinnacle of Pike’s Peak!) to write “America The Beautiful.”
Earlier this summer, the Youth Ensemble actually visited the place where the play is set. (They do this every year; last year they visited Greensboro, South Carolina, the site of a 1979 massacre that was the setting of last year’s play.)
While they were happy to discover that things weren't quite as oppressive as they were ten years ago (when the neocons (under President Bush) were in charge, and the Ten Commandments were going up in courthouses and statehouses across the country), the primary point of the journey was, as director Sonny Das mentions in the program notes, “for the Youth Ensemble to have their assumptions challenged, and take on the very difficult task of understanding and empathizing with beliefs and perspectives that they personally reject. It’s one of the hardest tasks facing the theatre artists, and honestly it’s been so inspiring to watch how they’ve more than met the challenge.”
Initially my desire to see This Beautiful City was simply because I had such a good and inspirational time at last year’s show. But I was again so overwhelmed by the quality of the play, and by the talent and devotion of everyone involved, that I feel compelled to spread the word that last year wasn’t some kind of one-time fluke, but that there is something extremely special going on here at ATC every summer. It’s something that we shouldn’t take for granted or let die because of the economy, lack of publicity, or the tragic death of the co-founder (then-ATC Artistic Director PJ Paparelli).
We live in an age when most youth have never known a time when the United States was not at war. Think about that. Is that the legacy we want to leave them with? Or do we owe it to them to provide artistic outlets that celebrate the value of understanding the other person’s view?
As I talked with the cast after the performance, I mentioned to them how adult they seemed, both because of how talented and professional they were on-stage, as well as so very thoughtful concerning the issues facing society off-stage. They were surprised, as they felt so young, and could hardly believe they were about to go off to college. Of course they were excited to get away from home, but also extremely concerned about the cost of college and what awaits them (other than massive debt!) a few years from now.
And I had the bittersweet realization that since it is a two year program (junior and senio