In Praise of The Civilians at Fifteen

There was the time when an actress was doing performance art in the street and the police thought it was a medical emergency and placed her in an ambulance. Another fiasco did involve a medical emergency: In the notorious Broadway flop Dude, the dirt that covered the stage caused a member of the cast to contract an infection, and “one side of my head blew out like the Elephant Man.” And then, in a college show, the collapsible sword didn’t collapse and an actor got stabbed for real.

These are all true stories, based on interviews and presented as monologues or songs in Let Me Ascertain You: Flops, Failures and Fiascos, a one-night-only cabaret that included not just stage woes, but also tales of weddings gone wrong, bad Tinder dates, getting lost on vacation.

They may be the most vibrant socially conscious, avant-garde, investigative theatre company in the country.

Flops, Failures and Fiascos was just another show put together by The Civilians. For fifteen years, the Brooklyn-based company has created theatre from what it calls “creative investigations into the most vital questions of the present.” The most recent fun and funny cabaret show about failure, held in February in the Metropolitan Room, a cabaret venue on Manhattan’s East Side, may not seem like an investigation into a vital question—until you consider the context. The times in which we live include a presidential candidate routinely calling people losers and giving campaign speeches the gist of which can be summed up as: “We don’t win anymore. We’re going to win and win and win.”

people singing
Cornelius Davidson, Chris Tyler, and Nedra McClyde in Let Me Ascertain You: Flops, Failures and Fiascos. Photo by KC Luce.

As the former Dude cast member (as portrayed by a member of the Civilians) pointed out in the cabaret show: “We don’t allow much in this society for failure.”

Just days after that cabaret show, the Civilians is currently engaged in a more formal piece, Rimbaud in New York, on stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through March 6, which presents a theatrical collage in story and song about the nineteenth century bad boy poet Arthur Rimbaud, musically adapting his poems in Illuminations, as translated by John Ashbery, as well as Rimbaud’s letters to his lover Verlaine, but also placing Rimbaud in the context of his influence on artists like Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jim Morrison of the Doors, and contemporary culture as a whole. As usual, the Civilians company members portray people they interviewed—in this case, poets, artists, and performers taken with Rimbaud. 

Next up, Let Me Ascertain You: Anarchy!, on April 7th at Joe’s Pub, a cabaret show about “anarchist movements in the USA: pro-gun, pro-choice, anti-tax, pro-gay rights, isolationists in intentional communities living online and off the grid.”

One can easily detect a pattern in the process The Civilians troupe most often uses to devise their work, but anybody who has seen more than one of their pieces might find it hard otherwise to pin them down. The subjects of The Civilians over the past fifteen years have been breathtakingly broad: climate change (The Great Immensity); gentrification (In The Footprint, the story of Atlantic Yards, the largest development project in Brooklyn history); the Parisian uprising of the working class in 1871 (Paris Commune.) They’ve looked at loss (Gone Missing), divorce (Tales from My Parents Divorce), death (Be The Death of Me), and The Simpsons animated TV series (Mr. Burns A Post-Electric Play, which The Civilians commissioned from playwright Anne Washburn.) 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?)

actors wearing masks
Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Jennifer R. Morris, Gibson Frazier, and Colleen Werthmann in Mr. Burns. Photograph courtesy of Playwrights Horizons.

In October, 2011, I found their cabaret show, Let Me Ascertain You: Occupy Wall Street, Stories From Liberty Square, to be the most moving work of theatre I saw all season. Protesters had taken over Zuccotti Park in the financial district, if you recall, as part of the then exploding Occupy Wall Street movement. The Civilians artistic director Steven Cosson and its investigators/actors interviewed some fifty people at the park, selecting and editing the most compelling.

In the final piece, presented for one night only at Joe’s Pub, some of the protesters told their personal stories; others talked politics; still others described some of the details involved in living in a tent city in Manhattan—how they ate, where there found facilities to use. The dozen actors impersonated this diverse group of individuals so straightforwardly and credibly that the audience seemed to be applauding the protesters more than the performers: the man who was laid off eighteen months earlier as the creative director for a children’s television production company, and showed up at Zuccotti Park a day ago after being evicted from his apartment; the firefighter from New Jersey who had served as a medic from the first day, September 17, treating protesters with handcuff injuries or pepper-sprayed eyes; the “downsized nurse from Yale New Haven Hospital” and the former banker and the IT worker and the seasoned activist and the gaggle of teenagers and the Vietnam veteran, a Tea Party sympathizer who saw the Occupy Wall Street movement as something he could get behind completely: “We’re all against corporate greed, I think. None of the bastards went to jail; they got bonuses instead.”

Michael Friedman, now best known for co-creating Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, but a long-time member of The Civilians and its principal songwriter, created several songs out of the interviews. He also led the audience and cast members in sing-along of "Dump the Bosses Off Your Back," a ditty that dates back to 1911, and that puts radical lyrics on the standard spiritual "What a Friend We Have In Jesus."

Are you poor, forlorn and hungry? Are there lots of things you lack? Is your life made up of misery? Then dump the bosses off your back.

As with all their Let Me Ascertain You cabaret shows, they preserve their Occupy Wall Street show on their podcast, but there was nothing like being there.

Three years later, The Civilians began their year-long residency as the first-ever theatre-in-residence at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, free to explore the two million works of art as old as 5,000 years in America’s largest art museum, and the thousands of staff and regular volunteers

Out of that experiment came several pieces. The Civilians began their performances at the Met with a cabaret show that excerpted some of their other shows, but also included monologues based on interviews with museum curators. One curator, in describing a 17th century marble sculpture of a half-naked St. Sebastian entitled The Fury Master, got right to the heart of its appeal. “Even if the viewer has a response to this image that’s more like physical arousal,” (the actor portraying) the curator explained, “I think it’s an object that could almost purify arousal.”

They interviewed Met's curators from the Department of Egyptian Art to explore dying and the afterlife in The End and the Beginning, performed at the museum’s Temple of Dendur.

woman on stage
The Civilians present The End and the Beginning in The Temple of Dendur, March 2015. Photo by Paula Lobo.

They ended their year at the Met by exploring the American Wing of the museum to address the question: What does it mean to be an American? Their show, The Way They Live took its title from one of some dozen works of art that they projected on the screen, and talked about, based on interviews with curators and everyday visitors to the museum’s galleries. For a look at all the works they discussed, check out my initial review of The Way They Live. As I point out in that review, one of the first things we learned in the show is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art created the American Wing in 1924 with a primary aim of acculturating the rush of new immigrants—teaching them what it means to be American. This seems less easy to define now than then, judging by the dissonant themes explored in the show, including racism, sexism, and jingoism. That first painting, “The Way They Live,” done by Thomas Anshutz in 1879, depicts a black woman and two young boys tending to a vegetable garden. The Civilians performer, portraying a curator the troupe interviewed, points out how angry they look, and that the painting was originally entitled “Cabbages”—which suggests something less than full respect for the people in the painting. I included The Way They Live in my “top 10” list of favorite theatre for 2015.

I can see some people preferring work that is more polished, more mediated through artistic imagination, and more structured along proven theatrical forms; shows that aspire to art for the ages, and don’t pretend to journalism. But the appeal of the Civilians was somehow spelled out in between the lines spoken by an actress (portrayed by an actress) at the end of Flops, Failures and Fiascos:

“As everyone knows, if you keep putting yourself out there, which you must do if you’re creating something you want other people to see and hear, you have to have the strength, let’s say the intestinal fortitude, whatever it is, to know that you’re not always going to have a hit…You always have the possibility of telling a successful story…And that’s enough for me. And that is a gift, that’s the gift of being a storyteller.”

Much of what I like about The Civilians is that everything I’ve seen by them, whether the storytelling has delighted or disappointed me, has been, in one way or another (and usually in two ways), a work in progress.

Jonathan Mandell’s NewCrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of every month. Find his previous pieces here.

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