In December, the Rockefeller Foundation announced that 16 cultural organizations were the first award recipients of the Foundation's $2.6 million New York City Cultural Innovation Fund, supporting “trailblazing initiatives that strengthen the City's cultural fabric."
One of those grants, $150,000, was awarded to an innovative theater troupe called The Civilians, for “Development and Brooklyn Neighborhoods, a two-year theater lab exploring the Atlantic Yards Project.” The Civilians, in its self-description, “develops original projects based in the creative investigation of actual experience."
Not an AY documentary
Its grant application stressed, "The project is NOT a talking heads documentary about the various positions on Atlantic Yards. Instead, it will draw on the unique skills of theater artists to reveal the fabric of everyday life in these neighborhoods, and to discern how a community interacts with larger forces."
Given the Rockefeller Foundation's funding of Jane Jacobs's writings and its current funding of related activities--the Jacobs Medals and the Jane Jacobs & the Future of New York exhibition--it's not surprising that the foundation would support an innovative theater troupe that takes some inspiration from Jacobs.
Since its founding in 2001 by Artistic Director Steven Cosson, The Civilians have created several original and diverse shows. Soon, the troupe will debut This Beautiful City, a play with music, created from interviews, that explores the Evangelical movement, centered in Colorado Springs, its unofficial capital.
Off-Broadway through January 6 was Gone Missing, a documentary musical “about things that go missing -- keys, personal identification, a Gucci pump...or one's mind.”
I spoke with Cosson in late December, before the news of the dismissal of the state lawsuit challenging AY, to learn more about the Civilians' project. An edited version of the exchange is below.
Why Atlantic Yards
AYR: Why Atlantic Yards?
SC: I am a former resident of Fort Greene, it was the first place I lived when I moved to New York in 1999, I had an apartment on Lafayette Avenue and Vanderbilt, and I moved a couple of years ago to Bed-Stuy. I’ve certainly known about Atlantic Yards since it started, something I followed. In the past year, I thought that our theater company could potentially find a way to engage in what’s going on. Part of that was having tried to make a show about a city [Colorado Springs], and becoming more intersected in how cities function, from how things work in a neighborhood or even within a small block, and how they work on the macro level.
Atlantic Yards, and in different ways what's going on the rest of Brooklyn, is bringing up important questions about how democracy works in our country and our cities, and what sort of say people have in how a neighborhood changes.
It’s not necessarily going to be the story of how decisions were made. That’s probably told by straight journalism. We can find a way to start at the grassroots level, asking how does an urban neighborhood work, in many ways taking inspiration from Jane Jacobs, and try to get a picture of these various neighborhoods that will be affected by Atlantic Yards, what’s at stake if an urban ecology like this has sort of a radical change imposed from above.
Diversity of views
AYR: To what extent will you get the pro-Atlantic Yards view in or just the larger view that there has to be planning on behalf of the larger city? Someone like Hilary Ballon, who curated the Robert Moses exhibitions--she’s frequently made the point that projects have to serve a larger public.
SC: Our strategy is to try to sit and listen to every possible stakeholder. I think, even on the grassroots level, we certainly will get a large diversity of opinion. We do intend to try to work our way up to the top. I’m hoping I’ll be sitting in the offices of Forest City Ratner [one day].
[American Theatre reported: Cosson coaches the Civilians to ask non-judgmental questions—"How did you get to Colorado Springs?"—and then to try not to show a personal reaction.]
AYR: Well, they pretty much don’t talk to me. They do talk to some in the press, but they don’t say much.
SC: Who knows. But the most important thing is that we’re going on in with a plan but not a determined outcome. We intend to let the material drive the process. We intend to work in a variety of different formats. We might end up curating a couple of evenings of music performance. Some work might take place in a school or a community center. Some Internet radio programs might come out of this. Let that be a catalyst for conversation. Those sorts of events [won't necessarily] feed directly into the show, but certainly will inform our thinking.
The work they do
AYR: American Theatre magazine described your work as “interview-based documentary cabaret.”
SC: How I describe our work is a lot more broad. We create original theater from investigations into real life. Some work has been more musical theater; [Gone Missing] is more of a cabaret theater piece. We have other projects that are more like straight plays. This project could end up being anything.
Everything comes out of some engagement with real life; it could be a contemporary subject, or a historical subject. There’s intensive research at the beginning. For contemporary stuff, we try to do very much a grassroots, face-to-face research process.
We’re premiering a new show... We spent a lot of time in the city of Colorado Springs. We interviewed several hundred people, attended church services, community meetings, and attended the freethinkers’ potluck. With each project, we try to find the best way to learn the story from the ground up.
AYR: This sounds a little like Anna Deavere Smith, who did Fires in the Mirror about Crown Heights, or Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project.
SC: There’s been a real surge in documentary theater in the past ten years. Certainly we take inspiration from all sorts of places. But probably our greatest influence is an English theater company called Joint Stock. They were active in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Caryl Churchill wrote plays for them, David Hare. My graduate school professor had been a member of Joint Stock.
AYR: You don’t call it straight documentary theater.
SC: I call what we do investigative theater. I think of a documentary theater as the theatrical expression of something that is more expository, in which the goal is to tell a particular factual story. [With] the Joint Stock company, research fed into a creative process. With our Colorado show, even though we were there when the Ted Haggard thing happened, and it’s part of the show, our work is an effort to get into some of the deeper questions of what’s going on in this phenomenon, rather than telling the story of Ted Haggard.
AYR: Do your pieces have one author or multiple authors?
SC: It’s all different. We’ve had shows authored by a single playwright. In some cases, we’ll have a research phase and hand it over to a playwright. In other cases, they’re all authored by a writer or writing team, but in some cases, the writers are using mostly verbatim material from the interviews.
AYR: How many shows do you do?
SC: We premiere one show a year, but we’ll have various projects in production over the course of a given season. This year, there will be three shows.
AY starts in the fall
AYR: What’s your timetable for the Atlantic Yards work?
SC: We’re starting early work this summer, but really working more in earnest in the fall and winter.
AYR: How many people do interviews?
SC: Maybe a core group of 15 people. I’m hoping to involve a number of students; we’re hoping to have theater and ethnography and urban planning students. All told, there might be a 100 different people having different types of conversations. With our Colorado project, we ended up working with a Colorado college and also having as diverse a group of interviewers as possible. College-age kids will be able to have a different type of conversation with younger people. [Maybe] we can find nonprofessional interested people who might want to participate, and have conversations with their neighborhood.
AYR: What’s the timetable for producing something?
SC: Because we are interested in having constant dialogue, we’d like to have to something on stage in a month or so [after the start], but as far as a culminating show, it’ll probably take a couple of years. As opposed to a documentary film or a journalistic work, it can’t necessarily engage with the same timetable as to what’s happening politically. But my hope is whatever’s happening will inform what’s happening politically, and will have broad enough interest that it will inform what’s happening on the national level.
AYR: Have you looked at video of public meetings?
SC: I’ve read transcripts of the public meetings. Lately I’ve been reading what’s online.
AYR: Some of the real drama was last year. Have you seen the documentary Brooklyn Matters?
SC: Yeah. Again, it’s such an early stage, it’s hard to say exactly what we choose to put in the show, but it may not be the dramatic conflict that was happening when Atlantic Yards got decided. In a way, it’s trying to take, say the way Jane Jacobs describes her neighborhood in her writings, to see if there’s a way to do that in theater.
The Jacobs influence
AYR: Have you read Jacobs recently?
SC: In putting together the plans for this project, I re-read [Death and Life of Great American Cities]. One question that just puzzles me about what’s happening in New York City... As a layperson, the impression I had was that the sort of authoritarian master planning model had its limitations. And the lessons of Jane Jacobs were really valuable to how a city decides how it changes. And what’s happening on the ground is a totally different story.
Looking for the difficulty
AYR: I think you’ll have no trouble finding things interesting, controversial, and difficult.
SC: That’s what we look for. We look for the difficulty.
AYR: Anything you want to add?
SC: It’s certainly good for us that the word will be getting out. Just from the Rockefeller announcement, a few people have been getting in touch with me. But our big Colorado show opens March 8. [Photo]
I've got to finish with the Christians first. After that we have a show in New York called Paris Commune, a historical show [inspired by an actual concert that took place in the overthrown imperial palace during the 1871 revolution], and that opens in early April.
So once I’m done with Colorado and France, I’m going to move forward into Brooklyn.