Steven Cosson is the Artistic Director of The Civilians. Founded in 2001, The Civilians is a company that creates original work from investigations into real life. Cited as “New York’s most giddily sociological theater company” by New York Magazine, and ranked in both of Time Out’s top 10 lists of 2003 for Gone Missing, The Civilians have also received critical acclaim for its productions of The Ladies and Canard, Canard, Goose?. The Civilians tours its work both nationally and internationally.
Where does the title Nobody’s Lunch come from?
The title comes as a bit of a surprise during the show, so I wouldn’t want to give it away completely. The phrase is borrowed from one of our interview subjects who, as one of the company’s actors said once, provides the valuable “non-human” perspective. We interviewed this subject on what you could call a very long-distance call. An actor called a channeler, who lives on the west coast, and she channeled an entity who’s located somewhere in the Pleiades. However you interpret his information, he offers some compelling insights that at the very least will make you look at the idea of the food chain a little differently. We may not actually be sitting pretty on top of the pyramid.
What is the piece about and what was the origin of the idea?
The shorthand description of the show’s subject is “the politics of information.” The project began about a year and a half ago with a lot of discussions within the company as to how we might best engage with the deeply disturbing political and cultural developments of the recent past. Like a lot of Americans, we as individuals were pissed off at the actions of the Bush administration and equally dismayed by the lack of critical analysis in the media. At the same time, we struggled with the question of how to pursue these issues in a way that could potentially offer something new. In other words, we knew we didn’t need to create something to satirize the administration or criticize the war, meaning that seems obvious enough at least within the context of a theater audience. Also, we try to work with an ethic that we won’t pursue a subject if we feel like we’d have a forgone conclusion. So after a lot of talking and a lot of emails, we came to the idea that we wanted to look at the question of how the public assimilates and understands the ongoing narrative that started with W’s election and all the insanity that’s followed. How is it that the American public seemed to be willing to be so easily manipulated by simple rhetoric about freedom and evildoers? As one character from Lunch comments, “Who believes in all this crap they’re spewing?” And for those who are resisting the crap, what’s an individual citizen to do? We worked from the idea that a healthy democracy depends on an informed and involved public and we decided to try to find out just how the patient is doing these days. So that’s the starting point. What followed was quite a trip. One thing we discovered was that many political conversations quickly wind up at God. People don’t understand the world through discrete categories of politics, the personal and religion. Everything overlaps and intermingles.
How was the piece developed and over what period of time?
We started interviewing people last summer, culminating in a one-month residency at The Public Theater. We listened to each other’s interviews, read a lot, watched a few hours of Fox News, got depressed, talked a lot, sang, dance, improvised short pieces about fear, and tried to figure it all out. Over the past year I wrote the script, and Michael Friedman wrote several original songs. We’d meet as a company and workshopped the developing script and discuss how to evolve the show as the political context shifted.
The Civilians is an interesting hybrid of various performance styles – traditional theater, documentary/sociological theater, cabaret – what was the origin of the company and who are your influences?
The origin of the idea for this kind of work really comes from the Joint Stock company, an English group that created new work in the 1970’s and 80’s. One of Joint Stock’s members, Les Waters, was my graduate directing professor at UC San Diego and we learned some of Joint Stock’s methods for creating and developing new work. I found the work really inspiring. Not only did I like the results, but it moved my thinking along about how theater as an artistic form can be integrated in political and social reality and how artistic and documentary processes can actually be one and the same. As far as the cabaret/theatrical aspect of the work, that’s a big part of my artistic sensibility and one that’s shared by the members of the company. I think there are many prejudices in our culture against what might be considered low or popular forms. We think that serious subjects are best expressed through sober dramas or straight documentary formats, and the 70’s avant-garde has left us with the notion that cutting-edge or artistic performance work needs to be somehow cold. Or simply, if it’s really entertaining and maybe even funny it can’t really be art. I think that’s bullshit. I think Kiki & Herb’s cabaret act is some of the most exciting and political performance work that’s happened in my adult life. I think I probably would have felt the same about the Ridiculous. I think the political, mixed-discipline cabarets of the late 19th and early 20th century in Europe made some great art and made a profound impact on its society. I think there’s a lot of really exciting work happening now, especially through companies, that is breaking out of so many of these tired old ideas. There is a lot of life coming back into theater, but it’s happening in different places and formats. I aspire for The Civilians’ work to be a part of that.
We’ve got a few projects developing for the future. Michael Friedman and I have a project we’ve co-written, Paris Commune, that recently received a really generous workshop production at La Jolla Playhouse. We learned a lot about the show and we’re eager to finish it and hopefully get it done sometime soon. Anne Kauffman and Jenny Schwartz and a group of actors are working on a piece about individuals and communities that resist modern technologies. We’re also about to tour our show Gone Missing to four US cities, and Nobody’s Lunch will be back in January at the Under the Radar Festival at Arts at St. Ann’s.