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The Civilians’ Disobedience

There are certain rules to interviews. Take notes. Bring a tape recorder. Try to quote verbatim.

Yet when the downtown theater troupe The Civilians set out to interview people about lost objects for their newest collaborative theater piece, Gone Missing, there were only two rules. The lost object must be a tangible item (i.e.—not love, hope, dreams, or innocence, political, or otherwise). And the actor must not take any notes.

When later, in rehearsal, the actor tries to recreate the original interview, the character that he or she ultimately summons is a fusion of an elusive "authentic" interview and the actor’s impression of that interview. The psyche of the actor becomes entwined with that of his or her subject, as the character forms.

"I think actually, we may be even more accurate," says Artistic Director Steven Cosson, also the director of this piece, who explains that the method encourages the actor to absorb more of the subject, and to listen more deeply—to focus on more than just words.

In side-stepping the glutted genre of the reality show and its unsatisfying claims of authenticity, The Civilians hope to show the audience that "all representation/storytelling is subjective, regardless of whether there is a video camera or not," explains Cosson, adding wryly, "Whether it’s us, or whether it’s Fox News."

A patchwork of remembered interviews inter-woven with a mock NPR talk show and punctuated by original songs, Gone Missing is no reality show.

Gone Missing, L-R: Emily Ackerman, Stephen Plunkett, Colleen Werthmann, Jennifer R. Morris, Robbie Collier Sublett, Damian Baldet. Photo by Sheldon Noland. From the production at Barrow Street Theatre, 2007.

The interviews themselves form the core of the piece. A French Lesbian still fumes years later at the memory of losing a treasured agnès b. scarf to a crude (and thus undeserving) softball player. A stranger recalls losing a valuable ring from her thrifty uncle—and, incidentally, the rest of his inheritance on the stock market. A former NYPD officer cheerily ticks through gruesome case after case of recovered bodies (DOAs, "Dead On Arrival"). A mother recalls her grief-stricken daughter’s lost sock puppet, and her husband’s valiant retrieval of it from a motel dumpster. An old friend—with no little effort—dregs up for the interviewer the lowest point in his life when, suffering from severe depression and some major drugs, he suddenly lost his ability to form words.

The entwined stories are linked by theme and punctuated by song.

There’s the opening title song, "Gone Missing," their "Devon number;" "The Only Thing Missing Is You," a romantically comic 1930s/40s Mabel Mercer-style piece; "Bodega," a kind of yearning "flamenco/mariachi" fusion; "Ich Traumt du Kamst an Mich," a German art song "in the style of Schumann;" not to mention "I Gave It Away," their "deadpan minimalist girl-group number."

"The goal," says Cosson, "is to use music that resonates with the interview material, but also to explore the musical landscape of loss…themes of loss and absence in a whole range of musical traditions."

And whatever can’t be addressed in these two forms is taken care of NPR-style, on a radio talk show that is not necessarily Fresh Air, but happens to be hosted by someone named Teri. The guest is Dr. Alexander Palinarus, author of Losers Weepers: A Cultural History of Nostalgia. Together, they discuss the myths and tropes that haunt our culture, from Atlantis to the Sargasso Sea, and all the explorers who have tried to pinpoint these places in our psyches: Plato, Freud, the Greeks.

The tone of the interview is playful and irreverent, but, as with the rest of the piece, at its core is a vivid search for real answers. And by the time Palinarus hits on nostalgia as the pleasurable pain of searching for some ineffable lost "ideal paradise," or home, and the fixation on lost objects as the mere locus for our nostalgia, the concepts do not feel too heavy, or forced. Instead, they cohesively bring the regretful longing at the core of the interviews and music into poignant relief.

The result of The Civilians’ slightly anarchic blending of genres is an eclectic, agile portrait of loss and nostalgia, the style a light counterpoint to the weightier, elusive nature of the feelings themselves.

Gone Missing is a play about "what’s not there anymore." The Civilians never mention 9/11, and they don’t have to. By insisting on focusing on objects, and the bumpy, fox-holed topography of loss itself, it actually delves deeper, and is at the same time less intrusive, than the abundance of sensationalistic plays emerging about the day itself, plays from which you emerge feeling a bit dirty, your emotions and the event itself a bit exploited.

Speaking about the genesis for the show, Cosson explains that the theme of loss was an "instinctual choice." They felt that if they went in this direction, they might be able to reveal something about the social present in a way that might be indirect, and thus less confining of their exploration of the topic.

The real-life material that they collected from their interviews was a springboard for their creative process. "It’s a bit like a sculptor who works with found objects, and maybe the objects become a part of the sculpture," says Cosson, "but the point is really to show the artist to go outside of what is known, and be compelled to work with something that is new and particular and outside of one’s direct experience."

The method in which The Civilians work was inspired by the Joint Stock Theatre Company, the British theater collaborative with whom playwright Caryl Churchill created so many vital, political plays. Several of The Civilians went to school at UC San Diego, where they studied with Les Waters (one of the original Joint Stock members), who is Head of Graduate Directing there and still serves as a mentor to the group. The Civilians have created three projects together, and they are presently working on a new play exploring the mechanics of how people form their understandings of geopolitical events.

The development of Gone Missing started last fall. It first ran a few nights at Galapagos in Williamsburg, then was developed further last spring at Joe’s Pub in the New Works Now! Series at the Public Theater. Keeping true to the cabaret nature of the piece, its October run will take place at the Belt Theater, a hybrid space which is part theater/part club.

Why "The Civilians"?

"It’s originally old vaudeville slang for anyone ‘outside the business,’" explains Cosson. "And we’re interested in people outside of the business." The troupe formed about four months before September 11th. But since then, the name has earned more and more resonance, he speculates, "because what has become all too apparent is the role the civilians play in the world, whether they like it or not."

Gone Missing is jointly authored by Damian Baldet, Steve Cosson, Michael Friedman, Trey Lyford, Jennifer Morris, Peter Morris, Brian Sgambati, Alison Weller, and Colleen Werthmann.

Music/Lyrics by Michael Friedman, Additional Text by Peter Morris, Directed by Steven Cosson.

Performance dates: Oct. 9–Nov. 2, Thursday–Sunday, 8pm.
The Belt Theater, 336 W. 37th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues).
For reservations: 212-868-4444 or Tickets are $25

"The Only Thing Missing" (a song)

And silly as it seems
I lost all my dreams
When you said adieu
And I think you will find
That I lose my mind
When I think of you
And no one has solved
The case that involved the revolver
In my game of Clue
Well I’ve still got the knife
But what good is my life
Though with all that I’ve lost
No I don’t mind the cost
Think what my nephew Chris
Just lost at his Bris...
And you’ll have to admit that it’s true
That the only thing missing
Do you miss the kissing?
The only thing missing is you.


Emily DeVoti


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2003

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