"Our show is all about used-car salesmen in a fishbowl," joked Steven Cosson, the director and compiler of Gone Missing
, the Off-Broadway hit by the hip New York-based theatre company The Civilians, just extended at the Barrow Street Theatre through Jan. 6, 2008.
In fact there are no cars, fish or sales staff onstage in this beguiling anthology show on the theme of missing things. The show, an unclassifiable hybrid of docu-theatre and musical revue, began its life in 2001 as the second creation of the relatively newly formed troupe of twenty- and thirtysomethings, which has since gone on to rack up a number of raves, grants and commissions.
Cosson's joke refers to the identical gray suits and ties worn by the cast of three men and three women, and to the watery-blue design of the stage and lighting. While it's true that the "lost" continent of Atlantis serves as a metaphorical reference point throughout, most of the show deals bemusedly with such misplaced items as cell phones, shoes, dolls and, in a few macabre moments, dead bodies. At one point a monologue about a lost purse is reprised as a passionate Spanish corrida
by resident composer Michael Friedman, who contributes the show's eclectic and lively musical score.
"The show came about through a series of conversations with the company, just throwing ideas around," Cosson said recently from Utah's Sundance Theatre Lab, where he was working on the Civilians' next project, a piece about conservative Christian communities of the American Southwest. "As a company, we're dedicated to creating original theatre through some kind of investigatory process. We're always looking at: How can we make a show? Eventually we decided we want to make a show that came out of interviews and conversations with people that we could do in New York."
The theme of lost and found objects soon became the organizing principle. The attacks of 9/11 inevitably deepened and complicated the theme.
"It wasn't just because of 9/11, but that certainly was part of it," Cosson recalled. "This was a city that experienced this great loss, and it just seemed in that particular time and place that this was a way to talk to people about what was happening.
"Every Civilians project is an attempt to do exactly that--to go into the present and look at whatever's at the surface of our culture right now. A lot of times it's just a hunch, but because we're a company batting ideas around, if a hunch gains traction among several people, it's worth pursuing further."
The troupe's first project, Canard Canard Goose
("A very strange little play that we're quite fond of, actually," Cosson said) began with real-life rumors that a movie company had mistreated some geese in the Adirondacks, and ended up "morphed into a Rashomon-type piece, then into a book musical," said Cosson with a laugh, as if he's as pleasantly startled by the strange, serendipitous workings of his troupe as anyone.
followed with a full production in 2003 at the now-defunct Belt Theatre, which led to a run at London's Gate Theatre and tours all over the U.S; the triumphant revival at Barrow Street has been a long time coming. In the interim Cosson and the Civilians created (I Am) Nobody's Lunch
, about the politics of information, and have begun work on This Beautiful City
, an in-depth look at Colorado Springs. The Civilians were hunkered down last year in this unofficial capital of the Christian Right, doing their usual interviews and research, when a moment of unplanned drama unfolded around them: One of the town's most prominent preachers, Ted Haggard, revealed that he'd purchased drugs from a male prostitute.
Comparisons to Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project
--another open-heartland surgery that used on-site interviews as a jumping-off point--seem natural, not only for This Beautiful City
but for The Civilians' work in general, which also seems to bear some similarities with Anna Deavere Smith's method.
But Cosson cited another major influence.
"I was really more inspired by a British theatre company called Joint Stock," Cosson said. "A lot of the well-known Caryl Churchill plays came out of Joint Stock, and David Hare was a member."
The influence came directly from the source, in a sense: Joint Stock alum Les Waters, a director who's since made waves in the U.S. (most recently with Second Stage's Eurydice
), was Cosson's directing professor at UC San Diego's theatre program.
"We did something of a Joint Stock-style process in class, and that inspired me to apply some of those principles to an American theatre," Cosson said. "It's not just docu-theatre--interviewing people and acting them. It has more to do with a company built around an ethic, making connections between how people live and some of the larger political issues that affect them."
As weighty as that sounds, Cosson described a creative process that emphasizes free association as much as thematic consistency.
"Our process is to bring a lot of material into the room, interviews and songs and theatrical experiments," Cosson said. "So much is created by the juxtaposition of one thing next to another."
With Gone Missing
, Cosson also made an important aesthetic choice early on.
"Something that I started with was that with a show about lost stuff, there should nothing--no props. And when we did our first workshop, I wanted something that would be a costume, that would transform the performer and put them together as an ensemble, and also something that was uniform, which a man's suit is."
That explains the ubiquitous gray suits. And the sea?
"That image of the ocean floor on the deck of the stage came out of all the lost world, Atlantis--a sense of drowning and the murky unconscious. It became the medium that held the whole thing together."
The characters in Gone Missing
may be at sea, but clearly The Civilians have landed.
For tickets to <i>Gone Missing</i>, go here
In photo above: Robbie Collier Sublett, Emily Ackerman, Damian Baldet (front), Stephen Plunkett, Colleen Werthmann and Jennifer R. Morris. Photo credit: Sheldon Noland.