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By LAURA HEDLI
The Civilians wanted to write a play about divorce. That much they knew.
"I remember being incensed by the movie Stepmom because I was like, 'That's not what it's like,'" says playwright-performer Jennifer R. Morris, whose parents got divorced when she was young. "I felt like there was a dearth [of good material]. As a subject matter, it seemed like something that affected so many people."
What began as a concept took over five years to translate into You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents' Divorce, the latest project from Civilians that uses the real words of real people to explore a major social theme. (Pervious works have tackled Evangelical Christianity, climate change, and gentrification.)
Often, the story of a Civilians production reveals itself as the company interviews experts, figureheads, and everyday people. This means the company members are passionate outsiders looking in, and while their shows are always emotional, they also contain a thoughtful detachment.
But You Better Sit Down, now playing at the Flea Theatre through May 6, springs from a much more personal place.
Morris, who is credited with conceiving the project, originally envisioned it as a short film about a Tiffany lamp her parents fought over during their split. When she decided to tell the story in the theatre, she contacted fellow Civilians Robbie Collier Sublett, Matthew Maher, and Caitlin Miller. Their commonality: divorced parents.
For a while, the quartet collected stories about other people's break ups, but they all began to sound the same---one dreary detail after another. Finally, Maher suggested interviewing their own parents, and that made things more interesting.
"I think there's a built-in dramatic tension when a kid is interviewing a parent about their personal lives," Morris says.
Maher adds, "It's not the dynamic of people spilling, 'Ugh, let me tell you about my terrible husband.' It's like, 'OK, let me talk to you about your dad, or let me talk to you about me, your mom.' It actually, in a weird way, forced them to choose their words more carefully and think about who they are and who they were."
The artists' parents became characters in the show---four moms and one dad (Maher interviewed both his parents.) Their identities are not hidden under pseudonyms, nor are their stories prettied up. What's more, the adult children play their own parents, which adds an extra layer to the production and some continuity, too.
Director Anne Kauffman says, "It's really tricky because it's a lot to ask their parents to talk about this stuff, to put them onstage where people are seeing them, and to not misrepresent them. What we figured out was a way of collectively representing them in the right way, of being respectful, but not feeling like we have to give every single kernel."
It took several workshops, but eventually the company stopped trying to present each parent's story intact. Morris explains, "We had this idea where we were going to have four one-person shows, and you know where it's all ending. If you do that four times in a row, you're kind of like, 'Oh, they're going to fall in love and then they're going to break up.'" Now the play is structured around major relationship milestones, using whichever anecdotes best advance the timeline.
While this is the production's New York debut, You Better Sit Down has appeared at various colleges and as part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. It tends to inspire strong reactions, so for the current run, the company has partnered with radio station WNYC so that people can respond to what they see and tell their own divorce stories.
Still, as a group, Morris and company have learned they don't have to be the encyclopedia on divorce; they just need to tell a story that's truthful.
"What we're performing is an interview," says Maher. "The moment that we're capturing is not a marriage or divorce, but a moment when an older person in their 60s or 70s is talking about what they were like when they were in their 20s."