Where do plays come from?

A quick, glib answer is “from the mind of the playwright.” That response, however, fails to take into account the myriad ways in which different artists work to shape their plays. While some writers toil in solitude, others gather inspiration from a variety of sources, and some plays are the result of collaborative efforts. For the New York-based theater group The Civilians, who co-commissioned Another Word for Beauty with the Goodman, plays are often developed from an investigation of real life: interviews and journalistic investigations of a particular subculture, event or group of people. This winter, Steve Cosson, artistic director of The Civilians, brings this intriguing approach to the Goodman for the first time when he directs Another Word for Beauty.

Founded in 2001, The Civilians have developed 16 original shows, which have been produced at notable theaters such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Playwrights Horizons, The Public Theater, La Jolla Playhouse and the American Repertory Theater. Their various works explore wide-ranging topics highly relevant to our world: the construct of masculinity, homeland security, Evangelical Christianity, divorce, gentrification, global warming, pornography and much more. In its early years, the company established a reputation for creating innovative, non-narrative, ensemble-devised work with text culled from verbatim interviews conducted by cast members. Many of the original 25 members of the group, including Cosson, did graduate work at the University of California, San Diego, where they studied under acclaimed director Les Waters, a native of Britain who now serves as the artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Waters taught Cosson and his colleagues the techniques of a now-defunct London-based group called Joint Stock Theatre Company, with whom he had worked earlier in his career. Founded in 1974, Joint Stock explored new play development through research. Such well-known British playwrights as David Hare (The Vertical Hour) and Caryl Churchill (Cloud Nine) created work through Joint Stock in the 1970s and 80s, and their interviewing and research methods left a lasting impression on Waters, who later influenced Cosson and his classmates. Cosson still references the four rules of interviewing he learned from Waters: avoid value statements, let people talk about what they want to talk about, encourage them to speak about the subjects they find most interesting, and finally, get people to talk past their “scripts.” He then adds his own fifth rule: learn to practice your “neutral empathetic” or, more simply put, be a good listener.

The Civilians’ production of Gone Missing. Photo by Sheldon Noland.
The Civilians’ production of Gone Missing. Photo by Sheldon Noland.

When Cosson first established the company, he and his collaborators drew on this training to craft a unique process that combined the interview techniques they had learned from Waters with an interest in music and spectacle that distinguished their work from that of other documentary theater companies. Early work by The Civilians like Canard, Canard, Goose; Gone Missing and (I Am) Nobody’s Lunch blended verbatim interviews with stylized movement and original music to create innovative work that merged the “reality” of a documentary approach with an overt theatricality, In a 2010 interview with scholar Sarah Kozinn, Cosson explained, “The reason I’m interested in including music, especially for shows that do engage with reality and larger social questions, is to use very different aesthetic strategies. The theatricality and the performativity of our shows put the emphasis on the performer and the creation and not just the reality of the show. It reminds the audience that this is a play. This is a work of culture and not an objective window into reality.” Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, noted in a New York Times article that, “The Civilians are very interesting because they combine a historian’s interest in the world and accumulating facts with a postmodern sensibility that is deeply distrustful of facts.” Or, as Cosson explained in an interview with the Theatre Communications Group, “It’s a documentary process, but very up-front about its own subjectivity.”

As the company has evolved, so has their process. Playwrights like Anne Washburn, Jordan Harrison, Bess Wohl and José Rivera have collaborated with the company to create work that combines The Civilians’ investigative approach with a more traditional new play development process, resulting in works like Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play; Maple and Vine; the musical Pretty Filthy, and now, Another Word for Beauty. While each new project demands its own unique process, the philosophy behind the company’s investigative approach remains consistent. As Cosson explained, “The purpose of doing an investigation at the beginning of a show is more to discover what we don’t know or what we can’t know. In order to do that it has to be a real investigation – you’re interested in a subject matter for some particular reason, but you’ve found a way to frame your investigation as a real inquiry where you can’t have a foregone conclusion. You’re working from real curiosity, and you’ve set up your collaborators to be surprised and confused and to be challenged, because ultimately my goal is to find a way to make art that will actually open the world up… My mission as an artist is to encourage people’s doubts and curiosity, and that’s what leads me to make new work – to find a way to change and evolve the stories that we tell.”