Dec 6, 2009

This Beautiful City

Tonight I attended what has been called "a site-specific theater production" by the Civilians, a New York-based troupe, about the city where I live. In 2007 the Civilians were invited to Colorado College for a 10-week residency in Colorado Springs, during which they developed a musical based on the city and its legendary evangelical churches. The production was sculpted from hundreds of hours of extensive interviews and provides a complex and thought-provoking mosaic of actual statements from real, local people. Here's how the Civilians website describes the play:
This Beautiful City is a play with music, created from interviews with actual persons, that explores the Evangelical movement and its unofficial U.S. capital. Because of the presence of several national Evangelical headquarters, the influential megachurch New Life (formerly led by Ted Haggard), and numerous and diverse churches, questions surrounding religion and civic concerns are brought to the foreground of everyday life in this city. The Civilians’ project looks at Colorado Springs as a microcosm of issues facing the country as a whole—the shifting line between church and state, changing ideas about the nature of Christianity, and how different beliefs can either coexist or conflict within a community.
This Beautiful City has traveled the country and received rave reviews; the city of Colorado Springs, though, has not fared so well and continues to suffer from the media spectacle surrounding its evangelic Christian population.

I must admit that I was nervous about attending the production, fearing that the worst part of our city had been dressed up and put on national tour by a bunch of outsider critics. For years I've denied being from Colorado Springs because I didn't want to associate myself with the mega-churches, the military, and the right wing politics that have taken hold in this town since the '90s. I wasn't alone with my localized shame in the hometown audience tonight.

The performance featured local personalities and paradoxes and while these could have been presented in a cynical or tongue-in-cheek fashion, but instead were both human and fair without being at all feel-good. As a New Yorker review states, the play is "vivid, agenda-free, and marked by a benevolent irony." After witnessing the musical that proved to be thought-provoking, well-researched, expertly produced, and fully accountable to its audience; I am proud of the Civilians and proud of our city. Appropriately titled "This Beautiful City," the musical unpacks (as much as a two-hour musical can) the divisions, opinions, characters, and history surrounding the evangelical movement, finishing with a song about our beautiful mountain, Pikes Peak, and the quandary of living with extreme difference in an extremely desirable place.

Since 2001, the Civilians have cultivated their craft of "investigative theater" that combines journalism and art. They have made 12 productions that include The Ladies, about "the lives of Eva PerĂ³n, Madame Mao, Elena Ceausescu, Imelda Marcos — and those of project author Anne Washburn and director Anne Kauffman — told through gossip, tape recorders, torch songs, spectacle, and grim historical analysis." Canard, Canard Goose is "a story about a Hollywood movie and a lost flock of carelessly imprinted geese resulting in an eclectic show about disorientation, misplaced empathy and coming home." Their current project is an investigation of the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn and the Great Immensity, focusing on the environmental crisis and climate change.

Documentary theater is a new concept to me but appears to be a potent form of cultural production, one that is capable of taking on difficult issues in specific places. As This Beautiful City has evidenced, cities are complex, issues are personal, and art -- in both its production and dissemination, and with ample time and curiosity -- can create meaningful dialog about what it means to be human.

Learn more about the Civilians here:
Read a rather short-sighted review of This Beautiful City in my hometown newspaper here.

No comments:

Post a Comment