Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: The Podcast, Part II

We are so pleased to bring you Part II of our Occupy Wall Street podcasts. This material is from interviews our artists conducted last month at Zuccotti Park with the demonstrators about why they are protesting and what it was like in the Park during the first few weeks of this historic movement. This episode features Greg McFadden as Richard O’Mara, a member of the Tea Party; Emily Rossell as Maddy Enlow, a young woman; Dan Domingues and Colleen Werthmann as Chris Carter and Lily Johnston, who are on OWS’s medical team; and Michael Friedman singing his song, "The Signs." He composed the music and wrote the lyrics from signs that he saw and a few things he overheard in the Park.

Check out the project in:
The New York Times
The Washington Post
The Wall Street Journal
And check out the photos on Flickr from the live show!


Monday, November 28, 2011

Meet the R&D: The Illusive Truth, or Peter Sellers is a Funny Man

Today's post is from Jon Kern, one of the playwrights in our R&D Group. The writers in the group are contributing posts that will give insight into their processes: what they're thinking about, what material they're working with, how their research is informing their writing. For more info about the R&D Group, Jon, or his project, please click here, and without further ado, here's Jon's post!

The nature of beginning a new play is that you start to see it everywhere. The nature of me when reworking an older play is that I look for any chance to distract myself. So when I was researching a scene for Tapefaces: Legend of a Kung Fu Master – Season1 DVD [click this for a disturbing photo], I hopped away from clips of Dick Cavett to land on an interview between Peter Sellers and Michael Parkinson from 1974. Toward the end of the interview, between an Inspector Clouseau blooper reel and some goofy non-sequitur about a bad British performer, was a moment of personal reflection.

At around the 2:40 mark, Parkinson asks Sellers, “You’ve had fairly sort of turbulent, mixed-up, uh, private life throughout—throughout your career, haven’t you? Are you kind of happier now then you’ve been at other points in your career?” And Sellers obliges by talking about his failed marriages, holding himself accountable without revealing too much detail, any pointed analysis lost in an ellipsis and a wave of his hand. In this moment, the actor stops looking to the audience, and the impression is given that he’s searching himself for a square view of his past. And I was captivated imagining this as honest.

The project I’m working is a look at how people deal with compulsive behavior, particularly internet addiction. What I’m really curious to explore though is how people become honest with themselves. I don’t think honesty comes naturally. I don’t know when human beings first realized they can construct their own identities, but I expect that as soon as groups had leaders, some clown in that group figured out how to impersonate a leader. Without breaking out my old sociology syllabi, it’s taken as a pretty evident fact now that we create our identities as much if not more often as we be ourselves. Even the idea of acting natural is a frequently performed posture.

Understanding the constructed quality of self-presentation doesn’t stop us for searching for something unconstructed. I’m pretty obsessed wondering if there is something in humanity that is like what Georg Simmel called “an unknowable core.” Compulsive behavior I imagine forces a reckoning with at least the uncontrolled aspect of personality. This in turn leads people to be very honest about their faults, their past, while perhaps never truly putting that past behind them.

Peter Sellers himself represents this question. He represents in a fairly generic “Behind the Music” kind of way. A drug addict. A self-destructive personal life. An early death. A diagnosis – heart attack – related to his addiction. An actor. An actor whose best performance likely came in a movie where he played a man with no personality [Being There].

The Parkinson interview is a part of Sellers legend as a man with no self. Sellers initially refused to go on in front of audience and camera. He apparently was gripped with stage fright. When told he must by Parkison because everything for the interview was already ready, Sellers replied, “I can’t do me!” Parkison, in what sounds like a showbiz-y pro thing to say, retorted, ““Look – I don’t care WHO you come on as – just so long as you COME ON.”

So Sellers came on as an antic WWII German soldier. Watch Part I of the interview. He’s the one shouting in the heavy coat and helmet.

Then Sellers does his striptease out of that character only to step into another amusing bit as a crappy magician. When he finally sits down, it’s supposedly as Peter Sellers.  But this “Peter Sellers” is still mostly a prepared routine. At the end of Part I [beginning at the 8:10 mark], he launches into “an old actor’s story” voicing the old actor – Warrington Minge - who is trying to cash a check. When he comes to the mention of the check, Sellers unbuttons his left breast pocket and pulls out a slip of paper the size of a check. He had walked on stage with his props prepared. This, like so much else in the interview, is just another set piece.

Only when I concentrated on writing this blog post, really looking at what I had selected for inspiration, did I start to doubt that the moment I first saw held any honesty. Sellers answers Parkinson’s question about his happiness with an immediate “Yes.” He performs the role of the penitent ex-husband, confessing that his relationship troubles are “maybe—probably due to the fact I’m impossible to live with.” Is this a reckoning with himself or just the proper line to play the part?

There’s a moment in the first part of the interview [the 4:00 mark] when Parkinson asks about Seller’s father. Just the mention of the word “father” causes Sellers to take his only real sustained silence. Perhaps that expression at 4:02 is the most penetrating insight to be gained from this interview.

Ultimately, understanding our motives may come down to fairly prosaic tropes. My interest in the play I’m working on is less why people behave compulsively but what does a person do once she learns why she behaves compulsively. Certainly, in the case of internet addiction, the source of the compulsion is difficult to avoid and still remain in this century. [Google “hermit” and you can find suggestions on where to go to be alone.]

In my obsession with “an unknowable core” I have told myself, when I’ve remembered my own thoughts, that our labors to overcome a lack of understanding of ourselves only serve as proof that this core must exist. That lack equals the existence of the inviolate unknowable. We struggle with our ignorance as a way to learn about ourselves and what we really come to know is the struggle.

I want to learn how in knowing that struggle at least, we can gather pieces to form an impression of who we are. And when we look at this jigsawed portrait, we can tell ourselves, much as Sellers tries to convince before launching into a captivating apocryphal joke about a musician friend, “This is . . . probably true—probably based on fact.”

UNRELATED ADDENDUM: Over the weekend, I went to a wedding in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where Moravian College is located and where the heart of the U.S. steel industry used to be located. Walking to the chapel, I passed by an Occupy Bethlehem encampment, a handful of tents cluster in a small patch of grass by the Bethlehem Area Public Library. Unfortunately, I was running late to the wedding. It makes me wonder, Internet: what is the most obscure town where the Occupy movement has set up camp?

Post by Jon Kern

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: The Podcast, Part I

Hot off the presses, this is our first episode for Let Me Ascertain You: The Podcast Series about Occupy Wall Street! Last month, our artists were down at Zuccotti Park conducting interviews with the demonstrators about the first few weeks of this historic movement and their reasons for protesting. This episode features Matt Stadelmann as Robert Grote who was on the Brooklyn Bridge during the mass arrests; Matt Dellapina as Buddy Bolton, an out-of-work creative director for children's television; Alix Lambert at Charlotte Souza, a college-aged protester; Jordan Mahome as Preach of Occupy the Hood; and Kelly McCreary singing "I Have Not Slept" by Michael Friedman.

Check out the project in:
The New York Times
The Washington Post
The Wall Street Journal

And check out the photos on Flickr from the live show!


Friday, November 18, 2011

OWS Project: Notes From The Field

It's been a big week for the Occupy Wall Street movement and The Civilians artists have been out in the parks and squares interviewing people on the front lines.

Late Monday night/early Tuesday morning occupiers were evicted from Zuccotti Park in the middle of the night. Here's a snippet from an interview by one of our artists with a protester who was in the park when it happened:

"Uh, this morning they came in at one o’clock, they surrounded us with light trucks, big, uh, high beam light trucks, and, um, announced that they we constituted a fire hazard and public safety issues. Uh, they surrounded the camp, maybe a hundred and twenty we’re estimating and, uh, very cordially, uh, for about two and a half hours had media--mediators explain to us the situation and what our options were. During the course of that time we all rallied around our kitchen, which is the center in the heart of our - of our camp and, uh, several of our members, six of them, used u-locks to chain themselves together around the neck, so that they could not be moved without hurting them. Um, and then, as they advanced, they, uh, they tore down tents and tossed everything aside, a sanitation team came in and collected all of our belongings safely and put them in dump truck pressing devices. After about, uh, two and a half hours, around three thirty five, they, uh, they started arresting people. "

On Thursday, protesters responded en masse around the city (and the country) for the National Day of Action ending up at Foley Square. Signs and chants reflected the message "you can't evict an idea." One 75 year old woman at the march, who made note of the fact that she also marched with Dr. King, said:

"I think it's time now to fight back and kick the rich in the butt, you know what I'm saying? Kick them back- and this is a good showing. If they do this all over this country, for the next 6 weeks to 6 months, it's going to make a change, I guarantee you - they're going to come out like they did in '67 after the riots in Newark and put some kind of programs in place, only this time they're going to create some jobs, you hear me?"

And her friend said about being out at Foley Square:

"I'm the only one in my family, [and] my mother, the rest of them are so apolitical. I don't know what planet they're on, but they don't know they benefitted, everybody has benefitted in this country from what other people have done in the streets, historically."

As Occupy movement changes nationally and in NYC, The Civilians will be out there documenting, so keep an eye on the blog for more notes from the field as our project and the movement evolves!

If you missed the OWS cabaret at Joe's Pub, click here to watch it or read the article in the NYTimes.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Pretty Filthy Episode

A team of Civilians' artists conducted interviews with performers, directors, agents, producers, and more in Las Vegas and the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. This episode's song and monologues are crafted from these interviews, featuring several adult entertainment stars discussing the do's, don'ts, and won'ts of shaping a career, how they got into the business, and more. Mia Barron plays Katie Graham, Emily Swallow plays another female performer, Paul Provenza and Bess Wohl play one of porn's on and off-screen leading couples, and finally Emily Swallow sings "Beautiful" by Michael Friedman. These interviews are the inspiration for our new fictional musical Pretty Filthy, book by Bess Wohl, music by Michael Friedman. The material in this podcast was recorded in a live performance at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre.

This episode contains sexually explicit material and is not appropriate for children under the age of 18.


Monday, November 14, 2011


As Literary Associate at The Civilians one of the fun things I get to do is check out shows going on that are connected to investigative theater. Because The Civilians is an institute for investigative theater, we like to support shows that fall on the spectrum of investigative by highlighting them here on the blog. Whether a show is directly investigative or the idea for it came from investigative source material, we’re interested!

Last month, I had the chance to see SOUTHERN COMFORT, with book by Dan Collins, music by Julianne Wick Davis, and directed by Tom Caruso, which played at CAP 21 October 5th through November 6th. This musical is based on a documentary of the same name, which tells the story of a “chosen family” of transgender individuals living in rural Georgia. The story is touching and the folk-bluegrass score is upbeat and moving. You can visit the website here.

What’s interesting about this piece from an investigative theater standpoint is that it’s based on a documentary, without actually being a piece of documentary theater. There aren’t that many musicals based on documentaries to begin with, but in the few I can think of – for example, GREY GARDENS – the theatrical version does not maintain a sense of interviewer/interviewee. In SOUTHERN COMFORT, however, characters respond to imagined interview questions as a function of storytelling. This element in particular contributes to the feeling that this musical is a hybrid of traditional musical theater and something more investigative. It’s always cool to see elements of investigative theater working their way into more mainstream forms, especially in a piece as unique and exciting as SOUTHERN COMFORT.

Though the show is no longer running at CAP 21, keep an eye out for future incarnations. And, stay tuned to The Civilians blog for more spotlights from the Literary Corner on shows related to investigative theater!

Post by EllaRose Chary

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Let Me Ascertain You: Podcast Series Launch!

Welcome to the very first episode Let Me Ascertain You: The Civilians Podcast Series!

Let Me Ascertain You is a weekly podcast series drawn from the company’s ongoing live cabaret series of the same title and including the best material from a decade of creative investigation. The episodes cover topics such as Occupy Wall Street, Atlantic Yards, the adult entertainment industry, Evangelical Christianity, and more.

Our first episode features performances of interviews about Atlantic Yards with Brooklynites about the controversy over the largest development project in Brooklyn's history. The site where the new Brooklyn Nets (formerly the New Jersey Nets) stadium is being built has been the source of extended and heated conflict, resulting in the enactment of eminent domain in New York State. This episode features the performance of interviews with Atlantic Yards bloggers, local business owners, residents, and activists, examining how the fate of Brooklyn and New York City is decided and what can be learned from this ongoing saga of politics, money, and the places we call home. The material was collected for the company's play In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards.

A lot of the performance is from our Let Me Ascertain You: Atlantic Yards cabaret last fall. It also includes a segment with Colleen Werthmann talking about what it was like to conduct interviews for In the Footprint. She talks specifically about the time that she spent with activist Patti Hagan (a prominent character in the play), and what Colleen has to say is really inspiring!

Featuring: Aysan Celik as a blogger, Colleen Werthmann as activist Patti Hagan, White People written by Michael Friedman and performed by Marsha Stephanie Blake, A scene at Levels Barbershop performed by Billy Eugene Jones and Marsha Stephanie Blake, and The Four Brooklyns written and performed by Michael Friedman


Mr. Burns - Workshop at Playwrights Horizons

A few years ago, a group of actors along with playwright Anne Washburn and Steve Cosson got together for a kind of a workshop - not a traditional one, in that they weren't working with an early draft of a script. There was no script yet, so the actors were working together on exercises as led by Anne and Steve. In one of the week's activities, Anne asked the actors to try to retell the "Cape Fear" episode of The Simpsons. This sparked what has become her new play, MR. BURNS. The play had a traditional workshop last week at Playwrights Horizons, which culminated in a reading. Per the program notes:

"The recollection of the Simpsons episode in the first act is largely verbatim, arranged from material collected in sessions with the actors Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Maria Dizzia, Gibson Frazier, Matthew Maher, Jennifer R. Morris, Sam Breslin Wright, and Colleen Werthmann. Special thanks to Matt Maher for his superior recall."

The cast was:
Matthew Maher as Matt
Gibson Frazier as Gibson
Jennifer R. Morris as Jennifer
Colleen Werthmann as Colleen
Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Quincy
Sam Breslin Wright as Sam
Rebecca Hart as Maria

You'll probably notice that five of the original actors returned for the reading. It's worth noting that they aren't actually playing themselves, but rather fictionalized characters originally inspired by work that they did in the original workshop (and Rebecca as a fictionalized character originally inspired by Maria Dizzia's participation in the workshop). Michael Friedman has written the score, full of references to some of the really iconic pop songs of our time. For more, check out the wonderful feature in Seattle's publication, The Stranger, which was written about a workshop that we did in July of this year.

Photos by Sam Breslin Wright. For more, check out his flickr HERE!

Here's the view from the rehearsal room.

Writer's Assistant Josh Luxenberg and Playright Anne Washburn in the back
left, Director Steve Cosson and AD Jay Stull

Colleen Werthmann, Jennifer R. Morris, Josh Luxenberg, Rebecca Hart,
Gibson Frazier, Michael Friedman, and Matthew Maher

Jennifer R. Morris, Matthew Maher, and Rebecca Hart

Working on the stage where the reading was held

Friday, November 4, 2011


Our cabaret LET ME ASCERTAIN YOU: CRIME, USA last year featured interviews about crime conducted in Florida and New York, plus some songs by the band Scrapomatic (photos of the evening are HERE , plus the audio from the performance will be included in our podcast series launching very soon!). The creative force behind that evening was our Associate Artist and R&D Group member Alix Lambert, who is continuing her fascinating work with the topic. She is currently in Hartford, CT conducting interviews, and she was also able to spend some time at Occupy Hartford. The following is direct from Alix, chronicling the first few days of her current investigation!

Post by Alix Lambert, Photos by Alix Lambert and Michael Premo

I am developing a play with the support of Real Art Ways and The Civilians about crime in Hartford, Connecticut, aptly titled: CRIME, USA, HARTFORD. Michael Premo and Jordan Mahome have agreed to come with me to Hartford for a week to conduct the initial interviews that the play will be based on. Meghan Maguire Dahn (Development Manager for Real Art Ways) has graciously offered to drive us from Brooklyn to Hartford, which saves us a Megabus ride.

Monday morning Dahn and I pick up Premo and Mahome, who both live within convenient proximity to my house, and we head toward Hartford. Dahn has been referring to Hartford as Treecapolyse after the horrendous storm the previous day which brought down many trees and left large parts of the city without power.

Here are Premo (L) and Mahome (R) sleeping in the car on the way.

We arrive to a city in chaos. Traffic lights are out, power is spotty (literally and metaphorically) and everything is generally upside down. We settle into our hotel and go by Real Art Ways to say hello to Will K. Wilkins (the director of Real Art Ways) and John O’Donnell (visual arts coordinator), who have been helping line up interviews and taking care of logistics for our stay. The play will be presented at Real Art Ways in March and I want to take a look at both the visual arts space and the theater space that I will be using. Mahome has contacted an old friend in Hartford who is without power but has agreed to talk with us. He is a school-teacher and we are interested in talking with his students as well, but school is closed for days due to the storm. In the evening we have an amazing and insightful conversation with Mahome’s friends that lasts over two hours.

On Tuesday we decide to drive over to the offices of the Hartford Courant (newspaper) and see if any journalists want to speak with us. The person at the front desk dismisses us by giving us a phone number and sending us away. We have noticed that across the street from the Courant is where Occupy Hartford is set up: a sprinkling of tents and a sad snow-man. We cross the street to see what’s going on over there. 

We are greeted by Luke, who tells us he is recently out of a psych ward, and after living in the woods for a month in Ithaca NY, ended up in Hartford in a shelter, but the bedbugs were too much for him so now he’s living at Occupy Hartford. He shows us his tent. Premo speaks to an older gentlemen who talks about his friendships with Elvis and Robert Kennedy, while Mahome and I talk to a nurse who has some compelling stories about kids coming to her with lumps under their skin that turn out to be bullets that were never removed from their bodies. Luke tells us that his favorite thing to do is ride really fast on his bicycle while high on heroine, and I buy an Occupy Hartford pin for 2 dollars. Today we are heading to the Boxing gym, and tomorrow to the tattoo parlor, both promising to be brimming with Hartford crime stories.