NEW YORK — Amid the Babel of voices in Zuccotti Park, Greg McFadden wanted to listen to just one: a voice that might suit his own perfectly. “Let’s take a look around,” the actor declared, surveying Occupy Wall Street’s buzzing encampment, a tiny digital recorder in his fist.
What voice or visage he was in search of, he wasn’t sure. How does one populate a play whose outcome is yet unknown? Because that is the task in which McFadden and his cohorts in
are currently engaged: turning this amorphous, still-developing protest into an evening of theater. That evening, in fact, occurs only a few short days from now, in a cabaret at the Joseph Papp Public Theater.
And McFadden, a Juilliard-trained member of the decade-old Civilians — a troupe of New York actors, directors and writers who compose issue-oriented entertainment with journalistic as well as theatrical aims — wanted to find someone emblematic of this embryonic movement. The objective was to get them talking, record their stream of words and then repeat them verbatim in performance, with songs and perhaps other evocative embellishments.
What’s extraordinary in this instance is that the Civilians are now formulating theater — normally a process that occurs in the dormant aftermath of tumultuous events — in essentially the same time frame that a newspaper or magazine publishes an article. And as the Civilians’ artistic director, Potomac native Steven Cosson, sees it, there is a chance here for theater to be an active rather than an academic participant in the most heated topics of the day.
“With this approach, it’s an opportunity to understand the situation from a real, human, first-person point of view, and in more than 30 seconds,” said Cosson, whose group performed “This Beautiful City,” a previous piece focusing on Colorado Springs and its fundamentalist Christian community, at Studio Theatre in 2008. “And what’s exciting about this particular movement is that, at the moment, it’s still coming together. It’s compelling because it’s not boiled down to a list of demands just yet.”
Parlaying the news
There’s a fever spreading in theaterland these days for immediate impact. Although a consciousness of theater’s political force has been apparent in this country ever since the cabbies of the 1935 “Waiting for Lefty” exhorted the audience to join their cries of “Strike!,” one senses a passion gathering in intensity again these days, for work on the stage that speaks to big, contemporary problems with unvarnished authenticity.
Examples crop up all the time, whether it’s Mike Daisey, offering his personal testimony of ghastly labor conditions in China (“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”), or David Hare, re-creating the George W. Bush administration’s policy and strategy sessions for the war in Iraq (“Stuff Happens”). In “The Great Game: Afghanistan” London’s Tricycle Theatre commissioned a dozen playwrights to compose a series of playlets that formed a kind of dramatic seminar on the history of foreign intervention in Central Asia.