The Civilians’ role in the Occupy Wall Street revolution

October 20, 2011

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 the Civilians 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.”


Actor Greg McFadden records Grahame Weinbren for possible use in The Civilians' new show about Occupy Wall Street. (Peter Marks/TWP)
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.

It may be that in a fractious, confusing time, theater is being pressed into civic service as the beleaguered mainstream media are compelled to tighten belts and relinquish some of their primacy. The Civilians take this commitment to unorthodox lengths, having put together, for example, “In the Footprint,” a play with music about the community battle over Atlantic Yards, the gargantuan Brooklyn redevelopment project that among other things is luring the professional Nets basketball team to the borough. The topic sounds exactly as if it would make a fine multi-part series in a major metropolitan newspaper.

The grass-roots energy of Occupy Wall Street seems to be in the middle of the Civilians’ wheelhouse. “It’s another way for the theater to interact with the world around it,” observed Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre, where next spring Cosson will direct “Mr. Burns,” a Civilians-inspired futuristic play by Anne Washburn that is inspired by episodes of “The Simpsons.”

And through the use of music and other devices, Shalwitz added, “the Civilians have an interest in almost making an entertainment out of the news.”

City desk, Cosson speaking

The new 70-minute show, which at this point is going by the name “Let Me Ascertain You: Occupy Wall Street,” is part of an ongoing series of evenings that the Civilians are staging at Joe’s Pub in the Public Theater; it takes place Oct. 28 , and if there are encouraging signs, Cosson says it might be refined or expanded.

As the protests gathered momentum this month in the compact, concrete park in Manhattan’s Financial District, Cosson sent word to the other Civilians for volunteers to go out and interview those participating in the demonstrations. There was no agenda, he said, except to portray compellingly what was happening — not so different from a city editor’s approach. The dozen “interviewing artists” were responsible for transcribing their conversations and submitting them to Cosson, who would then choose a diverse array of voices, edit the script and cast the speakers from among the actors who had gone out in the field.

“What I’m consciously trying to do is have enough variety so that there are multiple points of view,” he explained. “I will make it clear that the 10 people we’re going to see are not going to adequately represent a mass movement.”

The danger, of course, is that without some tension, some inherent provocation, the Civilians’ take on Occupy Wall Street could flatten the effect of the protest rather than amplify it. A political demonstration is by its nature theatrical, but often also narratively repetitious — not always the surest impetus for a rush to the box office.

Which was why McFadden — a trim 40-year-old with a scruffy beard who lives with his choreographer wife and young son in Brooklyn — was eager to avoid some of the usual protest suspects, the OWS representatives with their own well-rehearsed scripts, the legion of 20-somethings stretched out in sleeping bags and distributing fliers.

“Theatrically, the stuff that’s most interesting is not when you interview the mayor,” said McFadden, who performed in the Atlantic Yards piece and bears a passing resemblance to actor Edward Norton. “It’s when the car breaks down, and you interview the guy pumping the gas.”

She’s the one

As an actor who’s worked on stages across the country but still dreams of a reliable year-round paycheck, McFadden says he feels an affinity for the movement’s restiveness over the nation’s income inequality. But he gave away little of how he felt as he poked through the crowd, casually introducing himself and his mission to those he thought might be interesting, and saying something on the order of, “If you’d like, I’m happy to hear your story.”

He was, in a sense, conducting auditions himself, for a character that he might play. “I want a human being, not a soapbox,” he said. He paused to talk to a woman who was perched on a low-slung wall, but lost interest after she told him she was “sort of the Norma Rae of my neighborhood.”

Finally, with the late-afternoon sky darkening, McFadden spotted an elderly woman on the edge of the park, seated in a wheelchair and wearing what looked like a vintage military uniform. His eyes lit up. He swooped in and, finding her open to talking, pulled out his trusty recorder. She leaned over the device and whispered a long monologue, continuing even as the clouds opened up. And when after about 20 minutes she finished, McFadden looked up, completely satisfied.

“That was incredible,” McFadden said. “She held my hand and she wasn’t going to let go.” She was 93, he said, and talked about having wanted to be out there in the park for the young people. Pleased, the actor texted Cosson. He was eager to know if any other Civilian had already talked to her. Because this was a good get.

As the village of protesters put up their umbrellas and huddled under their tarps, McFadden considered his recorder. “There is,” he said, “three minutes of gold on here.”

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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