Ten years after "The Great Immensity," received a National Science Foundation grant that drew the ire of Congressional Republicans, The Civilians' Artistic Director Steve Cosson discusses the complicated relationship between the government and arts organizations.
I’ve spoken a lot about creating “Urban Rez,” my immersive experience I produced with Cornerstone Theater Company. You can read a series of articles from different viewpoints in a feature by KCETLink. I also gave interviews to All Things Considered and John Horn. It’s been five months since we closed the Rez, and despite three years of intense engagement to create it, I am still learning.
In the Cornerstone tradition, the play was developed by, with, in and for a particular community. In this case, we were engaging with the Indigenous people of the Los Angeles Basin and eventually expanded the community to include all Indigenous people living in the area, which meant I was now part of the community I was representing. I conceived the project as a visceral experience that made the audience physically question their place on the earth. From that starting point, story circles gave me text and format. Community members gave the director, Michael John Garcés, most of his cast. My program note for “Urban Rez” sums up my final goals and was given to participants as they exited the Rez:
“The Indigenous people of this continent, like people around the world, have been performing their stories in their own theatrical forms for centuries. From the group dances at the Pueblos that take weeks of rehearsal to the call and response bird songs of Southern California to modern competition pow wows, our performance traditions take on many forms. “Urban Rez” grew from three years of listening to stories told by Indigenous people from and in the Los Angeles Basin.
In creating the format for this play, my goal was to decolonize the theatrical experience to give you the gift of encountering our stories in our ways. I want you to consciously think about where your feet are on the earth as you hear words spoken in ancient languages. I want you to stand face to face with Indigenous people from fifteen different tribal nations and laugh together at the ridiculousness of our shared humanity. I want you to see the buildings of Los Angeles differently because you are aware of what was lost to create them. Some of “Urban Rez” may make you uncomfortable. I encourage you to turn that discomfort to empathy for those who are made uncomfortable every day as refugees on their own ancestral lands. But ultimately my hope is that this play brings healing for everyone. All are welcome to be a part of our circle today. Pilamaya for being here.”
We ended up with fifteen cast members in an outdoor cultural fair that mixed reality and script to follow five storylines that were often overlapping and always physically moving. I learned so much, but the lesson that’s on my mind the most right now is trusting the audience. Millions of people of every possible kind attend cultural fairs all over the country because they are educational, entertaining and fun. They attract a demographic cross section that theaters desperately want and need. The “Urban Rez” team worked hard to create a similar experience for the participants (aka audience). When you entered the “Urban Rez” no one told you where to stand or sit, when to talk or be quiet, or stopped you from using your phone. Admittance was always pay what you want. All ages were welcome and no one told you how to behave. There were multiple things going on, it was sometimes loud and confusing and sometimes intimate and emotional. And it worked beyond my wildest dreams.
I watched as audience after audience figured out their world together. They reacted and participated in the way they each wanted to while following unspoken group agreements that changed with every group. My favorite moment came one night when I saw a Latino teen holding his phone up as if recording a scene (which was totally allowed). I was curious because it wasn’t an action moment so I moved behind him to see what he was doing. On his screen, I saw a teen Latina girl in a home. I realized that he was FaceTiming the entire performance for her. Hear that again, a teenage boy was so excited by theater that he FaceTimed the entire show with a teenage girl. They felt free enough to experience the “play” in the way they engage with the world. I count those teens as the greatest success of my theater career.
Years ago as an audience member, I was the one shushing people if they made what I considered too much noise. I worried about what I wore and glared at people who texted during shows. Now I go to the theater, and all I can see is what an inhospitable environment we have created. Why would anyone want to spend time in a place where you are immediately told what you can’t do and given a list of rules? Why can’t I get up and stretch my legs? Why can’t I comment on a fun moment when it happens? If someone wants to text discretely, why can’t they? Perhaps the performance is boring. Perhaps they want to share a moment from the play with their friends in the immediate way that is meaningful to them. Why can’t going to the theater be a social event? Why can’t it be fun?
Now I go to the theater, and all I can see is what an inhospitable environment we have created.
At “Urban Rez” we set an initial audience capacity of 50 people based on physical comfort and ease for the actors. We opened with that number and it grew each night. At one point I witnessed a painful fight between the front of the house staff and people who couldn’t get in. After that we let everyone join “Urban Rez.” By the end, I believe we had 140 people in the 50-person space. It was an amazing cross section of race, age, gender identity, class and theater going experience. People had to work together to negotiate the space, and they did. No one jostled or shushed. And when an emotional monologue was delivered by a non-actor in a park with cars speeding by, you could hear every word. That’s the power of live art. That’s the kind of theater magic I want as an audience member and the audience I want to see at every one of my plays. I challenge American theater to make it happen. You’ll be so grateful that you did.