"The stories we tell ourselves construct our reality. I’m interested in working on the fault lines between reality and story,” said Steve Cosson, the founder and artistic director of the Civilians, a New York theater company. He spent a day at Juilliard on February 27 talking with students; Liberal Arts faculty member Anthony Lioi said he’d invited Cosson “because he’s a leading contemporary voice at the intersection of drama and climate justice” and that he thought Cosson’s cutting-edge art, which is based on ethnographic research, would resonate with the students.
The Civilians, which Cosson founded in 2001, specializes in investigative theater, a term Cosson coined and which he says starts by “going out” in the world (to collect information) and then going back “in” to create. He added that “there’s no high tribunal of investigative theater. It’s a lens in which to think of the creative process of making theater. On April 11, an example of it, his play The Great Immensity, will have its New York premiere at the Public Theater.
The Great Immensity is Cosson’s first fully fictional narrative, and it follows a woman trying to find her husband after he disappears from a tropical island while on an assignment for a nature show. As the play progresses, she’s increasingly drawn into a vortex of geopolitical and ecological drama around the issues of climate change and biodiversity loss in the Arctic and the Panama Canal zone. The story is fictional, but it draws on dozens of interviews Cosson and his lyricist, Michael Friedman (the show has humorous songs about climate change), did with scientists, community leaders, hunters, and others. It’s billed as a “continent-hopping thriller that asks the vital question: how can we change ourselves and our society in time to solve the enormous environmental challenges that confront us.”
And while Cosson didn’t want The Great Immensity to be a “talking-head piece,” he said, he does want it to “make the reality of the present crisis tangible” and inspire people to make the changes this historical moment demands—something he believes theater, though it’s often “risk-averse,” is uniquely positioned to do. “Look to the history of cabaret,” he told us. “To gather people together to perform is a powerful thing. Huge, radical transformations can happen in the smallest of theaters.”
In his presentation, Cosson showed a PowerPoint detailing some of his research for the play in Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal (created in the early 20th century when a river was dammed, it’s one of the most highly studied ecosystems in the world) and the city of Churchill in Manitoba (where an important income stream is polar bear tourism, but now the polar bears are dying because of climate change). Cosson also brought a scene from The Great Immensity, and several students acted out one of the interview sequences, giving us a chance to hear the work and also get a sense of the art of interviewing.
Cosson addressed some of the important aspects of his interviewing technique, such as presenting yourself to the interviewee as an ideal listener. He also suggested not recording interviews. “It’s valuable not to record, because it engages you. You listen more fully and exercise a skill that we all do have. Being an ideal listener means being relaxed and getting out of the way,” Cosson said. He also stressed being empathetically neutral when conducting interviews and said that if you follow these principles, with any luck the interviewee will reveal something to you that you wouldn’t know otherwise.
When asked why he chose climate change as a topic, Cosson said he asked himself, “What is not showing up on the stage right now?” When developing this piece Cosson said that it was hard to believe and assimilate what is happening to the planet—in fact, he has said he started writing the play out of a sense of “paralyzing anxiety about the environment.” But hopefully in seeing the play, audiences will be inspired to do something.