70 years ago in The Villager


By Davida Singer

Volume 73, Number 24 | October 15 – 21, 2003


“Gone Missing”

Belt Theatre

336 W. 37 St

thru Nov. 2

Thurs-Sun at 8



Californians bring “reality theater” to Belt Theatre

Reality theater is what The Civilians, a quirky, new downtown company, are all about? Formed in 2001, the troupe of writers, directors, actors and designers set out to create original work from real life through investigation into people’s lives, and their first full production, “Canard Canard Goose?” was such a smash, it earned them Time Out New York’s distinction as one of 25 up-and-comers of the local theater scene.

“Our name is from vaudeville slang for people outside of the business, and we certainly do go outside,” says The Civilians’ Artistic Director, Steven Cossan.

“A lot of us are from U.C. San Diego, where we worked with Les Waters, a wonderful teacher and strong influence, who created original theater from direct research. Each of our shows is developed differently, but generally we pick a subject from informal discussions. We throw stuff against the wall until something sticks.”

“Gone Missing” is their second major offering. Running at The Belt Theatre through early November, it’s billed as a documentary/musical cabaret and deals with the theme of lost and found.

“We thought up the idea for “Gone Missing” last fall,” Cossan recalls, “and it was pretty simple-to interview people on the theme of lost and found. We had a definite connection to New York in 2002, and thought it was the right choice for our company now, to work around the subject of loss. We like to go after the mundane to discover a show, and the only rule here was what was lost had to have gone missing, and that it had to be a thing or creature, no missing people. We also looked at those on the other side who find things, like a pet psychic and a retired cop.”

According to Cossan, there were no notes for the six actors who listened to their subjects, and returned to rehearse-playing the person they interviewed. Company composer, Michael Friedman added music for the piece, and a script was developed through a workshop process, which included performances at Joe’s Pub and Galapagos.

The finished product is a real mix, moving back and forth with interviews and music.

“There’s no narrative,” says the director, “but we do have a series of scenes, a live band and a set. At The Belt, the audience is in the balcony, looking down on the stage, and we’ve put a picture of the ocean on the floor. This ties the show together with myths of lost places, including Atlantis, as the story progresses from small losses to more profound. We’ve also got a radio interview with intellectual and author, Dr. Palinurus, who speaks about the Platonic Ideal, the Bermuda Triangle and ideas about nostalgia.”

For the Civilians themselves, the “Gone Missing” project has unearthed new insight, especially that the experience of loss is “universally particular.”

“The mechanics of how people deal with loss is very specific,” notes Cossan, “but everyone has some way loss is part of their present. In one story, a mother recalls a family vacation where her daughter left a sock doll in a hotel room, which was later found. For the mother, it’s really about children who grow up and the passage of time. It’s all embedded in telling the story of this lost thing.”

What else have Cossan and company discovered?

“In the trials and tribulations of being alive, we carry around complex and intangible emotions that need to get attached to some simple thing. That’s just how people work. There’s a connection between material and emotional life. We start with material and trace our way back to see what it’s attached to. That’s the real thrill of what we do.”

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