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The Civilians’ Steve Cosson Likes His Theater Dead

From the Civilians' Be the Death of Me.

The Civilians, New York City's premier investigative theater company, have tackled such thorny subjects as urban redevelopment in the Bloomberg era (In the Footprint) and the practical limits of political idealism (Paris Commune), proving in the process that edifying documentary stage art needn't be propagandistic, didactic, or a drag. (The secret: They're excellent guerrilla journalists, getting extraordinary candor from deceptively ordinary interviewees.) This weekend, in the always unsettling environs of Fort Greene's Irondale Center — a converted church with atmosphere to spare — they'll take on the big enchilada: death. Be the Death of Me is the result of the Civs' research into the great beyond, which, remarkably, hasn't gotten the docu-theater treatment yet — or even a decent oral history, really. In a brief interview with New York theater critic Scott Brown, company founder Steve Cosson talked about the legacy of AIDS panic, getting an interview with a real (claimed) vampire, and why the Civilians learned to stop fearing the Reaper.

Why death, why now?
Part of it, I think, is that I came of age as a gay man in the peak of the AIDS epidemic. So I didn’t have that youthful experience of thinking you’re immortal. On the contrary — in my twenties, often when I’d tell a straight friend, say, “I have a date later tonight,” I’d get in response a concerned look and a well-meaning but awful “promise you’ll be careful.” That messes with your head, and I think now, 25 years later, I’m still cleaning up some of that mess. I also wanted to do it, because, well, why not do a show about death? It’s this universal experience that in many ways defines our life experience. And in this country especially, where we like to believe we get to be young and beautiful and healthy forever, we tend to try to sweep the inconvenience of our mortality under the rug. So that makes pretty low-hanging fruit, subject-wise, for an investigative theater piece. In choosing projects, I’m often looking for important stuff we’re not dealing with. So there you go: death.

I understand that an actual, self-styled vampire was interviewed for the show. Are real vampires vastly different than Hollywood vampires? Beyond the predictable BMI differential ...
The real vampire we interviewed was pretty awesome, in fact. And much more sophisticated in his thinking about immortality than your run-of-the-mill TV vampire.

Is it harder to get people who work closely with death to open up and deliver enough material for an actor to build a character?
People who work with death are perfectly comfortable talking about it. We’re the ones who aren’t used to hearing about it. But honestly, as I’ve read and listened to these interviews, my ideas about what life is and what death is have changed, quite profoundly, actually.

I live near beautiful Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, which, I understand, was an enormous New York tourist attraction in the nineteenth century, second only to Niagara Falls. Today it's pretty sleepy. We go to Gettysburg, we go to ground zero, our pop culture is wall-to-wall murder and mayhem, but we're not lining up to visit an actual boneyard, no matter how stunning its sculpture and landscaping. What gives?
We did an interview with a very interesting woman who writes about cemeteries and gives tours at Greenwood and other places. She comments on the fact that in the nineteenth century, cemeteries like Greenwood were places that were meant to be visited like parks. It’s interesting to think how many New Yorkers would probably go to Père Lachaise if they were in Paris, but wouldn’t think of going to Greenwood. But ultimately, I do think it has a lot to do with the fact that we think death is icky. It’s creepy to be dead. Which is completely ridiculous if you think about that, because as I mentioned before, we all die.  Keep in mind, though, in Paris in the nineteenth century, the morgue was one of the biggest public attractions, because they displayed the unidentified dead naked on slabs so the public could come and potentially identify. But for the most part, it was an opportunity to look at naked corpses. And that is indeed creepy.

For tickets and schedule, visit thecivilians.org.

Photo: Courtesy of O & M Co.