After John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his vice presidential nominee last month, Steve Cosson, the 40-year-old artistic director of the New York-based theatrical troupe the Civilians, was intrigued by some of the explosive commentary revolving around her membership in an evangelical congregation in her Alaska hometown of Wasilla.
"Palin was quoted as saying, 'Pray for the pipeline, pray that it's God's plan to send soldiers into Iraq,' " Cosson says. "And there were all these questions in the mainstream media: 'Well, what does that mean? What is she talking about?' And I thought, 'Well, you know what -- you should know what that means, and it's actually pretty easy to find out.' But we are willfully ignorant, and so people get a little hysterical when these questions enter the public sphere. You can't even have a dialogue when you don't know what the other side is talking about."
Cosson and his group of professional actors already had tried to bridge that gulf, spending seven months in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2006 investigating the religious beliefs and political agenda of evangelical Americans and what makes liberals in particular respond with fear, suspicion and even loathing. The result is "This Beautiful City," a work of documentary theater directed and co-written by Cosson (with Jim Lewis), which opens Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre before heading to New York.
The subject matter was a natural for the experimental company, which since its founding by Cosson in 2001 has created an impressionistic oeuvre that includes "Gone Missing," which explored the nature of losing things; "I (Am) Nobody's Lunch," an attempt to determine how we know what we know; and "Paris Commune," which brought to life a 19th century French revolution. Later this month, the group will launch its next project, "Brooklyn at Eye Level," an examination of the debates over the surge of development in the diverse and vibrant borough.
The goal of "This Beautiful City" was to plumb some of the "unknowables" in a movement prone to misunderstanding, says Cosson, who grew up in a largely secular and politically moderate household in Potomac, Md., and became fascinated early on with the political power of the religious right. Taking a lunch break from a rehearsal of the play in one of the Douglas' studios, Cosson says that it was only when he attended Dartmouth College that he realized there were people his age who embraced conservatism.
"Whenever an election comes up, we are suddenly confronted with these divisive issues -- abortion, gay rights, separation of church and state -- that otherwise remain dormant," the director says. "And it seems to throw us into a tizzy because we can't understand how we got there. For many people, the evangelical movement is very much a mystery. As a company, we are interested in going outside ourselves to discover the human stories at a more nuanced level, so it seemed a good match for us."
To that end, members of the Civilians fanned out across the unofficial capital of the right-wing Christian movement to spend time with more than 100 residents. Reflecting the city's diversity, the interviews, conducted by Cosson, Lewis and the company, included a writer from a leftist alternative newspaper; a transgendered secretary; cadets at the Air Force Academy; a gay political activist and an African American Baptist minister whose coming out led to his expulsion from the church.
Punctuated with songs by Michael Friedman, the storytelling unfolds through a mix of travel guide copy, e-mails, news reports and interview excerpts. In a largely positive review written during a workshop production of "This Beautiful City" at Washington, D.C.'s, Studio Theatre in July, Washington Post critic Peter Marks described the show's style as "a lyrical piece of journalism . . . a ticket to 'Frontline: The Musical.' "
During the group's residency at liberal Colorado College, Cosson also sought and received the cooperation of the city's powerful and influential New Life Church. Indeed, he says, the "first pleasant surprise" was that the church welcomed them with a surprising generosity and trust. "It's genuine; it's not phony."
Midway through the company's sojourn, Ted Haggard, the mega-church's senior pastor and head of the 40-million strong National Assn. of Evangelicals, was ensnared in a scandal involving methamphetamines and the services of a male prostitute. After admitting to "sexual immorality," Haggard resigned from his powerful posts. Such a sensationalistic turn of events presented both opportunities and perils for the project, Cosson says. To dismiss Haggard's downfall simply as a glaring case of hypocrisy would have missed a larger, more complicated truth.
"Haggard's congregation understood that he had to resign but, unlike the outside world, they never saw it as hypocrisy because he never claimed to be without sin or humanity," he says. "They were shocked, hurt, confused and angry, but they don't necessarily see sin as the truth of the person. They see Haggard's struggle, like their own, as a fight between good and evil."
In fact, he adds, "It's possible to be both evangelical and open-minded. It may be a contradiction, but liberal secular Americans also live with several contradictions. When we hear some people are saved while others are not, I think we're more freaked out by it than they are. We feel that we're being judged and we accuse them of being hateful. But they don't feel hateful at all. Certainly there are some places where you will hear hate, but it's not an emotional truth for the majority."
Such nuances are lost, however, when religious beliefs enter the political and legislative realm. "This Beautiful City" features characters vociferously militating against the agenda of some of Colorado Springs' conservative church groups. The company was conducting interviews there in the fall 2006 when there were two state initiatives on the ballot -- Referendum 1, which would extend benefits to domestic partnerships, and Amendment 43, which would define marriage as a union between a man and woman. The former was defeated while the latter passed. Cosson, who is gay, says the play does not shy away from those bitter flash points. "It's hard to give them the benefit of the doubt when they are fighting to impinge on your freedoms," he says.
But according to Cosson and the play itself, the beauty of Colorado Springs lies in the many collisions that are taking place. The Air Force Academy lies within the same city limits as Colorado College, known for openly challenging the laws against pot-smoking; the radical alternative paper hosts a column written by a New Life pastor, while its editor is invited to speak at the church; Marcus Haggard, son of the disgraced Ted Haggard and a new generational leader, attended both hyper-conservative Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma and Colorado College. The distance between Manhattan and Salt Lake City is vast; here it's measured in blocks.
Cosson says that at the end of the Civilians' residency, the company hosted a workshop production, talk-back with the audience and cast party, and invited several individuals represented in the play. The response from the invitees, he says, was positive to both the production and the party. At the talk-back, however, the first audience member to speak accused the company of white-washing problems created by the evangelical community. The second said he thought the Christian right was unfairly represented. "Sounds like we got the right balance," Cosson says.
"This Beautiful City," Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Opens Sunday. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. $20 to $45. (213) 628-2772