Last spring when Met Museum Presents announced it had chosen, for the first time ever, a theater company as the Artist in Residence during the 2014–15 season, there was a lot of buzz about how the Museum's collection would translate into theater—and especially how an edgy, Brooklyn-based theater company like The Civilians would fit in at an institution like the Met.
"The Metropolitan Museum is turning a theater company loose in its collections," the Wall Street Journal wrote on the day of the announcement. And, just before their first performance at the Met, September's Let Me Ascertain You, Time Out New York's theater critic wrote a piece with the headline: "Downtown docutheater darlings The Civilians get institutionalized at the Metropolitan Museum." How does priceless art and an already iconic space get reimagined by an investigative theater troupe? Maybe the better question is, how will it be a fresh performance experience?
The cabaret-style program that began their residency, Let Me Ascertain You, which featured sixteen short vignettes in the Petrie Court Café (performed while audiences sipped on cocktails), found The Civilians owning the space around them, rather than the space owning them; not an easy feat when you're surrounded by brilliant European sculptures by the likes of Rodin and Carpeaux. A variation on the troupe's podcast series of the same name, this performance was invigorated by new vignettes that spotlighted Met curators. By interviewing curators from various departments, the actors then inhabited their character, delivering the exact words as they were transcribed from their interviews. Wildly entertaining, the theatrical delivery shed an entirely new light on the works of art discussed, and emphasized the vast knowledge of the curators. In a performance that was praised as "whimsical, and genuinely curious," it was instantly clear how this theater company would inhabit the Met and shake up the residency.
The Civilians, founded in 2001 and led by Artistic Director Steve Cosson, is known for its investigative-journalistic style, and is a multidisciplinary group of actors who perform works that mine themes relevant to society and culture. Last spring they premiered The Great Immensity at the Public Theater, and they are currently performing their new work, Pretty Filthy, at the Abrons Arts Center here in Manhattan. Regarded as forward-thinking, innovative, and immensely entertaining, The Civilians approach theater in a way unlike any other company, with a creative process that allows them to fully infiltrate their subjects while performing with honesty and vision. (Their program credits often include field-research teams!)
With the ability to find the theatrical elements in almost any subject, the Met's curatorial departments have provided exciting inspiration for The Civilians. Their residency will continue when they perform next at The Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing in an evening called The End and the Beginning on March 6—where they'll explore the profoundly personal questions associated with death and the afterlife—and will feature interviews with the Met's curators from the Department of Egyptian Art.
They will further their mission when they premiere a new work, The Way They Live, on May 15 and 16. Still very much a work in progress, The Way They Live is a commission that asks The Civilians to explore The American Wing and poses the question of "What does it mean to be an American?" As the final program of their yearlong residency, it will be a fabulous opportunity to see just how intimate The Civilians were able to get with the Met.
To purchase tickets to upcoming programs by The Civilians, or any other Met Museum Presents event, visit www.metmuseum.org/tickets; call 212-570-3949; or stop by the Great Hall Box Office, open Monday–Saturday, 11:00 a.m.–3:30 p.m.