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Downtown docutheater darlings The Civilians get institutionalized at the Metropolitan Museum

Downtown docutheater darlings The Civilians get institutionalized at the Metropolitan Museum
The Civilians

We’re used to seeing theater in odd places: abandoned warehouses, basements, tents, private homes, in parks and on islands. But nothing prepared us for news that The Civilians will be gigging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This Friday and Saturday they present an installment of Let Me Ascertain You. If you don’t know The Civilians, the troupe settles on a topic (megachurches, divorce, gentrification, etc.) and interviews everyone it can find, then turns the verbatim interviews into monologues and songs. The result is immensely entertaining and informative. Let Me Ascertain You plays on Friday 12 and Saturday 13 at the Petrie Court Café. Tickets start at $25 and include one cocktail. Future appearances by the Civilians at the Met will include The End and the Beginning (March 6) which investigates dying, death and the afterlife; and The Way They Live Now (May 15–16) a world premiere that asks what it means to be an American.

RECOMMENDED: The full guide to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

We quizzed Civilians director Steven Cosson (far right, above) on his new highbrow digs.

How did a nice theater company like you end up in a museum?
We were approached by Limor Tomer [General Manager of Concerts & Lectures] to be the artist-in-residence for Met Museum Presents, a tremendous program that offers another entry point into the Museum’s collections through the work of composers and performing artists.

For those who are more familiar with the European Paintings galleries than devised musical docutheater, what can they expect this weekend?
It's an incarnation of our cabaret series Let Me Ascertain You. You'll see actors performing verbatim interviews and Civilians songs—some new, some from our other shows written by songwriters Michael Friedman, Robin Eaton & Jill Sobule, Andrea Grody and Max Vernon. We're loosely working on the theme of beauty, juxtaposing interviews with Met curators on the subject, along with voices ranging from interviews we conducted for our musical about the porn industry Pretty Filthy, to some we did at the annual beauty pageant inside the women's prison in Bogotá.

Is it weird performing in a museum? Like you should be hung on a wall?
The Met has hosted performances for decades, and there is indeed a theater inside the Met. Most of our shows, however, will happen in the gallery spaces so the live performance can stand side by side with these great works of art.

What does the Civilians performing at the Met say about the state of performance these days?
We’ve always worked inside different worlds, whether that's an Off Broadway theater, a university or a museum. Especially for a company like ours, which is always looking for new directions and new sites of engagement, it's a real thrill to be invited inside such a monumental and significant museum. 

Has this experience made you more of a museumgoer?
I’ve always been a museumgoer; the difference now is I'm tasked with making theater about it. Generally, I take the time to really experience what I’m looking at, to interact with it in the present as opposed to just reflecting on it. I think about Rothko’s famous quote: “A painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience.” There is always a conversation between the art and the audience, whether it’s been two people (actor and audience member) or an object and the viewer.