The Civilians’ show deals with the fear of dying
The Civilians have explored an array of topics in its esteemed theater pieces, inspired by research and interviews that group members have done. We’re talking subjects from parents’ marriage and divorces to the Evangelical movement and its unofficial U.S. capital of Colorado Springs.
The group’s newest piece deals with one of the biggest subjects there is: death.
It’s called “The Undertaking,” and it plays Connecticut College on Saturday before the Brooklyn-based Civilians stage it in New York City and then Paris.
Steve Cosson, the founding artistic director of The Civilians who wrote and directed “The Undertaking,” notes that death is “one of the most universal (topics), since I hear it does happen to everybody.”
“The Undertaking” was spurred by Cosson’s own interest in investigating death and dying. When he’s creating a production, he usually considers what questions are most central to whatever subject he’s tackling. Most vitally, he looks for the questions that either don’t have an easy answer or don’t have an answer at all.
“Certainly, death and dying have a few big ones,” he says.
Part of the reason Cosson wanted to do this is the avoidance or denial people have to the subject.
That’s the case, even though, as he notes, dying is “this experience that happens to all of us. There’s this inconvenient truth that we’re all aware that we’re mortal, whatever we think that means. ... At the same time, it has seemingly less and less of a place in our culture. In many ways, our culture seems to be moving toward hiding it more or, in some circles, figuring out how to solve this problem. (Trying to solve death) is one of the new Silicon Valley things.”
Cosson is interested in how this resistance to the subject of death affects how we actually live.
The path from that idea to “The Undertaking” was a bit unorthodox. The first performance was part of a cabaret series The Civilians do and featured interviews and a few songs.
After that, group members did more than 100 interviews and created a show called “Be the Death of Me,” where each actor essentially performed one interview, and the audience moved from actor to actor to hear their various stories.
The third public presentation: The Civilians were in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and they did a version of the show in the Temple of Dendur in the museum’s Egyptian wing.
At that point, having lived with all these different points of view on death and dying, Cosson felt ready to write what became “The Undertaking.”
The point of entry, he says, turned out to be himself, which is something he’d never done in another piece. He thought about portraying what it would be like if, during one of the interviews he conducted, the interviewee turned the tables and made Cosson participate.
That notion grew from real life. He was interviewing his friend, Jessica Metrani, who had an interest in death; she went through training to become a death doula, for instance, and had attended a conference called “The Art of Dying.”
And the interview became more of a conversation that, Cosson says, “revealed itself to be the center of the play.” “The Undertaking” thus features characters modeled after the two of them and is essentially “a couple of people doing a DIY trip to the underworld inside a little room somewhere in New York,” he says.
As part of his research, Cosson examined classical myths and archetypes and heroes’ journeys to the underworld, where they learned something or got something and then returned to this world. The play references Orpheus, mostly via the Jean Cocteau film, which two characters watch.
Bits of interviews The Civilians did are woven into the play — among them, one with a nurse practitioner who works in palliative care, one with a man who dropped out of mortuary school, and one with a soldier who served in Iraq.
“The Undertaking” also delves into more mystical aspects of its subject. Cosson researched ayahuasca, a hallucinogen that’s been traditionally used in South America (and is the focus of a recent New Yorker article). As part of a ritual, a group of people take ayahuasca together and are guided through the experience by a shaman who follows indigenous traditions. People can feel as though they’re leaving their body and experiencing the death of their identity. Cosson was interested in that because it seems “you can kind of have a trial run of your death before you actually do it.” People have been freed of a lot of the fear and anxiety surrounding death after that ritual, he says.
Another line of inquiry he pursued was a study at NYU where a team of psychologists have been giving the naturally occurring psychedelic psilocybin to cancer patients and seeing if it can help lessen people’s anxiety about dying. One of the things the patients are encouraged to do is overcome avoidance inclinations. If the patient imagines death as a monster, for instance, they might be counseled to talk to it and to see what it has to say.
“That’s essentially the event of the play and that’s the question: what happens to us if, instead of trying to control our fear of death or trying to push it out of sight or to just manage it in some way, what might happen if we turned around and walked towards it? Or, in a less threatening metaphor, just ask it a question, like, ‘What do you have to say to us?,’” Cosson says.
He says, “If there’s an idea behind the play, it’s that our lives might be lacking something because we are trying too hard to deny something which is a truth: whatever it might mean, whatever your beliefs might be about what happens after we die — we die. That event happens. ... Resistance can generate a certain kind of fear and anxiety, and that in and of itself can cut us off from a richness of experience in living.”
IF YOU GO
What: The Civilians’ “The Undertaking”
Where: Palmer Auditorium, Connecticut College, New London
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $24; seniors $21; students $12
Contact: (860) 439-ARTS
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