Sunday, June 15, 2008

Play’s version of Springs is not all ‘Beautiful’

Special to The Gazette
Photos by Harlan Taylor and Tom Kimmell
June 14, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Colorado Springs, or one version of it, took the national stage this week, as a documentary-style musical about the city's evangelical movement premiered in the Studio Theatre.

Turns out, for many Washington theatergoers, "This Beautiful City" was a comedy and a horror show.

Chloe West, whose unabashed laughter filled the theater throughout the night, summed up many people's feelings.

"I knew Colorado Springs was a gorgeous place, but that's pretty much all I knew," she said. "After seeing the show, yeah, I am a little scared. Would I ever want to live there? Probably not."

That version of Colorado Springs came compliments of The Civilians, a New York City-based theater company that attempted to take a snapshot of American evangelicalism, using Colorado Springs as a microcosm of the nation.

"The Civilians specialize in doing work about real-life subjects, and I wanted to do a play about evangelical Christianity," said Steven Cosson, the show's director and co-writer. "I thought our method and the subject matter would be a good match. We were interested in Colorado Springs in particular because the story there is so unique. The city has changed so much over a period of 25 years with the influx of so many churches and evangelical organizations."

In 2006, the cast and crew spent seven months in the Springs interviewing more than 100 residents.

"We were trying to listen to the voices that were most alien to us - the evangelicals," co-writer Jim Lewis said. "We knew we could pull off (the liberals). We know them. We get that sensibility. So we really made an effort to get the evangelical argument out there and see if we could capture their point of view. The biggest challenge is juggling that balance."

While they were in Colorado Springs, New Life Church's senior pastor, Ted Haggard, became embroiled in a sex scandal involving methamphetamines and a male prostitute. Little did the company know at the time, but that incident would set the tone for its production.

"By reflecting on what happened with Ted, we are trying to get back to the larger questions of how a community heals and finds a way to get along," Lewis said.

The current rendition of the play - cast and crew say that the production is in a constant state of flux - draws nearly every word of its dialogue from interviews, media reports and local texts. There is no traditional plot to speak of, but rather a narrative represented by a series of talking heads sharing historical and cultural snapshots.

Embedded within the documentary form is music. One might be tempted to think this fusion of documentary sensibilities and cabaret gives the play a bad Broadway musical vibe. But the musical element is crucial, as its use is essential in the praise and worship services of the churches the production highlights.

The first half of "This Beautiful City" elicited the loudest guffaws as the D.C. audience was exposed to Colorado Springs' religious subculture.

They experienced a New Life church service in which the line between church and state was almost nonexistent, met local religious leaders, were serenaded by the Flying W Wranglers, chatted with Air Force Academy cadets and were introduced to prayer warriors who saw demonic forces around every corner. The principally liberal audience found the people and situations ripe for mockery.

Later, when asked of their impressions, audience members were happy to share. While some admitted to having never heard of Colorado Springs, a surprising number revealed connections to the Centennial State.

The smorgasbord of opinions represented a startling and insightful glimpse into how the city is viewed from afar.

Joyce Prashar, whose son lives in Colorado Springs, didn't realize the scope of the evangelical movement in the city.

"That was a complete mystery," she said. "The whole Christian right thing is slightly frightening to me. It reminded me of Jim Jones and Guyana."

Elizabeth Kramer found the play "truthful and terrifying at the same time." She was offended by what she saw as an evangelical invasion. "If they want to do what they want to do, that's fine. But stay out of politics."

"Before the play, I always thought of Colorado Springs as a pretty place - healthy, you know, with no religious connotations," Susan Janney said. "Now, I'm like, whoa. I think I'd research the place before I'd ever even visit. It sounds like a scary place to be."

Janney's comments caught the ear of Ben Weitz. "What's scary?" he asked, incredulously. "Colorado Springs? It's the nicest place in the United States that I have ever visited."

"I wouldn't want to judge Colorado Springs from this one show," said West, adamantly insisting that a play was not a fair snapshot of the makeup of any city. "I'd definitely want to visit, check it out. It's not as if there aren't churches just like that out here, too."

Elaine Chan has a unique perspective given that both of her sons attended Colorado College. "The play was very amusing for me because so many things were exactly as my sons have told me," she said.

However, she was also quick to point out that she thought the play was "a caricature of what people on the outside would think of Colorado Springs."

Some of the characters may border on caricature, others concurred, but the stereotypes were hardly unfounded.

"It's hard to get offended when they use the people's real words and points of view," Ezra Kauffman said. "I think people actually listen to what they say more."

Writer Lewis said when those interviewed during The Civilians' research saw an early performance, the reaction was overwhelmingly favorable. The religious audience thought it had been accurately portrayed.

After the play's revelation of Haggard's fall from grace, laughter seemed to catch in the audiences' throat. Those once so easy to denounce are shown to be wounded, confused and all too human.

Lori Kauffman insists she will never set foot in Colorado Springs. Still, she hardly sees the Springs as unique.

"I think if we look deeper, Colorado Springs is a microcosm of many places," she said. "(Evangelicalism) is just more concentrated, more overt, more exaggerated there."

"The key to the play was one line: ‘This is America,'" Sandra Weiswasser said. "Colorado Springs is the microcosm."

Weiswasser, who calls herself an avid atheist, found herself moved by the story, particularly the zeal with which the Christians lived their lives.

"When you listen to believers, there are still kernels of truth which resonate - the need for redemption and the need for forgiveness and that we're not perfect," she said.

"I don't want other people telling me how to believe. But on the other hand, if you're a true believer, how can you not tell others?"

At first, actress Emily Ackerman was not excited about the project.

"I was scared to go there. It was the Hate State. Jesus Springs. I thought, ‘Whoa, this place is crawling with hateful, hurtful people,'" she said.

"And then I got there and found out that was not necessarily true. There certainly are elements that I, as a liberal, disagree with very strongly, but for the most part they were really welcoming and open and loving."

Many audience members believed the play did a fabulous job interpreting one group of people, but nonetheless plucked only the low-hanging evangelical fruit. Some of those interviewed said they yearned for a more balanced view.

Although the play features opposing voices - a gay man fighting discrimination, a transgendered city planner and a disgruntled native who hates how the city has changed around him - Lewis said that "if we get complaints, it's always that we bent over too far to give the evangelicals a voice at expense of other liberal, secular voices."

Ackerman was moved by those in Colorado Springs who consider themselves part of the liberal, secular resistance.

"The liberal community in Colorado Springs is very, very strong. They feel like they are fighting a war. They are a whole lot more liberal than we are. We have the luxury of being liberal New Yorkers where everyone agrees with us."

Audience member Kauffman said she sees "This Beautiful City" as an "important play for a jaded, political place like D.C., where we basically make fun of everyone."

Despite differences with the evangelicals who make up the play's subject matter, she said she feels that only good can come of the dialogue.

"There will be very few evangelicals who come to see this show and that is wrong; they really should come," she said.


Blogger nathan said...

"The liberal community in Colorado Springs is very, very strong. They feel like they are fighting a war."

This quote resonated with me. It's how we feel here in Springfield sometimes.

12:20 AM  
Blogger Brandon said...

Yes, I've always thought the cities must be very similiar.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Brandon said...

Click here to read the nearly 200 comments on the story on The Gazette's online edition.

8:19 AM  
Blogger John said...

Thanks for tipping me off to the show, Brandon. I love Colorado Springs. It's the New Orleans of evangelicalism, with so much wild, wacky stuff going on that every day is like Christmas meets Halloween. Wish I could see the show. John

4:01 PM  
Blogger Brandon said...

My story led The Gazette's editors to write an opinion piece. Read it here or below:

D.C. dullards fear, loathe Colorado Springs

A small bunch of Washington airheads has chosen to fear, loathe and laugh at Colorado Springs because of a not-good-enough-for-Broadway musical that makes fun of our city. The play over-indulges the tired stereotype that Colorado Springs serves as evangelical boot camp for hypocritical Christian soldiers conspiring to conquer the world.

"This Beautiful City" premiered last week in Washington's Studio Theatre. A story in Saturday's Gazette said the words of Chloe West summed up feelings of many in the audience.

"After seeing the show, yeah, I am a little scared. Would I ever want to live there? Probably not," West said.

Promises, promises.

Audience member Joyce Prashar was so frightened by the play that she said Colorado Springs reminds her of Jim Jones and Guyana, referring to mass suicides and murders ordered by the religious cult leader in 1978. Now that's a powerfully stupid comparison. Elizabeth Kramer found the play "truthful and terrifying." She expressed fear of an evangelical invasion, and urged Christians in Colorado Springs to "stay out of politics." She probably won't visit Colorado Springs, saying "it sounds like a scary place to be."

Lori Kauffman vowed to never set food in Colorado Springs. And that's understandable, because the monstrous Christians might just devour her the moment she gets off the plane.

It gets better. The on-site Gazette contributor, who reported on this hysterical "only in Washington" scene, found audience members who "admitted to having never heard of Colorado Springs."

Really? If so, inside-the-Beltway ignorance has reached an alarming extreme. An American who hasn't heard of Colorado Springs has never heard of the 48th largest city in the United States (Washington is 25th). Have they heard of the 57th most populous city - a place called Pittsburgh? Or how about St. Paul, number 67? These are people who have never heard of the second largest city in Colorado, or the only major city at the base of the most famous mountain in the United States, Pikes Peak. They have never heard of the place ranked by Money magazine in 2006 as the best big city in which to live in all the United States - despite the beastly Christians! If they've not heard of Colorado Springs, they can't name the location of the United States Air Force Academy. Perhaps they're completely unaware of the United States Olympic Committee, and the facility where most of America's greatest athletes train. They don't know about the most physically fit city in the United States. People who haven't heard of Colorado Springs don't read or follow the news. It's no wonder they could be so easily frightened by one play, centered on one cliché.

Funnier than a play based on tired stereotypes about Christians would be one that exaggerates the provincialism of Washington liberals. Imagine small-minded characters who can't point to major cities on the map - people who fear Christian savages and other dangers that lurk in the wilds beyond the homogenous Washington suburbs.

Comments from this Washington audience aren't the scripted words of actors on stage. They are real. They are thoughts of people who don't know the major population centers in their own country. They are people so afraid of what lies beyond the Beltway that they will fear and avoid a large American city because of the assumptions presented in one second-rate, politically motivated play.

The dullard comments from this audience clear up one thing. It no longer seems odd that Jim Jones was able to find hundreds of adults, willing to drink the Kool-Aid on his command.

10:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's kind of weird living in Colorado Springs and reading about such a production. I have many reactions and I'll try to sum them up here.

First of all, my Christian hackles are rankled at the thought of such a production and the first thought I have is, "how hateful of them." It's like combatting hate with hate. They (liberals) feel hate from us (conservative Christians) and therefore create such a production. Yet how would such an opposite set production, conservatives hating on liberals, be decried in the media. In a way that very production takes place from innumerable pulpits across the land.

It does surprise me at how gullible and naive the production-goers responses were. "Wow, Colorado Springs seems scary." C'mon, people!

I must admit that I thought I was moving to a Christian "Mecca" when my family and I moved here, though that had nothing with our decision to move. I have to admit that after visiting over a dozen churches, we settled on a church we attended for 4 years and recently left for reasons of personal disagreement and dislike of the new pastor and what we saw going on there. We never had to visit that many churches, nor did we settle, when we lived in Portland, OR.

The polarization of this community is quite stark and a bit disconcerting. It seems to be a challenge to find where my family and I "fit."

I guess ultimately the fact that "we can't all just get along" merely saddens me and the fact that it all has to be brought to such a negative head is disappointing.

Coming to a place and looking for something specific is like what PBS told me the Bush administration did with Iraq and the WMDs and all the "intelligence" they had on that.

What a world,
Paul from Colorado Springs: Not loving it, but not hating it either.

8:54 PM  
Anonymous POD said...

I never got the impression that CO Springs was some type of conservative Christian "mecca". I spent a new year's there with Brandon and the prevailing memories for me was getting drunk at the "world's smallest bar" as well as my brother getting heckled and assualted by a prostitute and her pimp.

7:20 AM  

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