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'The Great Immensity' Unites Theater And Investigative Journalism

Only this week has Kansas City seen any real sign of winter, while other parts of the world are experiencing record cold.

If the weather lately seems ever more baffling and strange, Kansas City Repertory Theatre might offer some explanations with the world premiere of the play The Great Immensity.

Written and directed by Steve Cosson, the play was created with the help of a partner not known for a theater connection: the National Science Foundation

SteveCossonis the founder of the Brooklyn-based theater group The Civilians, which operates on the principles of what's called investigative theater. He says the company produces work that begins with extensive research and journalistic interviews about subjects that they then turn into fictional plays.

"Some of our shows we do verbatim, and draw word for word from interviews to create the script of a play," Cosson says. "Sometimes the interviews are a leaping off point and then a story develops from it, or from some other path.

"Ultimately, my way into any subject matter is to try and find a question, and I don't think a play is necessarily something that wants to answer a question. It maybe wants to ask questions in the most compelling way possible and, in fact, leave the audience with a bigger sense of what the questions might be."

Global Issues Told Through Human Subjects

The Great Immensity is the latest work from Cosson and the company. It explores the subjects of global warming and climate change through a mystery about two fictional sisters: Polly, who directs nature documentaries, and Phyllis, a wife and mother with a life so busy, environmental issues don't have much time to register.

"Polly, the filmmaker, her problem is that all these environmental issues - the climate change question, the energy question, the resource question - become real for her," Cosson says. "She has a change of consciousness in which it becomes very tangible, very very real.

"Phyllis is the person most of us would identify with. The majority of us understand that these things are real but like Phyllis, we're living our lives. Phyllis has a 3-year-old kid, a husband, a job and life where she has to figure out how it all works, how to live well, and how to take care of her kid."

A Science Project

The play's mix of identifiable characters and scientific debate inspired Cosson to seek funding from the National Science Foundation, known more for research initiatives than backing stage plays.

"We're supported by the National Science Foundation through a program my company applied for," he says.  "It's a rigorous process but there's an area of the NSF which is informal science education, so that's what funds museum exhibitions and anything that engages the public informally and helps to communicate and educate about science. And (I believe) we're the first play to be funded by that program."

Teaching through Song

As the play was taking shape, the grant allowed Cosson to do research in such places as the Arctic and Panama. And true to The Civilians' kaleidoscopic style, the show also includes musical numbers from composer Michael Friedman, whose credits include "Saved," seen last season at The Rep, and "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" on Broadway. Among the songs is"Margin of Error,"drawn from statistics about climate change from The New York Times. 

"Music can access and inspire emotions in a much more direct way, and in a different way," Cosson says. "So there are songs that are funny and songs that are very moving.

"For me, the music opens up the breadth of the show on an emotional level and the platform of the subject. It broadens the landscape of the story."

Because Cosson likes his shows to ask more questions than give answers, four performances of the show will be followed by Q-and-A sessions designed to further engage the audience.


The Great Immensity runs February 17 - March 18, 2012 at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's Copaken Stage, 1 H and R Block Way, Kansas City, Mo. 816-235-2700.


The “Artists in Their Own Words” series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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