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BWW Interview: Rebecca Hart of THE GREAT IMMENSITY at the Public

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Tomorrow night the Civilians begin performances at the Public Theater of the new musical The Great Immensity, written and directed by Steve Cosson, the company's founding artistic director. The Civilians are known for their investigative theater--plays created from extensive research into a given subject. For The Great Immensity that subject is global warming, though its story is fictional. Past Civilians shows have focused on such topics as evangelism, information overload and parents' relationships, with dialogue often taken verbatim from interviews conducted by Cosson and company members.

BWW Interview: Rebecca Hart of THE GREAT IMMENSITY at the PublicRebecca Hart, who starred in The Great Immensity's world premiere at Kansas City Rep in 2012, again heads the cast. Chris Sullivan, of Broadway's Nice Work If You Can Get It and the upcoming Irma La Douce at City Center Encores!, costars as her husband. The cast also includes Damian Baldet, Cindy Cheung, Dan Domingues, Trey Lyford and Erin Wilhelmi.

Hart--who also played the lead in O Guru Guru Guru, by Mallery Avidon, at last year's Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville--previewed The Great Immensity and discussed working with the Civilians in a chat with BroadwayWorld last week. The show is scheduled to run at the Public through May 1.

I'm sure calling The Great Immensity a "climate-change musical" is an oversimplification, so tell us more about it.
That word doesn't actually work. It's not really a musical at all, not in the way that you think of a Broadway musical. There's very little dancing, and when there is, it's a little bit ironic. It has songs--which has always been what the Civilians do. They're an investigative theater company, they usually do shows around a certain issue, with much or all of the text culled from interviews, and some of those composer Michael Friedman turns into songs. And the songs rather than moving the plot forward, I think of them as kind of a Greek chorus to the story. There is a narrative, and around that narrative there are songs that burst forth and give us a lot of information and provide context for the story.

What is the story?
It's kind of a thriller with songs. There's a woman who I'm playing named Phyllis whose husband, Karl, is a photojournalist, and he goes missing while on assignment on a tropical island. She goes to look for him, and it begins an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole journey. As we lead up to this, they're several days away from a big climate summit taking place in Paris, and Phyllis realizes something about Karl's disappearance has to do with the impending climate summit. It goes from there. I think to tell more would take away from the story. It's a sensory multimedia piece. There's a ton of projections and video--some of it is live-feed and some of it is video that Steve and Michael took on their travels [to the Panama Canal and Arctic Canada], doing research for the show.

BWW Interview: Rebecca Hart of THE GREAT IMMENSITY at the PublicHow long have you been involved with the Civilians?
They just made me, officially, an associate artist. I'm pretty new. The Great Immensity premiere two years ago was my first Civilians show. I've been in a couple of their salon cabarets at Joe's Pub. Let Me Ascertain You is the name of the series, and I recently did the one called Holy Matrimony. That was about weddings, and I wrote a song for that. But I've been working near the Civilians for the last year or so. Steve Cosson, the director, and I have worked on a number of projects that were not necessarily Civilians projects. Except they sort of were--like, we worked on this Anne Washburn play, A Devil at Noon, that was done at the Humana Festival in 2011, and Anne is a member of the Civilians.

Had you been following the Civilians before you did a show with them?
I was a fan for a while before I got involved. Years ago I saw Gone Missing at the Barrow Street Theater, and I thought that was really exciting. I'm also a musician, I'm a songwriter and singer, and I'm always interested in new ways that music and theater can interact that aren't traditional musical forms. And I felt that they were really doing it. Also, I feel like they have a unique way of making subject matter that you would think, "How is that going to be a piece of theater?"--like In the Footprint that was done at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn, which was about the [development of the] Barclays Center. I was like, "It's about what?" and then I went to see it, and it was just riveting and funny and exciting. They really found the human drama, and also managed to give you so much information in a way that really stuck.

Is The Great Immensity in any way atypical for the Civilians?
One of the ways this is different is there are fictional characters, there's a fictional narrative that Steve wrote. It's a Lab show at the Public, which means all the tickets are $20 and it's still growing and changing. I think of it as its own ecosystem that responds to outside stimuli. I'm excited to see the way we interact with people.

Has the show changed since it was done at Kansas City Rep?
Completely. There are new songs. I used to be twin sisters, and now I'm not. That's the biggest change for my part.

BWW Interview: Rebecca Hart of THE GREAT IMMENSITY at the PublicHave you worked with other theater companies that stress collaboration and research in creating material, as the Civilians do?
Collaborative, yes. I've worked with Target Margin Theater, and that is a very collaborative experience. I did their Uncle Vanya last year, which was not your mom's Uncle Vanya. We pulled from a lot of different translations and a lot of source materials and put them together. But I guess I would say not really, because I think the Civilians are pretty unique.
So I feel very privileged to be involved in The Great Immensity because this is such important, and timely, information--and it's coming across in a pretty entertaining way. I have been wanting to work at the Public Theater for a long time, so this is a perfect storm of working with a company I really respect at a theater whose mission and history I really respect, doing this big dramatic part.

What are the possible pitfalls of political, or issue-oriented, theater?
You can't forget that it's a play and that you have to have a story. That story can be a true story, or it can be something like this, where you are cleverly serving up all of the information alongside the story. Either way, you have to be telling it well. Otherwise it's not theater; it would be a lecture, I guess.

What recent theater have you enjoyed as an audience member?
Everything I saw at Humana last year was pretty exciting, [including] Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate. The work of the company the Mad Ones. Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, which acted like a very political play, but it was told in a really quirky and funny and incredibly human way. But later I went home and thought about the future of our world and our environment.

Tell us about your music.
I have been in and out of bands since I was a kid. Currently I play--although it's been on hold because of working on the show--in an alternative folk band called the New Students. We've played at the Rockwood Music Hall and Joe's Pub. I have a couple of CDs out. I've always played music and I've always been an actress, but I sort of realigned things a couple of years ago. I realized I'm an actor primarily, and I also play music. I wind up working a lot in shows like this: There are songs, but it's not a "musical." I'm the only who doesn't sing in the show, which is kind of funny.

Photos of Rebecca, from top: in her headshot; in A Devil at Noon at the 2011 Humana Festival; on the right, with Cindy Cheung and Trey Lyford in rehearsal for The Great Immensity. [Devil photo by Alan Simons; Immensity photo by Tammy Shell]

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Adrienne Onofri Adrienne Onofri, one of BroadwayWorld's original columnists, created and writes the Gypsy of the Month feature on the website. She also does interviews and event coverage for BroadwayWorld, and is a member of the Drama Desk. Adrienne is also a travel writer and the author of the book "Walking Brooklyn: 30 Tours Exploring Historical Legacies, Neighborhood Culture, Side Streets, and Waterways," published by Wilderness Press.