Michael Friedman: Adventures in Reality – The Civilians 2023 spring benefit

Illustration, Plug, Tribute

For many years now, I’ve been an associate artist with The Civilians, an “investigative theatre” group founded by the brilliant Steve Cosson. The Civilians combine their own research and reportage with musical theatre to create productions on such topics as climate change, paranoia, loss, evangelical Christianity, the porn industry, and New York City itself. Their work is both thought-provoking and highly entertaining.

So what role do I play, you ask? Well, I don’t really sing, dance, or act, so I stick to my so-called strength: drawing. Over the years, I’ve illustrated Civilians programs, announcements cards, album covers, benefit cards, flyers, and even a comic adapted from a monologue from their play Gone Missing.

In 2017, the company tragically lost founding member Michael Friedman, the composer and lyricist for so many of their productions. Ever since, then I’ve been illustrating album covers for the “Michael Friedman Collection” — nine albums of songs from Civilians musicals for which he wrote the music. (You can see four of those covers in the image above, and you can listen to the entire collection here.)

Well, tomorrow, Monday, April 3, The Civilians are holding their 2023 spring benefit, celebrating their Michael Friedman Recording Project. Here are some more details:

“Join us on April 3rd, for a star-studded One-Night-Only Concert at City Winery in Manhattan, celebrating the Michael Friedman Recording Project and honoring Kurt Deutsch and Ghostlight Records. Enjoy an amazing evening of music that will make you laugh, cry — maybe both — with many of Michael’s most beloved songs!

The event will feature brilliant performances from Andrea Daly, Andrew Kober, Colleen Werthmann, Grace Field, Heath Saunders, Jonathan Raviv, Kristin Stokes, Luba Mason, Maya Sharpe, Mike Cefalo, Nedra Marie Taylor, Nick Blaemire, Rebecca Hart and Trey Lyford, Jennifer Blood, Akron Watson, Vaibu Mahon, Steve Rosen, Perry Sherman.”

And here’s a link to the event — tickets are still available. Personally, I can’t wait!

New Caledonian Communard


Fresh from the success of Gone Missing, The Civilians have a new show, This Beautiful City,  already in production in Colorado Springs,  and a second one in the works. To that end, they asked me to whip up an illo for a fund-raiser they’ve got coming up in NYC in May. The play is called Paris Commune, and the illo refers to the captured Communards who were exiled to the Polynesian island of New Caledonia. So here’s our little revolutionary in his new tropical garb:

Paris Commune

And here’s info about the benefit, which your welcome to attend, if you’ve got $25-$150 to spare:

Communards in the South Pacific

Monday, May 12, 8 PM to 1 AM, Performance at 9 PM
Element Nightclub, 225 East Houston Street
@ Essex Street / Avenue A, New York, NY 10002

Enjoy drinks and dancing in this Lower East Side club, surrounded by The Civilians’ artists, friends, and supporters. This benefit event will include complimentary sponsored drinks, full cash bar, light hors d’oeuvres, and a silent auction.

In honor of our production of Paris Commune at the Public Theater, the company will perform a special sequel to the revolution. Following the Communards (in song) from life in the streets of Paris to exile on the French Polynesian island of New Caledonia, this one-time only event is guaranteed to prove that the fight (and the show) must go on.

Tickets $25 to $150. R.S.V.P. at www.thecivilians.org or by calling (212) 730-2019.

Gone Seeing "Gone Missing"

The Gone Missing milk carton

On Saturday, Sari & I went to see the new production of The Civilians’ Gone Missing, at the Barrow Street Theatre, in the West Village. Gone Missing is a wry and whimsical documentary musical crafted from company interviews with real-life New Yorkers about things gone missing: keys, IDs, a Gucci pump… or one’s mind. Directed and written by Steven Cosson with music by award-winning composer Michael Friedman, The Civilians portray more than 30 characters in their signature storytelling cabaret style. This is The Civilians’ first open-ended Off-Broadway production, which is a real coup for them!

As The Civilians cartoonist-in-residence, I was handed the assignment of coming up with art for the show’s publicity materials. Given the subject matter of the show, one of the ideas I came up with was the iconic milk carton image, stuffed with details about the show. Both the company and the venue loved that concept, so that’s what ended up being used for the poster, the program, etc.

The show has received raves (a “Critic’s Pick” from The Times, five stars from Time Out, and various accolades from Variety, The Times of London, The Village Voice, and all the other New York papers), and I was excited to finally see the show in person. I’ve seen parts of it on DVD, but even though I did a two-page adaptation of one of the scenes for The Vagabonds #2, I’ve never actually seen the show live. And it was all we hoped it would be: inventive, often hilarious, and filled with great music. As always, I was a huge fan of Jennifer R. Morris’s work, who doubles as a woman who loses her pump and a professional organizer.

If you like offbeat live theatre and are in the area, make sure to see the show. And look for copies of The Vagabonds #2 and the (I Am) Nobody’s Lunch/Gone Missing paperback (which I did the cover for) on sale in the lobby.

Suzan-Lori Parks/The Civilians' "Action in Inaction"


365 PlaysI drew a play, and my drawing is the play. (Along with some whale sounds.)

The prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks undertook an amazing challenge in 2002–2003, when she wrote a short play every single day for a year. The result is the 365 Days/365 Plays National Festival, which from Nov 13, 2006–Nov 12, 2007, is presenting the work simultaneously across the country, creating the largest collaboration in the history of American theater. The plays may be performed in one night or over the course of the entire week. That, in addition to where and how they are produced, is up to each participating company.

In New York City, The Public Theater is spearheading 365NYC. Over the course of this year, over 60 selected theater companies — curated by The Public and the 365 Days/365 Plays National Festival — is performing these brief, brilliant plays. Each week, selected theater companies are producing one week’s worth of plays, each ranging from one to five pages in length. The theatre group I work with, The Civilians, are producing this week of 365, from April 23 to 29.

In addition to presenting the plays live this week (and later as part of the whole month of plays at the Public), The Civilians are also presenting the plays on their website. Civilians director Steve Cossen asked me to help, by adapting one of the “constants” (short plays which are eligible for presentation by all the theatre groups at any time during the year), entitled “Action In Inaction.” And this is what we came up with. (Make sure the sound is turned on in your computer!)

Personally, I find it an amusing — and shall I say thought-provoking? — presentation of the script. Others may scoff. Your reaction?

P.S. The Civilians will also present the plays as a hybrid live and recorded event Thursday, April 26, 9pm; Friday, April 27, 9pm; and Saturday, April 28, 4pm, at the Barrow Street Theatre, in New York’s West Village. Free; email kyle@thecivilians.org to reserve. The live version of the plays will be reprised for The Public Theater’s First Sundays Series on Sunday, May 6, at 3pm and 7pm. To reserve, call 212.967.7555 from 10am to 9pm, Mon-Sun, or visit the Public Theater Box Office, 425 Lafayette Street (between Astor Place and East 4th Street).

The Civilians' "Resurrection Vaudeville"

Blessed bunny

The blessed bunny at right was drawn by me to call attention to The Civilians’ 2007 benefit. Enjoy drinks and dancing at the new Midtown club, Arenas Nightclub, surrounded by The Civilians’ artists, friends, and supporters.

Members of The Civilians will perform songs from the company’s new show about Evangelical Christianity—along with a few favorites by Michael Friedman.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Arena Nightclub
135 West 41st Street
Between 6th Avenue & Broadway
New York, NY 10036
8pm to 1am, Performance at 9pm

Includes complimentary drinks from event sponsors Tequila Corazón, Smithwick’s Ale, and Red Stripe Beer; full cash bar; silent auction; and raffle.

Patriot Acts with The Civilians


The Civilians have put me to work again, doing an illustration for a fund-raiser they’ve got coming up in May. The benefit is in the form of a concert, with various progressive-minded celebrities singing patriotic songs, so my mission was to come up with an image which conveyed music & patriotism — with an undercurrent of subversiveness/irony.

With the aid of Artistic Director Steve Cossen, I did the illustration shown here, inspired by the famous image of Marlene Dietrich from Blue Angel. As Steve remarked, there’s something wonderful about this prototypical American icon being a fusing of French statuary and German pose!

Here’s info about the benefit concert, which will be held Monday May 8th, 7:30 pm, at The Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, 60 Washington Square South:

Patriot Acts: an American Vaudeville
Patriot Acts is a celebration of inspiring music about our country, featuring classic and contemporary songs that champion democratic ideals. Organized as a benefit for The Civilians theater company and co-sponsored by The Nation magazine and the Skirball Center for the Arts, Patriot Acts brings together a diverse array of musicians to give expression to a rich tradition that is rooted in fairness, equality, freedom, justice — a tradition that values dissent and puts forth a vision for citizenship counter to prevalent ideas of militarized nationalism. Through an evening of vibrant performances, Patriot Acts reclaims the progressive context of many of the leading icons of our patriotic culture, a context of which many Americans may be otherwise unaware.

The words to “America the Beautiful” for example, were written by feminist and social activist Katharine Lee Bates; the poem was originally included in a collection protesting US imperialism in the Philippines. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” inspired as response to “God Bless America,” sings about America’s beauty but also poses a challenge in the last and often omitted verse:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry I stood there wondering
If this land was made for you and me.

From these classics, Patriot Acts traces a musical landscape from songs like “The House I Live In,” a 1945 hit for Frank Sinatra, to contemporary songs by politically engaged artists. The concert also features songs from The Civilians recent show (I Am) Nobody’s Lunch and others. Patriot Acts is inspired by the article “Patriotism’s Secret History,” by Peter Dreier and Dick Flacks that appeared in The Nation magazine.

So baby gimme dat "Toot toot"


Image hosting by PhotobucketSo on Friday night Sari and I attended the premiere of The Civilians’ Nobody’s Lunch, and I finally got to see the promo postcard I did. Turns out they also used my art for the posters advertising the show (one of them was five feet high!), and for the program. And perhaps the biggest compliment of the evening was finding out afterward that one of the show’s key props — the “suspicious package” — was based on my drawing!

The production itself was amazing. Nobody’s Lunch is a plotless cabaret-style fragmented mirror image of our current society. We all know we’re being lied to — by the government, by the media, by our own families — and yet we don’t care. Plus alien remote viewers and lizard-men! It’s scary, depressing, funny, and entertaining. The songs were great, and the cast of six wowed us with their performances. Sari & laughed our butts off, and then had a lot to talk about afterwards. (There’s a pretty insightful review in today’s Times that pretty well echoes my thoughts on it.)

I’m tickled to be associated with The Civilians — especially now that I’ve seen one of their productions — and I encourage you to see the show yourself before their limited New York run ends.

No Words


No WordsHere’s another of my collaborations with the independent theater group The Civilians. Early last year, they approached me about a book they’re putting together based on their show, Gone Missing. As they said when they contacted me: “The show is about loss and about how the loss of small things can seem enormously resonant despite the relatively trivial material value of something. Six actors portray more than 30 characters who have lost everything from rings and phones to dogs and favorite toys and family heirlooms.” Again, right up my alley!

They continued: “Anyway, we are working to produce a book based on Gone Missing. It’s not exactly a published version of the play. Rather, we’re taking the monologues and pairing each vignette or story with an artist or illustrator. The book will be primarily an art book, something to look at rather than something to read, and I’m very excited about it because its a way for The Civilians to expand the range of artists they work with and the methods behind their philosophy of engaging with the ‘real world.'”

They provided me with a monologue from the show, a harrowing personal reminiscence alternately called “Drunken Englishman” or “No Words.” I’ve never seen the show, but it was my initial feeling that the monologue would be very difficult to adapt. But I love a good challenge — in many ways, that’s what makes a collaboration come alive — so I went at it. I approached the piece from a formalist viewpoint, imposing a series of restraints on myself. In the end, I wanted it to be not exactly comics, not exactly a straight recitation of the monologue, but something in between. Most of all, I wanted to use the panel format to capture the rhythm — the beat, if you will — of the spoken piece. The result is for you to judge.

So, without further ado, I present “No Words.”

Nobody's Lunch

Illustration, Work

The Civilians — an interesting New York-based independent theater company — contacted me about collaborating with them earlier this year. Their mission is to “develop original projects based in the creative investigation of actual experience.” Right up my alley. I’m working on a two-pager comix adaptation of a monologue from a previous show, Gone Missing, which I gather was well-attended and critically acclaimed. I hope to post that collaboration soon.

In the meantime, Civilians artistic director Steve Cossen asked me to draw the announcement card for their next show, (I am) Nobody’s Lunch (A Cabaret About How We Know What We Know When Nobody Knows if Everyone Else is Lying and When Someone or Something Wants to Have You for Lunch). Whew! (The show will run Jan. 19 – Feb. 6 at 59E59 in NYC before moving on to Philly and Cambridge, MA.)

As Steve put it, “The show is about the floating fear and paranoia in post 9/11-America, and that while the show’s subject is dark, our approach is eccentric and well, funny… So as our main marketing piece, the card should encourage someone to come have a good time watching a show about bad things. Basically — creepy in a fun way.” And then he mentioned that he wanted the card to feature a suspicious package, and a bartender who turns into lizard. (That’s a theme of the play, which I read and is AMAZING.) No problem! Oh, and the card is almost a foot long (and, yes, it’s supposed to be cut off like that.)

So here’s what I came up with:

Nobody's Lunch