The Theater of 9/11

by Diep Tran

in American Theatre magazine

Post image for The Theater of 9/11

Why art? Or, more specifically, why theater? Especially in the face of great tragedy, what can art do to help heal the wounded or to bring everything back to normal? On the cusp of the 10th anniversary of September 11th, I was looking through a selection of plays that were being mounted to commemorate the day and what happened after.

(Photo: Shawn Boyle. Pictured: Tino Christopher)

The first 9/11 play I ever saw was a local production of Anne Nelson’s The Guys in Charleston, N.C. and in the beginning, Joan, a journalist, wondered what goods could words do. In trying to find an answer to that question, I decided to speak to Michael Simon Hall, the creator of the “Pieces of Paper” project, a multi-media art installation and play reading currently on view at theIrondaleCenter inBrooklyn. It tells the 9/11 story from the point-of-view of the volunteers.

Pieces of Paper – Aspirations of 9/11

On September 11th, Hall was at Two World Financial Center, across the street from the Twin Towers. He heard the boom from when the second plane hit and upon seeing the burning towers: “My whole life flashed before my eyes.” That next week, he went down to Chelsea Piers Support Center where over six days, with the thousands of other volunteers, they passed out food and clothing, and helped counsel first responders and other people directly affected.

So I asked him, “What was it about the event that compelled you to create art?”

“I don’t know what to say…” he begins, quietly. “All of the simple items, handing out bottles of water, taking inventory, that was what’s needed and wanted. But so many of us felt like we could have done more. This was my way of doing something more.”

Photo: Shawn Boyle. Pictured: "Pieces of Paper" Ensemble

“Pieces of Paper” contains a collection of make-shift signs, now historical documents, created by the volunteers to aid them at the center. Signs that say: “Take a break, 10-minute massage in the back,” “Shhh…sleeping,” inventory lists, or missing persons report hand-written on notebook paper. It speaks to the franticness of that period and is an uncommon angle in the wide breadth of plays and events that have been inspired by 9/11.

Hall explains to me why he decided to focus on the volunteers. “For every professional at Ground Zero, there were 10–20 volunteers somewhere helping out behind the line: at the perimeter of Ground Zero or all over the country sending in supplies.”

“Pieces of Paper” is only one out of many theatrical events currently being held around the country, they explore 9/11 and its repercussions in a variety of angles. Some, like Make Love, in New York City, and Life Separates Us, in Chicago, follows normal people who try to resume living in a high-security world post-9/11.

Other works contain the stories of those directly affected, such as in Performing Tribute and 110 Stories, also in NYC. And then there is the more atypical side, such as Pieces of Paper and Unveiled, in San Francisco, where the viewpoint of the post-9/11 ostracized Other—the Muslims that live inAmerica—is explored. It’s theater artists, reflecting from multiple perspectives on one central event.

“An artist’s job is to draw attention to the beauty in life, to allow people to stand back from it and look at it from a different angle,” Hall says. “This is my way to make a contribution; by honoring the other people who made a difference, that’s my way as an artist to make a difference.”

Perhaps, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of September 11, theater can serve, not only to remember those who lost and gave their lives, but also to reflect. In viewing “Pieces of Paper,” the installation and the play, I experienced a quiet, thoughtful evening that did not inspire tears but rather, a feeling of wonder; wonder for that universal sense of human compassion and how effective art can be in contextualizing, making sense of tragedy and eventually move forward from it.

Photo: Shawn Boyle. Pictured: "Pieces of Paper" ensemble

A list of selected works:

Thru 9/9, NYC: 110 Stories – an ensemble cast of actors—which includes Susan Sarandon, Melissa Leo, Chris Noth—put on a benefit reading of Sara Tuft’s 110 Stories, a collection first-person accounts of those directly-affected.

Thru 9/9, NYC: The Guys – The Flea, who first presented Anne Nelson’s play, remounts it as a free reading. In it, a journalist volunteers to write the eulogies of a fire squad, as dictated by the squad’s captain. One ticket per person.

9/9-9/11, Ashbury, NJ.: Email: 9/12 – A production of Midge Guerrira’s play, which is comprised of a series of e-mails exchanged by a woman and her family after 9/11.

9/9-9/4, Minneapolis, MN: A Short Play About 9/11 – A comedy by Dominic Orlando about three people who try to resume a normal life after 9/11.

Thru 9/11, NYC: New York – David Rimmer’s play, containing 15 characters, explores the emotional fall-out after the attack. A portion of the proceeds from ticket sales will benefit the organization September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.

9/11, Philadelphia: A Human Equation – InterACT presents a free reading of the Peter Bonilla play, about the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, created by Congress, and what it means to place a monetary value on human life.

Thru 9/11, NYC: Pieces of Paper – an art installation and play reading based on the papers of Chelsea Piers Support Center volunteers who used them to help people directly affected by 9/11.

9/12, NYC: The Dust– The Poetry Project and Segue Foundation presents a staged version of Michael Gottlieb’s poem The Dust, originally written at the two-year anniversary of 9/11.

Thru 9/14, NYC:  “9/11 Performance Project” – Three plays are presented at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College that reflects on the rise of Islamophobia and greed in the wake of 9/11. It includes a world premiere of Demolition of the Eiffel Tower by Jeton Nezirag and Another Life by Karen Malpede (who is also directing); and a revival of The Domestic Crusaders by Wajahat Ali.

Thru 9/14, NYC: Make Love – performance artist Karen Finley, with co-star Chris Tanner and pianist Lance Cruce, honors 9/11 by channeling Liza Minelli in a cabaret-style show, while also trying to make sense of that day.

Thru 9/17, San Francisco: Unveiled – Brava Theater opens its season with Rohina Malik’s play, which answers the question: How to wear the hijab and why? through the perspective of five women who engage in the Muslim practice while also being part of Western society.

Thru 9/17, NYC: Performing Tribute 9/11 – Endurance Theatre present an anthology of stories of people who were impacted by Sept. 11, performed by the ones who experienced them which includes survivors of the towers, those who lost loved ones, a FDNY firefighter and responder and many others.

Thru 9/25, Chicago: Life Separates Us – Oracle Productions remounts a free production of the 2002 play by Sean Farrell. Set several months after the attacks, the play follows three couples, who were not directly affected, as they undergo group therapy to try and save their struggling marriages.