As I write this on in the late afternoon of September 11, 2010, I am sitting on lower Sixth Avenue in New York City. Had I been sitting here nine years and one day ago, I assume I would have had a view of the upper floors of the World Trade Center towers. I would not have been sitting here nine years ago, because the towers would have already fallen that morning, and lower Manhattan was simply nowhere to be.
Nine years ago today, I was about 125 miles east northeast of Manhattan, on the grounds of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, where I was just about a year into my tenure as Executive Director. The O’Neill, for those who’ve never had the opportunity to work or visit there, is a bucolic spot on the Connecticut shoreline at the junction of Long Island Sound and the Thames River, quite close to all major amenities, but (at least then) still blessedly a seemingly isolated retreat. It was, supposedly, on that very plot of land that Josie Hogan attempted to soothe and perhaps save the tortured James Tyrone, Jr.
When news of the first plane striking a tower reached us, shortly after 9 am, it was not because we had a TV on. In fact, there wasn’t a working TV in the building. One of the staff either had read it on the internet or heard it on the radio; I don’t really recall. All that got to me was that a plane had hit one of the towers. I assumed it was an unfortunate accident and went about business as usual. When the news emerged about the second plane strike, it was clear that this was no accident. I have no memory of when I learned about the crash of the plane that we ultimately learned had been Pentagon bound.
When the towers fell, we received the news, as if in some earlier age, only via radio. It was for me, and I mean this in the literal sense, incomprehensible. I truly couldn’t imagine the towers burning and collapsing. I had no visuals to provide me with proof.
By this point, of course, staff was glued to the radio and it was quite apparent that no work would be done that day. Reports began to come in of school closings, of business closings, of the State of Connecticut closing all offices.
Since I didn’t need to gather the staff, who were huddled around the best radio, I then made a snap decision. I told them that unless they had children who were being released from school which they had to attend to, we were not closing, like seemingly everyplace else. Radios would be turned off, discussion of the tragedy needed to stop, and we would face the day as normally as possible. We needed to do this, I said, because of the kids. The kids had nowhere to go, and what message would we send if we fled the campus while they stayed, but for a skeletal staff?
‘The kids’ to which I referred were the students of The O’Neill’s National Theatre Institute (NTI), a semester long-theatre intensive which drew some thirty students from colleges around the country to live and learn on The O’Neill campus. The kids had arrived for the semester but two days earlier, and here they were in new territory, with peers and teachers they barely knew, as a national tragedy of untold proportion and impending threat unfolded. And I was scheduled, as I was each semester, to greet and speak with them at 11 am.
My primary goal was to make sure the kids felt safe. By the time we gathered, the news had spread, not through staff gossip, but because of parents calling kids to check on them and, in doing so, to tell them the news, and in turn, students calling parents to check on them. So when the kids, and the full staff, gathered in the cafeteria, I, not yet 40, with no spouse, partner or children of my own, had to be the wise and calm adult – indeed, the father.
Churning in my trivia-laden mind was a fact that I had learned in college: that southeastern Connecticut, home to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the defense contractor euphemistically named Electric Boat, which was in fact one of only two manufacturers of U.S. nuclear submarines, was strategically considered to be first strike territory in the event of a major foreign incursion. What horrible knowledge to have at such a time. For once in my life, I kept trivia to myself.
I can only paraphrase what I remember saying to the students that morning, since I had neither the time nor the concentration to commit thoughts to paper in advance. But I faced a room filled with anxious 20-year-olds, other people’s children, children who I did not know and who did not know me. There was no buzz, no boisterousness; there was no need to quiet them down.
David, the director of the NTI program, introduced me and I asked each staffer to introduce themselves with their name and their title, as we always did. Then it was my turn to say something.
I acknowledged that there had been a tragedy that morning in New York, and assured them that if they had not already spoken with their parents, we’d make sure they had time to do so very shortly. Then I said that they were probably sitting there thinking — that, in the face of massive tragedy, their pursuit of theatre study, or a theatre career, might now seem insignificant, or perhaps frivolous.
Then I told them why they should banish those thoughts. They needed to continue on with exactly what they were planning at that point in their lives. They should not be swayed by whatever had occurred that morning (since we knew only of the results of actions, not the source or human toll, as I spoke). If they already loved theatre enough to spend a semester away from home and from their school among strangers in order to learn more about it, then surely they could feel, as I did, that theatre was the only means we had to express our feelings about the world. I had committed my life to theatre 16 years earlier, upon college graduation, because I had no other choice. Theatre was what fascinated me, moved me, fulfilled me and challenged me. It was also the means through which I had come to understand life and other lives, cultures, even worlds.
I urged them not to see theatre as irrelevant, as expendable, in the face of horror, but instead as profoundly necessary. I believed, and hoped they would too, that theatre, and indeed all artistic expression, might be more essential now than ever, since perhaps through the arts we could come to express our own feelings about what had happened and help others to come to terms with it as well. I told them, using a phrase that I would later find many were using, that unquestionably the world had just changed. But I also said that the world had changed a lot since the days of Greek drama, and that theatre had survived and continued to be meaningful to many people. Then I told them to use the phones or send e-mails if they wished, to return in an hour for lunch, and go back to class.
I do not think my talk was revelatory in the grand scheme of words spoken that days or in the days, weeks and even years that followed by people wiser, better known and better spoken than I am. But apparently it served well enough for my small audience, because the staff stayed, pretending that this was just another work day, the kids returned to class, and the semester continued as planned, as, slowly, America returned to a new type of normal.
When I finally went home that night, and turned on the television, I was very grateful for the O’Neill’s lack of televisions in that too stingy for cable, pre-broadband internet-era, because as I saw the images of that morning’s tragedy, what had been inconceivable became all too real. Had I seen them, I wonder whether I would have had the strength to keep the staff on site (an unpopular decision with them at the time) or to give the talk I instinctively and perhaps impulsively gave. And that talk, while hardly the St. Crispin’s Day speech, had achieved its own theatrical goal, even as I had given vent to my truest feelings about theatre in my life, in the face of great tragedy.
* * *
The day passed without incident. The NTI group saw some other matinee while I saw, with unintended irony, Strindberg’s Dance of Death. I accompanied the students to an evening performance of Mary Zimmerman’s transcendent vision of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. At 11 pm, we were on our bus headed back to Waterford. In the darkness of the bus, pierced here and there by an overhead reading light, we passed through Westchester, and David and I turned to each other almost simultaneously, confessing our mutual relief. Theatre has its power, but there’s nothing like heading, safely, home.
This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.
September 10th, 2010 § 0 comments