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The Guys. A play about 9/11

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  • The Guys. A play about 9/11

    Honouring the Dead
    Anne Nelson talks about The Guys, the first 9/11 play
    By Alec Scott
    September 5, 2006

    Joan (Adele Robbins) helps Nick (P. Adam Walsh) come to terms with the fallout of 9/11 in a production of Anne Nelson's play The Guys. (John Sciulli/
    Anne Nelson thought she had put chaos and bloodshed behind her. As a journalist during the 1980s, she reported on nasty civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala (“I remember a whole family, massacred together, with the youngest maybe three years old”). By 2001, she had settled into what she considered a middle-class existence, teaching at Columbia Journalism School, raising two children with her lawyer husband. But 9/11 reconnected her with her past as a frequent flyer into tumultuous zones. Wanting, like most New Yorkers, to do something in the wake of the attacks, Nelson ended up befriending a New York City fire captain and helped him write eulogies for the eight men he lost that day. (Nelson has chosen to safeguard his identity.)

    Nelson dramatized this experience in a play, The Guys, which premiered in early December of 2001 at the Flea Theatre — two blocks away from Ground Zero — with Sigourney Weaver as the eulogy-writing journalist and Bill Murray as the fire captain. The play has since been turned into a film of the same name and continues to fill stages across America and around the world. Reached in her home office on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Nelson spoke to CBC Arts Online about the making of her drama and how New York feels five years later.

    Courtesy Anne Nelson. Q: How did you end up helping write eulogies for eight firefighters who died on Sept. 11?

    A: We were visiting my sister and her family in Brooklyn about a week after Sept. 11, and the phone rang while I was there. This friend of hers, who was a massage therapist, had been giving volunteers massages, and a fire captain came through, and started talking to her about the problem he was having writing eulogies. And she said, “Well, I know these writers.” She was thinking of my brother-in-law [Burkhard Bilger], who’s a staff writer for the New Yorker, but he was on deadline. I said, “Well, I’m not on deadline, so have him come over.”

    Q: How was the fire captain coping?

    A: He was in shock. He’d also lost members of his platoon in Vietnam, so this was the second time he’d had this experience. As a reporter, I’d interviewed refugees who were traumatized, and had really thought a lot about how to buffer the damage you do when probing them. But in this case, it wasn’t me intruding on his life, trying to get a story — because he needed this writing done. I also needed to figure out how vulnerable I would allow myself to be to the profound hurt and grief that I was going to experience in a secondary way.

    Q: Why did you decide to turn this experience into a play instead of a piece of journalism?

    A: After I met the captain, I thought, this is extraordinary, I should do an article. But I realized that there was another level of damage going on. Journalists and the well wishers were plaguing the firehouses, and ambushing the firefighters as they came out, calling out, “How do you feel? How do you feel?” Well, of course, how do you think they felt, having lost so many of their co-workers? Busloads of Japanese tourists were coming round and taking their pictures as they went out to lunch. I thought, if I write an article, I’ll have to name names, to add to the toll, and I don’t want to. So I just let it drop.

    Q: But you didn’t leave it there.

    A: A month later, I was at a benefit dinner with Lawyers for Human Rights, an organization my husband works for. I happened to be seated next to the theatre and film director Jim Simpson. He had a theatre, the Flea, which was going bankrupt because of the attacks.

    Before going into journalism, I had studied theatre at Yale — as it turned out, [so] had he. So we started talking about what a theatrical response to the event might be. I was saying, “Well, what are the plays that speak to this: Antigone? Mother Courage?” and he said, “No, the right play really doesn’t exist. It’ll have to be written, and it takes two years to get a play up.” I told him about my experience with the fire captain, and my reluctance to violate the firefighters’ anonymity further by doing a piece of journalism, and he suggested I write a play.

    I thought about it; as a journalist, you have to give specifics and names, but as a playwright, you can and should change names, and indeed anything you want. It wasn’t always easy for me — there was this moment in the middle of the night where I was making up a quote and I was feeling awkward, but I realized as a playwright that’s what I’m supposed to do. There was something very liberating about it.

    Q: The play was mounted less than three months after that meeting. Did you attend it, to witness audiences’ reactions?

    A: I was terribly afraid of what I’d written. I’d done a lot of research on how the media can further traumatize traumatized populations. Those first few weeks, I went to every single performance, and tried to be with the people who were experiencing it, and evaluate what it did to them. What they said was that it was an alternative experience to the television experience, which was nothing but the shocking images again and again. The play allowed people to go deeper into their emotional experience, and to feel it. What we were all hearing — the actors, the director — was that it gave people the possibility of communal grief, something that modern life doesn’t afford otherwise. And it was spiritual but secularized grief, because it was open to people of any faith.

    Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray perform in the first production of The Guys, at New York's Flea Theatre in December, 2001. (G.Rubio/The Flea Theatre)

    Q: What about the firefighters who came?

    A: My biggest fear was that they would find it inappropriate. They came, and their response was overwhelmingly positive. More than anything, they were saying, “How did you get the lingo?” I think they also appreciated the fact that the play wasn’t about heroes on a pedestal, but it was dealing respectfully with the qualities they respect themselves for. Not glamorizing them, but understanding that, for them, it’s day-to-day bravery and constancy that matters and not this one moment on one day.

    My next concern was to prevent the play from being commercialized, and that was a long battle, but I feel pretty good about it.

    Q: What were some of the phases in that battle?

    A: Because of the involvement of movie stars, there was some early film interest and Hollywood producers came along and said, “We want to do a pretty big-budget film and we want the journalist and fire captain to have an affair, and show the planes hitting the towers.” I just refused, and so the film that was made was very low-budget, but a very quiet film, very close to the original piece without sensationalism. That was important to me. It premiered on the first anniversary of the attacks at the Toronto film festival — something which nobody thought possible.

    Q: Where else has the play gone?

    A: It’s so modest, so it can go anywhere — all you need is two middle-aged actors, two chairs and two coffee cups and you can do it. I remember someone standing in the lobby of the Flea and saying, “Well, this play is interesting in New York City in 2001, but that’s going to be the extent of it.” And I said, “Well, fine, that’s already more than I expected.” Instead, it’s fanned out across North America, often to major theatres, houses like the Goodman in Chicago, the Berkeley Rep in California. It’s been performed in 45 states that I know of. There’s been a Japanese actor playing the firefighter in Hawaii; there’s been a local fire officer playing the part in Hastings, Neb. Theatre Calgary is doing something with it soon. It’s also been performed in high schools and firehouses. In many of these cases, the actors will go to the local firehouse and spend the day with the firefighters. In some cases, it’s even led to actors advocating on behalf of firefighting budgets at city council — in Oklahoma that was.

    In political terms, that’s so important to me, because so much of our entertainment culture is about self-indulgence and glitz. What I’m happiest about is writing something that these people can use. I would like to see more work done to popularize live theatre, to integrate broad new populations and say, “Theatre can be about you. It doesn’t have to be about people living edgy lives in urban centres.”

    Q: In retrospect, did the events of Sept. 11 change New York fundamentally, or has the old normal reasserted itself?

    A: This huge, gaping, bleeding wound gradually has become this scar. The city’s certainly not as bad as it was, but it’s not the same as it was before 9/11, either. There was a reckless joy here and a New York attitude that we haven’t recovered yet. Also, every time there is an event on the world scene, such as what’s going on in Israel and Lebanon, the immediate thought here is, when will it rebound to us? Ten years ago, there was a sense that we’re here, they’re there, we’ll receive refugees, but it doesn’t happen to us. That innocence has been lost forever.
    Last edited by Duncan; 06 Sep 06, 01:13.
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