Not surprisingly, in light of the ten year anniversary, I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences on September 11, 2001. Also not surprisingly, in light of the current direction my life is taking, I’ve been thinking a lot about why theatre matters (if, in fact, it does). Today, I’m going to try to share a few of my thoughts on both things. I hope they make sense to someone besides me.
I was living in “America’s Biggest Small Town” somewhere in Texas and attending college in 2001. On the morning of September 11 everyone in the school was being heavily incentivized to attend the inauguration ceremony for the new college president. I wasn’t looking forward to spending a morning listening to a bunch of old people give speeches about a “president” that I had not been involved in “electing” but I was under the influence of an extra credit bribe. I rolled out of bed feeling especially grumpy, shuffled into some clothes that were debatably more presentable than my pajamas and walked out into the lobby of the dorm. I was met there by my dorm director who was usually bubbly, full of enthusiasm for everything about life and always very attractively made-up. That morning she burst out of her apartment with her usual level of energy but her attitude was very different than I had ever seen it, so was her appearance. She was angry, her hair was a mess and she wasn’t wearing any makeup.
“I can’t believe we are having to do this!” she exclaimed the second she caught site of me. It was the kind of thing I would normally say. I’ve never been the compliant type.
“I know.” I said.
“I don’t want to go anywhere! I just want to stay in and watch the t.v.” she said. I agreed with her (thought I would rather have staid in and slept) and began to walk away.
I was in college. It was before 10am. My brain was moving slowly. As I walked away, I began to assimilate the information. A, usually very enthusiastic woman, was complaining. A, usually very nicely made up woman, was walking around in a semi-public area looking more disheveled than I looked. She wanted to watch t.v. Maybe there was something in particular on the t.v. that needed to be seen.
I stopped just before reaching the door. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“Look!” she said, pointing. I turned and took in the television for the first time since I had entered the lobby. It wasn’t usually on in the mornings. From the moment I saw the screen, my mind was engulfed in a confused haze and stayed there for the rest of the day. The sound was turned down low, I couldn’t hear what the newscasters were saying and I couldn’t process what I was seeing. I can’t remember exactly what time it was, so I’ve never been able to figure out if what I saw was a replay or if I was actually witnessing the moment when the second plane hit the South Tower. I had no idea where the images I was seeing were coming from. It looked like New York City but I couldn’t comprehend something like this happening in my own country.
I must have asked questions. I must have turned up the volume on the t.v. I must have stayed for some time and absorbed the images that were coming across the screen. I don’t remember any of it clearly. I remember being confused. I remember not being sure that these things were really happening, in real time. I took in as much as I could handle and walked out of the dorm.
I saw people gathered in front of the college chapel, lined up for the inauguration ceremony and assumed they would all be talking about what I had just seen. I walked over to them hoping that someone would be able to explain it to me. As I got closer, it was apparent from the sounds of their small talk, that most of the students standing outside had not seen a television yet. Only a few minutes before, I had been just like them but, now that I had some awareness that something much bigger than our mundane lives needed our attention, I was angry at them for their ignorance. I saw my brother’s girlfriend standing by the door of the building and went to her.
“Do you know what’s happening?” I asked.
She told me that she had called my brother and that he had refused to come to the inauguration because he wanted to watch the news. She said, “He says we are probably going to go to war. He says this is going to change everything.”
I wanted to leave before the ceremony started. I wanted to watch t.v. but somehow it felt morbid and voyeuristic to want to watch other people suffer. I decided to attend the ceremony thinking that surely someone would make an announcement. I thought it would be meaningful to be with other people when the announcement was made. I wanted to pray with them. I wanted to have an opportunity to talk about what this meant.
When I think about that inauguration ceremony now, I am ashamed for the president of the university. I cannot reflect on it without feeling that the entire event made him appear small minded and deeply selfish.
There was no announcement. There were no prayers. There was not a moment of silence or a time for people to turn to one another to ask questions, discuss or shed tears.
We followed the program for the event just as if nothing was happening. It was a disturbing experience standing in a dark room singing a hymn, pretending that nothing was out of the ordinary. The last verse of the hymn used a metaphor about soldiers fighting a war. I couldn’t sing. I felt insulted, confused and sick.
Later in the ceremony my creative writing instructor read a poem he had written for the new president. The poem was spoken from the perspective of a well known former president of the university reflecting on his own experience and giving insight to the new president. One line stated, “I pray you never have to see your boys go to war.” The day it was written, that line had been a kind sentiment and a reflection on the pain of the past. The day it was read, it became an erie foreshadowing of the direction in which our country had suddenly found itself moving.
I was convinced until the last moment of the ceremony that someone was going to say something about the events of the day. When we reached the end of the program I walked out feeling stunned and angry. The major donors and community officials who were in attendance ambled over to a picnic on the lawn and students rushed off to their afternoon classes.
I tried to tell myself that people just didn’t know. Those who did know were in shock. When they had time to process what was happening they would respond.
I waited for the response. Being a Resident Assistant in the dorms, I felt that perhaps it was my role to facilitate a time of discussion, reflection and prayer. I put up signs inviting dorm residents to join me that evening. No one came. I went around to people’s rooms to find out if they had seen the signs. People were in. They had seen the signs. They just had a lot of homework to do, tests to study for, plans for the evening.
I know that there were people on campus who were deeply affected by that day. I know that all over the school there were people like my dorm director, my brother and my future sister-in-law who were trying to process that day in their own ways.
Sadly, I also know that there were people who simply didn’t care. They didn’t know anyone in New York City. It didn’t feel real to them.
I will confess, a thousand thoughts ran through my head that day but I don’t remember feeling very much emotion. I responded emotionally to the people around me but I could not emotionally grasp the reality of what was happening in NYC, at the Pentagon and on Flight 93. When I thought about it, I just felt dazed and blank.
I was in need of some way to put that experience into perspective. I was in need of some way to connect with my own community in order to empathize with those communities that were immediately affected by the tragedy.
The inauguration ceremony was an opportunity for everyone on my campus to respond, to process, to identify. Using that gathering as an opportunity to bring people together around something much bigger than their own preoccupations might have resulted in a campus full of compassionate, socially active and, in my opinion, more deeply human individuals. Instead, as a result of the administration’s choice to ignore the events, the entire campus was emotionally euthanized.
People processed the events of that day on their own or, possibly, in small groups but there was no sense that our community, as a whole, was in any way connected to the greater community of those who were suffering.
That’s what I’m reflecting on today. It seems important to me but it leads to several questions: Does it matter that there was no public recognition of this tragedy at my university? Does a “community response” have more relevance than an individual response? What does any of this have to do with theatre?
Maybe the answer to the first question seems obvious. Yes, someone should have said something in the ceremony. This event completely and permanently changed the status quo for our American lives. It was wrong that it didn’t alter the plans for a largely meaningless campus event. But what good would it have done to change those plans? What difference would it have made for the people in that auditorium?
There are some concrete answers to those questions. It might have motivated people to “take action.” They might have been more likely to give blood, donate to the red cross and participate in other relief efforts. That would have made a literal and tangible impact (however minor in the grand scheme of things).
But I think there is something less concrete that was missed that day. Connecting with other people’s pain makes us better at being human. That is not something I can quantify or even give very good examples to express but it is something I know to be essentially true. People need to take time to understand one another. They need to take opportunities to reflect on the realities of one another’s existence on this earth.
Tragedy in such massive proportions is incredibly difficult to grasp on a personal level but eventually it comes to effect our every day lives. It changes the way we travel. It changes our relationship to war. It changes our political views, religious views and social interactions. Before we experience all of these changes, we need to experience the reality of the event that leads to them. We need to connect to it, talk about it in all it’s complexity, feel the pain of it’s reality. If we do not do these things we cannot take a human approach to the subsequent changes it brings into our lives. Without a connection to the tragedy itself, we experience these changes as inconveniences, distant events and opinions. We don’t experience them as expressions of a deeply complex and life alteringly painful reality. If we don’t connect to that reality, all of our experiences with the fallout are less empathetic, less insightful, less human.
That leads to the second question. If each person processes the event and responds individually, is there any need for a “community response?” Again it is difficult for me to pinpoint concrete support for my instinctive belief that a sense of community in times of tragedy is important. Ultimately, I think it comes back, once again, to connecting with humanity. We need to be present with real people. We can empathize with the people we see on television but only distantly. They do not see us. We cannot reach out to them physically. It is always necessary to remember that each of us is only one of billions of people trying to exist on this plant but it is, perhaps, more necessary than normal to have a vibrant reminder of the closeness of other people’s existence when we are processing a large scale tragedy. We need to see just how many ways people respond. We need to interact with the depth of one another’s emotions. We need to speak about what we have seen and give others an opportunity to be heard.
I cannot make a simple list of the benefits of this type of connection because I don’t think they are straightforward or easily defined. I can, however, point out (without having done any research but still with assurance that I am not making a wild unfounded assumption) that every culture everywhere in the history of the world has used gatherings of one kind or another as an opportunity to process the realities of their lives. We sing communally. We pray communally. We gather for the purpose of listening to people speak about issues that are relevant to us. We express ourselves artistically in front of others. We give time, money and energy into the effort of observing and discussing other people’s artistic expressions. We have a need as human beings to interact in communal ways. These communal expressions remind us of our own humanity, the humanity of others and the reality that their is more to our lives than our own individual experiences.
That leads to my final question. What does any of this have to do with theatre? My experience on September 11, 2001 was a life changing example of what happens when people who have the power to speak, to create community and to inspire a more human reaction, choose instead to carry on with their usual plans and place undue importance on meaningless ceremony.
Depending on who you are and how you relate to the world my story may bring about a completely different thought process for you (I’d love to hear about that) but, as I think about it in reference to what I have to offer, I am compelled to apply this experience to the way I make theatre.
Theatre can very easily become ceremony for the sake of ceremony. It’s creators can get so caught up in what they think their event should be about that they can suffocate the expression of what the event needs to be about. In every community, the people who gather to empathize, explore and be entertained, have shared experiences that need expression. I want to create theatre that is local enough to reflect those shared experiences, flexible enough to respond as those experiences change and small enough to give audience members a sense of personal connection with the event.
To be honest, I don’t exactly know what that looks like. I know how depressed I get when I see a play that in no way achieves these goals. I know how much more alive I feel when I go to a play that does achieve them, even in part. But I’m not entirely sure I know what it looks like for me. That may make me seem aimless or unorganized but I think what it really reflects is my willingness to let the process of devising theatre yield it’s own results.
For me, it is important to have a broad idea of what I think theatre should achieve before I begin creating it but if my ideas are too specific, I won’t have the flexibility I need in order to respond to the discoveries that come about in the creative process. Like the people who planned the inauguration ceremony at my university I could easily get so caught up in what I’m trying to do that I fail to realize that what I’m doing is no longer important. Theatre that is created without a sense of what it is trying to express, misses the opportunity to speak into the realities that surround it’s expression. Theatre that is created with too rigid a sense of what it is trying to express, misses the opportunity to adjust to the changing needs of it’s community.
My experience on September 11, along with a number of other life experiences has convinced me that sometimes people need to practice being human. Intimately encountering another person’s humanity can be difficult on many levels. One of the difficulties it brings about is the fact that it causes us to reflect on our own humanity. People come up with many different way of avoiding the reality of their own humanity and the humanity of others. At my university, on September 11, 2001 the popular approach was denial and avoidance. I believe that theatre can be an intermediary…like humanity with training wheels. It can give us the opportunity to explore what it is that makes us real while pretending that what we are experiencing is fiction. I imagine I’ll write more about this concept in the future but today I wanted to remember one of the sources of my belief in the importance of what I do. I help people to be more human, I create an opportunity for people to explore their humanity in community with others. I have seen first hand how failure to provide those experiences creates silence and isolation. I hope that what I do will instead create space for compassion and community to emerge.