It's been exactly a month since the world as we know it changed. Among theatre folks, our colleagues in New York are suffering the most from the fallout of Sept. 11, being so physically close to the tragedy and in many cases losing their jobs (if not their friends or relatives). Meanwhile California actors plow resolutely on. In some cases, houses have dropped off drastically; in other cases not. Actors have told me of the difficulty but ultimately the relief of going onstage—and of an unusually intense response from the audience in the wake of the 11th.
At the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles, Kurt Weill Songplay, a musical revue, was running. In it Melody Butiu sang "Pirate Jenny" from Brecht's Threepenny Opera, including these disturbing lyrics: "There's a ship/The Black Freighter/turns around in the harbor/shootin' guns from her bow…."; "every building in town is a flat one/This whole frickin' place will be down to the ground…."; "Then they'll pile up the bodies/And I'll say/That'll learn ya!"
"The whole event changed my perspective and how I expressed myself, my awareness of the images I was projecting," said Butiu. Another song in the show, "Lost in the Stars" (from the play of the same name by Maxwell Anderson), questions God, wondering if he's forgotten his promise to humanity: "All of this rings true at this time," said Butiu, "this feeling of helplessness, being lost."
Co-cast member Ramon McLane said that immediately after Sept. 11 the actors would look one another in the eye mid-performance, suddenly aware that they were approaching a place in the script that would resonate in a new, poignant way. At one point, singing about a new homeland, "it hit me that I was talking about freedom," he said. He left the stage crying. Of the vengeful "Pirate Jenny" song, he noted, "To Melody's credit, she completely committed to it. It was the only option she had. It's the only way you can really serve the play."
Through Different Masks
Kurt Weill Songplay had some particularly violent images and powerful sentiments. But other plays resonated as well. Gregory Wallace, appearing in Celebration, one of two Harold Pinter one-acts at American Conservatory Theater, felt he was in exactly the right play. "Pinter's work is about the undercurrent of violence, the unfathomable," he said. "I think we've all had that thrust in our face." He imagined that his own character, a comically intrusive waiter, felt safe in his restaurant. "I think we're all going through the thing he's probably about to go through—leaving the womb, the sense of safety and protection," he said.
Bob Wilson, playing the father in Wendy Wasserstein's American Daughter at Marin County's Ross Valley Players, was grateful he was in a drama. "It's not escapist fare; it's dense," he said. "I would have had more trouble trying to get laughs." It was a relief to leave his individual self temporarily behind to enter the world of the play.
In American Daughter the father and one other character quote something that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant supposedly said to his own daughter: "Our task now is to rise and go on." That line had special meaning for Wilson after the 11th. "At first I questioned whether we should go on with the show," he said. But he realized that not going on is giving in.
At San José Repertory Theatre audiences were hugely responsive to By the Bog of Cats, Marina Carr's dark tragedy of love and revenge and death. Director Timothy Near was apparently correct in hypothesizing that audiences would derive comfort from a play set in a Greek-drama-like world of meaning and order, in which terrible events are followed by inevitable resolutions. "I personally think people do get a catharsis from going to this kind of theatre, and probably need it even if they don't know they do," commented cast member Wanda McCaddon. Houses were packed starting Sept. 12. "A play like this taps into the load of sorrow everyone is carrying around," said McCaddon. She added, "To do a light comedy at this time might have been very difficult."
Emily Ackerman and colleagues had just that challenge, appearing in Twelfth Night at California Shakespeare Festival. "I was a complete zombie for two or three days," Ackerman reported. At an afternoon rehearsal on the 11th, "we'd stop a scene, and people would cry." Ackerman may have felt distracted in her role as mischief-maker Maria in that first week, but audiences were, as she described it, "aggressively responsive, like a wartime audience. People were reaching out for human contact." She added, "The play is a celebration of life. That may help people. If it were a tragedy, then the audience might not have gotten so involved." However, By the Bog of Cats belies that theory. For Ackerman, difficult as it was, it was a blessing to have something to focus on other than TV.
Marin Theatre Company, too, was staging a classic comedy, George Bernard Shaw's Misalliance, that in fact includes an offstage, comic plane crash. Artistic director Lee Sankowich rescheduled the Sept. 11 opening and made a somber curtain speech, as did many other artistic directors, including Tony Taccone at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Charles (Jim) Dean, playing Tarleton in Misalliance, said the cast spoke quietly to one another and hugged before going onstage. Dean was able to focus entirely when he was acting, but offstage the conversation would drift toward the tragedy. "I was glad I was working," said Dean. "For some of us, theatre is church."
No One Is Alone
Solo performers must rely on actor/audience rapport for their solace in times like these. That was hard for Janis Stevens, performing in the one-woman Vivien: The Triumph and Madness of Vivien Leigh, by Rick Foster, in San Francisco. Only seven people showed up on Sept. 12.
In Vivien Stevens goes through a virtual roller-coaster ride of emotions as she limns the bipolar mental state of the troubled late star. "I've had the feeling of the show being slightly frivolous in this time," acknowledged Stevens. "What is it offering up to people right now? Vivien was dealing with a cataclysm in her own life, manic depression, but that's so personal." It helped Stevens to read novelist William Styron's Darkness Visible, about his own struggle against depression (Leigh, it must be noted, had bipolar disorder, not depression); Styron describes experiencing depression as "a simulacrum of all the evil of our world: of our everyday discord and chaos, our irrationality, warfare and crime, torture and violence, our impulse toward death and our flight from it." Said Stevens, "That was the first thing that made me feel Vivien is not completely disconnected from the events of today."
As she fought her way through the character's highs and lows nightly, she said, she may have been channeling some of her own feelings about world events. One particular line, directed to be said matter-of-factly, was, "Do you think it hurts to die?" After Sept. 11 Stevens was not able to say that line without emotion. The audience remained small but receptive.
On the other hand, at the Mark Taper Forum, the 734-seat theatre continued to fill up every night after the 11th for Charlayne Woodard's solo show In Real Life, the third in her series about her life as an actress. When she showed up on the 12th, she thought, How trite all this is when we've had such a large loss of life. Walking onstage, "I was seriously moment to moment," she said, "looking for someone in the audience to be my anchor, to tell my story to."
New York is actually a character in the play, something she didn't understand until the performance on the 12th. When she came to the line, "That's when I saw that magnificent skyline of Manhattan," there was a collective audience sigh. "Please, God, make this city work for me" was her next line, and the audience sighed again. "That's when I realized my New York belongs to the world," she said. The two-act, two-hour play seemed to her to be over in 20 minutes that night. Sidney Poitier was in the audience on closing night and told her it was an incredible journey to be in New York for the play's two hours. "There's also a bit of healing in my play," said Woodard. "So in the end I realized it was the right place for people to be."
Ramon McLane pointed out that in times of tragedy people often rely on great authors, poets, and artworks to help them express their feelings. "I think it's extremely important that our artists step up the same way military people do and use what they have to offer to help society heal and to find words for their pain," he said. "Actors [can] function as interpreters for the soul." BSW