Sep 9, 2011

Obligatory 9/11 Post


Cast members of They Simply Said Enter

On Sept. 9, 2001, I went to the downtown L.A. offices of Cornerstone Theater Company to audition/shop for a project in their Festival of Faith, a five-show program at various houses of worship or faith-community centers in the Southland that would kick off their several-year "faith" cycle (Cornerstone organizes its work with multiyear subjects--work, justice, geography, etc.). I'd long been a fan and critical advocate of Cornerstone's work, and since their mission was in large part about dissolving the barriers between audience and artist, I decided to take the plunge and work/play with them in some capacity as a composer/performer. I also felt great affinity for this particular subject, being a bit of a church nerd.

All the major faith traditions were represented in the projects being proposed/tried out that Sunday afternoon, but I took particular interest in the Muslim project, which would be an adaptation of Farid ud-Din Attar's The Conference of the Birds, to be performed at Pasadena's Muslim grade school, New Horizon, with a cast of students and a handful of adult performers. I more or less committed to that project, which would be helmed by a visiting Dutch director, Antonia Smits, and was told I'd hear later in the week about who would work on what.

The next day, Sept. 10, I sat in an office at the Actors' Gang space on Santa Monica (now the Open Fist Theatre) and had my first and only interview with founding artistic director Tim Robbins. It was a tumultuous time for the company, as Robbins had returned over the summer and led the Gang's foundational "Style" workshops with their progenitor, Georges Bigot, as they worked on new productions of The Seagull and Mephisto. Robbins' return had cast the 25-year-old troupe into upheaval, with old factions reemerging and new ones developing; the internal strife had festered for months under the radar until the Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris dropped this bomb.

The Robbins interview went well enough, considering that the Morris piece hovered in the air, and that the Gang I'd come to know and love since the early '90s had had little or nothing to do with Robbins, and instead had a lot to do with artists who seemed to be on their way out since his return: Tracy Young, Chris Wells, Dan Parker, and Evie Peck, just for starters. I told him that Young's recent Dream Play was maybe the best thing I'd seen at the Gang, ever, at least since her co-staging with Cornerstone's Bill Rauch of Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella...at which point Robbins paused, stared at me blankly, then hurried me downstairs to "purge" the curse of having uttered the name of the Scottish Play in his theater; as I recall, it involved going outside the venue's front door, throwing salt over a shoulder, spitting a few times, spinning around, etc. Robbins was a good sport about it, but insistent that I carry it out, and that was the end of that interview.

The next morning was the infamous clear blue Tuesday we all remember. Robbins, I heard on good authority, immediately piled into a car with a friend and drove fast and furiously across the country to his home and family in New York City; the Gang's shows would open later in October, and the following summer Robbins would star with Helen Hunt in the L.A. premiere of Anne Nelson's The Guys (which I heartily disliked). Cornerstone's Festival of Faith, meanwhile, was destined to take on a more urgent meaning; later that week we learned that New Horizons, despite some concerns about security, would go ahead with the show that would eventually be called They Simply Said Enter, with a live guitar-and-vocal score performed by yours truly and a cast of adorable 5- to 11-year-olds and a few adults. (I recently recalled the experience here.) The rehearsal process had its challenges--my mother died suddenly in the midst of it--but none had to do with religious or cultural conflict. It was a creative idyll in the midst of a dark, uncertain time.

Ten years later, most of those kids are in college, the Actors' Gang is relocated to Culver City, and Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella is set to open next year at Rauch's new home, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In the years since, I've seen very little on any stage that I felt definitively addressed or spoke to the post-9/11 world, and how could it, really? As noted, The Guys left me cold (and Robbins' later Embedded was still worse); Theresa Rebeck's Omnium Gatherum was lively and of its moment, though I doubt it would hold up today. I admired Yussef El Guindi's Back of the Throat and found Michael Frayn's Democracy had a bracing, sidelong relevant to the odd, discomfiting rhetoric of our wartime politics and the fragility of our "Western" values.

I don't think, though, that anything onstage will ever feel as charged to me as the song I heard in a Kurt Weill revue at the Odyssey Theatre just days after 9/11. I don't think Brecht and Weill's "Pirate Jenny" has ever landed quite the way it did that night:
Well you gentlemen can wipe those smiles off your face
Every building in town is a flat one
This whole stinking place will be down to the ground
Only this cheap hotel standing up, safe and sound
And you yell: "why do they spare that one?
You yell, "why the hell do they spare that one?"
And this conclusion:
By noontime the dock is a swarming with men
Coming out from the ghostly freighter
They're moving in the shadows where no-one can see
And they're chaining up people
And delivering 'em to me
Asking me: "Kill them now or later?"
Asking me: "kill them now or later?"

Noon by the clock and so still at the dock
You can hear a fog horn miles away
And in that quiet of death i'll say:
"Right now!"
And they pile up the bodies
And I'll say: "That'll learn you."
For months after 9/11, it seemed that every review either said, "This great piece of fluff is exactly what we need to get our minds off the tragedy," or "This challenging piece of provocation is exactly what we need to hear, now even more than ever!" Clearly, what we needed then, as now, is theater that does both--reflects and refracts as well deflects and diverts. Ultimately, though, I stand closer to the side of the Odyssey's Ron Sossi, who reportedly said, "I go to the movies to escape; I go to the theatre to delve."

UPDATE: Chris Shinn's Dying City was also a highlight of this grim past decade, and an American Theatre Facebook fan pointed to the best play about Sept. 11 written before Sept. 11: Caryl Churchill's Far Away (a point made before). It was at Sossi's Odyssey Theatre (again) that I saw a fine, haunting production in 2004.

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