The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon reverberated throughout the nation’s theatre community, as they did in every sector of American life. All across the country, at commercial and not-for-profit venues alike, productions were postponed, cancelled, modified and re-examined as theatres struggled with logistical problems and deferred to the mood of a shocked and mourning public.
Within days, the disastrous economic effects on the New York theatre were clear, with some productions operating at 20 percent capacity and a few shutting their doors for good. Many theatres across the country came out of the gate immediately with proactive responses, taking the opportunity to mount commemorative events and public assessments of the crisis and its implications for the arts community and the world-at-large.
The first artists to feel the brunt of the Tuesday catastrophe were those located at New York City’s “Ground Zero”: Lower Manhattan’s Financial District. Many theatres and arts organizations located in the neighborhood lost their homes and, in some cases, the artists and staffs were fortunate to have escaped with their lives. Two not-for-profit arts support organizations based inside the WTC lost their homes. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which supports many Off-Off-Broadway theatres and performers, had its headquarters in 5 WTC; TKTS, the Theatre Development Fund’s discount theatre ticket service, operated a booth in the lobby of Tower Two. Employees of both organizations escaped unharmed, but their facilities were pulverized. Other theatre related services interrupted included Film/Video Arts, a service organization used by many theatre people and located two blocks from WTC; Ratlist, a nationwide listserve for alternative theatre groups (the server of which is located in Lower Manhattan and was dis rupted when the power went off); and NYTheatre.com, an online magazine based in its editor Martin Denton’s nearby home. (Denton and his mother, like other nearby residents, were evacuated for a week with nothing but the clothes on their backs.) The destruction of Broadway Digital Entertainment’s headquarters by the fall of WTC Building 7 resulted in the loss of the entire photo archive of In Theatre magazine. This archive of 30,000 photographs was eulogized by the Daily News as “the most comprehensive record of Broadway plays anywhere.”
Theatres outside the immediate vicinity also suffered. As many as half of New York’s Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theatres rook a major blow by being quarantined for several days. The majority of these theatres are located south of 14th Street, an area that was off-limits to the public through Sept. 14 (although most productions did not resume until the following week). The venue most affected was the 913-seat Tribeca Performing Arts Center at Chambers Street, located a couple of blocks north of WTC and indefinitely surrounded by rubble and recovery crews. The headquarters of the avant-garde group 3 Legged Dog, at 30 Broadway, suffered structural damage and may need to be demolished. The Greenwich Street Theatre, located between what company member Beck Lee calls “the second and third checkpoints” (Canal and 14th Streets, respectively) operated by the National Guard, was forced to postpone its opening of Joe Penhall’s Voices for two weeks.
Broadway, some five miles uptown from the disaster, was in a way even more vulnerable. Although Broadway’s 23 theatres were shut down for only two days—they reopened Sept. 13 at the urging of Mayor Rudoph W. Giuliani and Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Schuyler Chapin—attendance dropped precipitously, to 20 percent of its previous level, affecting restaurants, parking lot owners and other related businesses.
Five Broadway plays announced cancellation in the week of the disaster: Rocky Horror Picture Show; If You Ever Leave Me, I’m Going With You; Stones in His Pockets; A Thousand Clowns; and Blast! After announcing it would close, Kiss Me, Kate reversed its decision on Sept. 24, when the cast and crew (with their unions concurring) agreed to take a 50 percent reduction in pay. Several other Broadway productions followed suit. Much of the multi-arts festival Quebec New York 2001 was cancelled, including Robert Lepage’s much anticipated play about airplane disasters, Zulu Time. Lincoln Center Theater pushed two of its scheduled fall openings back a week, and one (QED, starring Alan Alda) back a month. With the commercial theatre—a magnet for tourists—losing between $3 and $5 million a week, the Great White Way was in a real crisis, prompting Mayor Giuliani to announce: “If you really want to help New York City, go see a play.”
Washington, D.C., was the other major city to take a direct hit by the terrorists, and theatre there also suffered. All Washington theatres went dark in the wake of the suicide crash on the Pentagon. Productions of Agamemnon and his Daughters (Arena Stage), The Oedipus Plays (the Shakespeare Theatre), Far East (the Studio Theatre) and Grand Hotel (the Signature Theatre, Arlington) as well as the various theatres in the Kennedy Center complex were shut down in the atmosphere of uncertainty created by the attack. All performances citywide resumed on Sept. 13, although Arena Stage spokesperson Renee Littleton reported a 30 percent dip in attendance in the week following.
With all of the nation’s airports closed for two days, companies in and outside Washington and New York found themselves affected by abruptly cancelled travel plans. New York’s Pan Asian Rep was forced to cancel a scheduled trip to Cuba for the 10th Havana Theatre Festival. Off-Broadway’s Drama Dept. was forced to cancel several performances of Rude Entertainment because an actor was stuck in Texas.
In Chicago, the downtown area was evacuated on Sept. 11 (due to the proximity of the Sears Tower, the U.S.’s tallest office building), and performances and rehearsals were cancelled at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the Goodman Theatre and the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. Major Los Angeles-area theatres cancelled performances, including The Unexpected Man (Geffen Playhouse), Car Man and In Real Life (Mark Taper Forum), Spinning into Butter (Laguna Playhouse) and The Circle (South Coast Repertory). In Denver the Center for the Performing Arts went dark.
Theatres throughout the nation were divided as to whether or not to perform on the night of the tragedies. Brad Rothbart, of Invisible Cities in Philadelphia, felt the Philadelphia Fringe Festival “should be cancelled, if for no other reason than to honor those who died.” Trinity Repertory Company in Providence decided to proceed with its Sept. 11 performance of Noises Off. Communications director Emily Atkinson said, “People have had a strong need to come together for shared experiences in the midst of tragedy. A comedy like Noises Off gives welcome diversion and escape.” Also opting to press on was the Vagabond Acting Troupe, which did its production of An Ideal Husband in Morgantown, Pa. “We had only five people show up,” said artistic director Aileen McCulloch, “but they told us how glad they were that we were still running it.”
As the immediate crisis passed and the initial shock and anxiety wore off, longer-term ramifications began to emerge. Inevitably, the event caused reassessment of theatrical productions that were in the pipeline. The most prominent casualty is perhaps the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival of Assassins, which was postponed due to its eponymous subject matter. The Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman show is apparently jinxed; it first opened (and swiftly closed) in 1991 during the Gulf War.
Princeton’s McCarter Theatre cancelled a planned production of Richard Nelson’s The Vienna Notes (which features a politician who is callous regarding terrorist attacks), saying, “The context in which we would receive the play has changed drastically, and it would be insensitive of us to present the play at this moment in our history.”
Though theatres were on the receiving end of the Sept. 11 shock waves, many prepared an active response with surprising dispatch. Some theatre artists found a way in short order to create special theatre works for an audience that hadn’t existed in the U.S. for over 100 years: one that had known domestic war. New York’s protest-performance street preacher Reverend Billy had to be escorted from Union Square for his own protection for preaching peace to the distraught and angry throngs. Columbia MFA student Beau Willimon had been assigned to write a 15-minute play for a workshop at the mid-September festival at the Battersea Arts Center in London, and chose the WTC attack as his subject. “We’re all trying to digest this,” said Willimon. “Perhaps there is some use in trying to write about it before it’s completely digested.”
Many theatres took the opportunity for public reflection, meditation and memoriam. Nearly all the Broadway theatres, upon reopening Sept. 13, began by dimming their marquee lights and observing a moment of silence for the victims. At curtain, many Broadway casts sang “God Bless America” and collected money for victim-relief charities.
Connie Julian from the New York-based artist network Refuse and Resist! invited artists of all disciplines to participate in a silent performance on Sept. 22. Artists assembled at Union Square wearing black clothes and surgical masks, carrying signs that read: “Our grief is not a cry for war.” A follow-up event took place at Times Square on Sept. 25 and in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 29.
New York-based playwright Kia Corthron organized a group of Los Angeles writers while visiting the Mark Taper Forum six days after the attacks. “I didn’t want to leave my shattered city at this time,” Corthron confessed. “But it turned out to be the best decision I’d ever made.” The group—devoted to preventing retaliation against Arabs at home and abroad—plans to present theatrical pieces at traditional venues and on the web.
Taking a literary approach, Atlanta’s theatre community came together with an event called “Dark into Light, Light into Darkness: Atlanta Artists Respond,” held at the Alliance Theatre Company. The 650 attendees donated over $8,600 to the American Red Cross. The text, created by dramaturg Megan Monaghan, featured excerpts from dramatic literature and great American speeches, ranging from Shakespeare to Steinbeck Martin Luther King Jr. Readers included members of the Alliance as well as of 7 Stages, Theatrical Outfit, the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, Theatre Gael, Jomandi Productions and Actor’s Express. Monaghan’s text was also presented in similar events in Philadelphia, Iowa City, Austin and Seattle.
The Perseverance Theatre in Douglas, Alaska, held a community dialogue, moderated by Lt. Governor Fran Ulmer, that aimed, in the words of artistic director Peter DuBois, “to provide a kind of solace” to a stunned nation. Similar events were held in New York at the Present Company Theatorium (home of the NYC International Fringe Festival) and HERE Performing Arts Center, which is just a few blocks from the site of the disaster. At Pittsburgh Public Theater, the cast of Medea used their final dress as a benefit for the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, North Side. In turn, a generous portion of funds went to New York’s Sr. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which stood in the shadows of the WTC and was destroyed on Sept. 11.
Theatres all across the country responded overwhelmingly to relief efforts by soliciting donations before, during and after performances, and at special benefits, for charities that provide services to victims of the disaster, such as the American Red Cross and the Twin Towers Fund (which aids emergency services workers and their families). Theatres, especially in New York and Washington, also served as collection centers for donations of food, clothing and needed supplies.
A special all-star version of New York’s 24-Hour Plays, featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mary Louise Parker, Billy Crudup, Rosie Perez and Marisa Tomei, was held on Sept. 24, with proceeds going to the charity Working Playground, which will use the money to create a children’s mural honoring the Sept. 11 victims. Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS donated $50,000 to the Twin Towers Fund in memory of the firefighters lost from Battalion No. 9 (affectionately known as the Broadway Firehouse, because it is charged with protecting the Theatre District).
In the catastrophe’s aftermath, the American theatre community made itself immediately relevant not only through its relief efforts and the creation of forums for the public expression of mass anxiety, but also through the reassertion of its traditional role of providing the public with comedies to gladden spirits and tragedies to purge grief in times of over whelming public mourning.
In an effort to help Chicago residents return “to the many activities that make up the fabric of life,” as Mayor Richard M. Daley said, 35 Chicago-area theatres reduced prices 25 percent during October.
Still, the economic outlook remains grim, particularly for the not-for-profit sector. Along with the loss of ticket revenue, these theatres will soon bear the brunt of a vastly diminished pool of resources available for the arts. The stark picture that confronts the not-for-profit world can be drawn from this bulletin from Marge Betley, literary director at Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.: “We have several board members (also corporate funders) whose companies had offices at the World Trade Center—their world has turned to dust beneath their feet. How can we even conceive of asking them for support at a time when they need ours?”
Furthermore, there will be a long list of charities—community service organizations that provide essentials like food, clothing and shelter—ahead of arts organizations in the line for funding. For the theatre, as for the rest of America, there is a tough road ahead.
Trav S.D. is a 2001-02 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, with support by a grant from the Jerome Foundation.
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