By Bridgette M. Redman
EAST LANSING –
Ask any adult today what they were doing on Sept. 11, 2001 and the stories will start to flow. Everyone has one the way everyone in the previous generation knew where they were when they heard Kennedy was shot.
A decade ago, the answers were even more raw. The Theatre Department at Michigan State University is probing the theatricality and humanity of those memories in a pair of plays that were written during the six months following the terrorist attacks. Both draw upon the memories of people who experienced the events, but do so in two distinct styles.
“What Happened: The September 11 Testimony Project” takes the form of a documentary, as every word in the play comes from a transcript of people interviewed in the six months after the event. “Return to the Upright Position” was an online collaboration of artists that produced a poetic remembrance.
Wes Haskell, who is making his directorial debut with “What Happened,” was 15 when the planes were hijacked and used as suicide bombs. Growing up in South Dakota, he was in an earlier time zone and was just heading to school for a jazz band rehearsal.
“My neighbor who was in his 70s and was never a very social man – especially toward me a teenager – saw me coming out to my car and he ran out to the deck and said, ‘Did you hear what happened?’ He said the World Trade Center got hit. I didn’t even know what that was,” Haskell said. “I got to school and our teachers wouldn’t allow us to watch it. In my geometry class, the teacher finally said, ‘I think we need to watch this.’ He turned it on the big screen and it was right when people started jumping out of the building.”
Haskell, who is a third-year M.F.A. in Acting student, said most of the 19 students he is directing were ages 9 through 14 at the time, which has made research an important preparatory element for this production.
“They’ve had a hard time connecting with it because they don’t remember much. They were old enough to understand, but not really grasp.”
The research they’ve done – talking to survivors and those who witnessed the events that day – bears great similarity to how the playwright Amy Green originally created the work. A theater professor at a law school in New York City, she returned to class on Sept. 13 and observed how gray all of her students were and that everyone was still in a state of shock. She told each of her students to find a first responder or a citizen who was at the site and interview them. They were given tape recorders and told to ask a single question and then shut up. That single question was, “What happened?”
The responses were transcribed and turned into a series of monologues and testimonies similar to “The Laramie Project.”
“Everyone has a story,” said Haskell. “These are just transcriptions of people’s testimonies of what happened, yet it is so poetic and beautiful. The stories are beautiful and tragic. We learned that human beings are storytellers, and that is what theater is all about.”
The two plays are being presented back-to-back, starting with the documentary telling of events through “What Happened” and followed by the more poetic and abstract “Return to the Upright Position,” directed by Lynn Lammers. They share scenic designs and lighting plots, despite the two very different styles.
Both plays search for what is transcendent and filled with hope in the tragic events that sent a world into mourning, and later nations into war.
“Theater strives to hold a mirror up to human nature,” said Haskell. “We get this opportunity to see human nature at its most raw and vulnerable. There are moments of humor, tears, pain and moments of hope. All this happened within six months, so we get to see the different ways that people coped and grieved and how they dealt with what happened.”
‘What Happened: The September 11 Testimony Project’ & ‘Return to the Upright Position’
MSU Dept. of Theatre at Arena Theatre, MSU Auditorium Bldg., East Lansing. Tuesday-Sunday through Oct. 1; no performance Sept. 22. $10. 1-800-Wharton. http://theatre.msu.edu