Theatre in the Wake of 11 SeptemberDate: 9 September 2002
How was theatre affected by 11 September? The consequences - & responses - to the terrorist attacks in America have been deeply felt both economically & artistically. Mark Shenton looks at the theatrical landscape a year on.
The most immediate thought after 11 September was survival: first of all, of any people in the buildings, but then of the theatrical economy itself on both sides of the Atlantic. Theatre on Broadway and in the West End is heavily dependent on the tourist dollar and pound, and tourism was one of the first things to suffer in the wake of the attacks as people were reluctant to visit New York from abroad, or to get on a plane and fly to London.
Resilience, distraction & hope
But New York's theatre community galvanised its forces. Not only did the theatre there survive, it actually showed something like its true colours by offering resilience, distraction and hope to a shocked community. In short, it took charge, and did what theatre has done over the ages: it provided a place for people to come together as individuals and gain strength from being part of a group. One of the most heart-warming stories revolved around the New York production of Kiss Me Kate: closing notices were posted then hastily taken down at the very last moment when the cast and crew themselves elected to halve their salaries and plough the other half back into buying full price tickets to be distributed to emergency workers and other people affected by the disaster.
Various concessions and grants were negotiated with the city and theatrical unions to cushion shows against weaker attendances, but several shows soon paid them back and restored normal pay scales. If tourists weren't coming to New York, New Yorkers had to become tourists - and a co-ordinated marketing strategy was successfully launched to rally them to support their local theatre.
London's theatreland belatedly jumped on the bandwagon, and with the endorsement and financial support of the Mayor, a campaign was launched last December to offer reduced ticket prices to audiences here, with the corresponding shortfall to producers in the admission prices being charged partly made good by a subsidy from the Mayor's office. While the recognition of the importance of the West End theatre to the London economy was welcome, one wondered who exactly was gaining by this ill-conceived scheme. In New York - where the crisis cut far deeper and of course more directly - the industry itself made most of the cuts necessary to ensure its survival.
A high-risk business
But who precisely gained here? The public might have got a discounted ticket or two, but ultimately, the net effect was still to line the pockets of producers whose tickets they were buying. There are far better ways to support the theatre that involve longer-term strategic planning and promote accessibility, such as the National Theatre, for instance, strives to do with properly promoted, designated nights specially designed to attract people who haven't been there before. Using the Mayor's money to prop up an antiquated, outrageously expensive theatrical infrastructure - the status quo rather than the future - was a quick win that was no win at all.
Theatre has always been a high-risk business. Just because the risks got bigger in the wake of recent world events doesn't mean that the theatre world needed bailing out. Some hit shows have made untold millions for their producers; when the going got a bit tougher, perhaps they might have used part of the previous profits to prop them up until things picked up again.
So much for the economic impact. Once the dust had settled in every sense, how did artists respond to this massive event, theatrically speaking? Of course, this response is ongoing and may continue forever - we've only seen the tip of the iceberg - but some were much quicker to respond than others.
The first example I encountered here was as early as 26 October 2001 at one of the events staged to commemorate the National Theatre's 25th anniversary in its South Bank home. A chain play was commissioned from 27 up-and-coming and established playwrights and composers. Each contributor was asked to write a single scene, and the aggregated pieces were performed in a mammoth staged reading. The NT Chain Play included a contribution by none other than Stephen Sondheim, who imaginatively re-deployed a song he'd written for the 1992 London premiere of his show Assassins to respond to the terrorist attacks committed just a month earlier. (Meanwhile, a planned autumn Broadway revival of Assassins was ironically an early victim of 11 September, when it was deemed too insensitive to stage at that time.) The song - 'Something Just Broke', originally used to tell the story of the public reaction to the Kennedy assassination - was re-worded to record public reactions to the towers coming down. It proved to be a blistering scene, shocking in its immediacy and power.
Off-Broadway, and just blocks away from Ground Zero in downtown New York, The Flea Theatre followed in December with its cathartic staged readings of The Guys, still running there with a rotating cast of celebrity readers, and seen last month here at the Edinburgh Fringe with Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. More than a mere exercise in star-gazing, this was a deeply felt, highly personal response to the tragedy as it directly affected those whose job it was to help - the fire-fighters who were among the first on the scene after the planes struck. In Anne Nelson's script, a fire captain who lost most of his men asks a journalist to help him compose the eulogies for eight of them. Written when the events were still raw, this short two-hander struck some in Edinburgh as already overly sentimental - but the grief it communicates is real, and the theatre provides a rare public outlet for it.
The Edinburgh Festival was inevitably full of other responses, both appropriate and inappropriate, to the tragedy. On the inappropriate side, controversy was stirred by a poster image for drag queen Tina C's Twin Towers Tribute show that portrayed her standing astride the Manhattan landscape with a plane heading towards her tall legs. While Tina C's creator Chris Greene claims to have been making a serious point about the way many performers in the US music industry sought to exploit 11 September to their own commercial ends, the show itself struck me as an example of the same kind of naked opportunism: at Edinburgh, you gotta have a gimmick to stand out from the crowd, and this was Tina C's.
Comedy is not yet - and can it ever be? - the right medium to respond to such a catastrophic event that led to the dramatic loss of so much innocent life. But also seen at Edinburgh, the earnest student theatre Project 9/11, based on the performers' own experiences of being in New York that day, was a frequently toe-curlingly embarrassing study of sheer dramatic indulgence.
Perhaps the day itself is so seared onto our collective consciousness now - who in the world hasn't seen the television images of the buildings on fire, collapsing, and the aftermath? - that the theatre simply cannot add anything to whatever meaning (or meaninglessness) it represented. The before and after, 10 and 12 September, however, provide different kinds of markers that several dramatists are now seeking to embrace.
Young New York writer Christopher Shinn did just that in his play Where Do We Live, seen at the Royal Court in May, observing his group of fellow New Yorkers on both sides of that fateful day. The attack itself is not the drama; but it informs it. Likewise, Neil LaBute's next play, The Mercy Seat (opening Off-Broadway in December, in a production starring Sigourney Weaver), is specifically set in New York on 12 September and involves two characters having an affair and exploring the choices they now face in an uncertain existence.
The theatre and its artists, too, have choices; and some are exercising them responsibly and sensitively, as here, while others like Tina C seem to have different agendas.