When terrorists struck on American soil in September 2001 - with the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the failed attack on the White House that was foiled by heroic passengers aboard that flight that crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania - the impact was felt around the world. And for days, weeks, months, even years, thereafter life was irrevocably changed.
Nashville's Rhubarb Theater Company, under the leadership of artistic director Trish Crist, is in the middle of technical rehearsals for its upcoming production of Valerie Hart's Rising & Falling, a new play that examines the impact of public art and who determines what can and will be seen. Hart describes her script as "a play about art set against one of the largest tragedies of our time."
"As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I want Rhubarb to have a voice in the community, acknowledging these pivotal events in our lives, but I didn't want it to be a rehashing of the attacks on our country," says Crist, who directs the production. "Val's play is challenging, beautiful, and very thought-provoking around a key aspect of 9/11 that has nothing to do with terrorists."
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the impact on the arts was immediate, not the least of which was the controversy that swirled around theater companies nationwide. Should they go on with their planned performances? How should the memories of the dead be honored? Was it appropriate to stage plays with controversial topics at such a time? These were questions few were prepared to answer quickly and effectively, instead theater administrators found themselves struggling to deal with the realities of the post-9/11 world.
Among those theater companies struggling to determine how best to move forward was Nashville's Circle Players, the oldest community theater group in Middle Tennessee, which during the weekend before 9/11 had opened its 2001-2002 season with an enthusiastically received production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, the musical about U.S. presidential assassins.
In the days that followed the 9/11 attacks, Circle leaders and members of the Assassins production team were forced to consider closing the show (included in Sondheim's musical is the character of Samuel Byck, an unsuccessful presidential assassin who talks vividly about flying an airplane into the White House to kill President Richard Nixon in 1968). As Circle leaders discussed whether to shutter the show for a weekend, or to cancel the remaining three weeks of the production's run, the show's cast members debated whether or not they could justify to themselves, their friends and their families, their own decisions to continue with the show in the days just after the deadliest attacks ever on American soil.
With Rhubarb's production of the 9/11-themed Rising & Falling opening at Darkhorse Theater on Friday, August 12, memories of events from a decade ago have been recalled by Nashville theater artists on many level, though none have proven more provocative than those of the people involved in Circle Players' Assassins - which, it should be noted, was named the community theater's best show of the 2001-2002 season.
Several people involved in that process and the accompanying controversy - including Assassins director Doug Whatley, Circle Players' then-president Cary Street, cast member Jason Vitteri-Lewis and former company executive director Margaret Cheesman Brandon - offered their insights into what went on, recalling the heightened emotions that informed their decisions in 2001. My memories of the events are also included: I was a member of Circle's board of directors at the time and served as board liaison for the production.
How did you find out about what happened on that fateful morning?
Doug Whatley (director): We were down on the Florida Panhandle Gulf Coast. I usually liked to leave town after a show I directed had opened. We had planned this vacation for a few months. Assassins opened on Friday, September 7 and we left Sunday morning. Our son called us a little after 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 9/11 and wanted to know what we thought about this horrible attack. That was the first I heard about it. On vacation, especially at the ocean, we generally don't watch television, except The Weather Channel. So, we had no idea what he was talking about. Our son explained what had happened as I hastily turned on the television. My mind wouldn't register what our son was telling me. As I watched on television, and they replayed the footage of the second plane, it took quite a number of minutes to come to grips. As I'm watching, I saw the first tower collapse to the ground. Once again, I doubted my own eyes. At that point there was just a numbness. Horror and terror took the place of rational thought.