In anticipation of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, the White House has issued domestic and international guidelines for official governmental commemorations. As reported by The New York Times, the instructions detail the tone and themes to be used, underscoring a need for resilience in the event of future assaults and the necessity of gratitude, for those that have served and those that have been lost.
“A chief goal of our communications is to present a positive, forward-looking narrative,” states one of the documents cited by the Times.
This attempt to frame a communal response to the anniversary of that tragic occasion — a seismic moment that, politically and emotionally, marked the turn of the 21st century — forms the crux of “september play,” a temporal, theater production being staged on Sept. 11 in the Anna Hiss Gymnasium. The multi-disciplinary piece is both a work of remembrance and observance, addressing in more abstract angles lingering questions of justice, closure and recovery.
“I wanted to essentially take the temperature of where we are 10 years later,” said Courtney Sale, an M.F.A. candidate in the Department of Theatre and Dance, who developed “september play” from her solo thesis project. “Part of what the piece is doing is examining where the need is for lasting memorials. We don’t really have a touchstone here, and I wanted to build that somehow. I wanted to make this a full production, an event, to put galvanizing energy into it so that people are able to be in a space to think and talk about it.”
Originally envisioned as documentary-style theater piece in the vein of “The Laramie Project,” Sale spent nearly two years conducting interviews and researching, focusing primarily on the nonprofit Families of September 11 and the Phoenix-based Welcome to America Project, as well as the tributes hosted on Web site, Legacy.com. In this effort, a team of graduate students from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs provided dramaturgical support, helping broaden the focus and sift through the content for critical details, as Sale pieced together her narrative.
“We felt that collaboration between the two schools not only would enrich the understanding our students have of unanticipated and violent life-changing events, but also how these events effect the direction and reach of public policies,” said Angela Evans, clinical professor of public policy in the LBJ School.
For Sale, those interviews served as “externalization” of the struggles she faced in her own family. Her husband’s brother was attending a conference at Windows of the World, a complex at the top floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, when the attack occurred. The performance is dedicated to his memory.
“There’s a point in the play, taken from a testimony from a memorial in Arizona, where a woman says we don’t have the language to talk about this,” said Sale. “That really resonated with me. We still don’t.”
“September play” counters that issue of ineffability by using objects (library books, guitars, shoes) as metaphors and by employing a variety of mediums — dance, puppetry, audio clips, and film — beginning with a massive art installation, a 20-by-40 image constructed entirely of stamps in the 24 hours preceding the performance. It promises to be exactly the sort of large-scale spectacle that’s come to be expected from the creative team that also produced the highly acclaimed “The Fictional Life of Historical Oddities” at the 2011 Cohen New Works Festival — Rowan Doyle, Darwin Gilmore, Tom Horan and Cheng-Wei Teng.
“There’s sorrow and ache in the piece that will always be there, yet there are also things that are hopeful and playful and peaceful,” said Sale. “I’m not interested in opening wounds that can’t be sewn up, but the first goal is to remember. The second is simply to visualize a better future.”
“September play” is being staged on Sept. 11, at 8 p.m., in the Anna Hiss Gymnasium at Wichita and Dean Keeton streets on The University of Texas at Austin campus. Admission is free, but space is limited. For more information, visit septemberplay.com.