Thomas F. Flynn's Bikeman, a grand-scale poem based on Flynn's experiences in New York City on September 11, 2001, was first published in 2008. By 2009, the book was being produced as a one-act play in England and South Africa. But it's taken more than a decade for the play-adaptation of Flynn's story to come to a New York stage. "Many [New Yorkers], especially those [who] were very close to the event, are hesitant…but we do this in a very artistic way and a very safe way. We are in care of everyone's feelings," explained actor Robert Cuccioli, who portrays Flynn's character.
Flynn, a seasoned news reporter, recounts his story with a journalist's eye for detail and relates his struggle to see events both as a detached observer and as a horrified participant. "It was written in first-person present tense in order to allow each audience member to really take part in the story," said Flynn, describing a style that Flynn and Cuccioli believe will allow the audience to relive the events in a sheltered way. TheaterMania spoke to the playwright and the actor about the play's healing effects, the power of language, and the one good result of that terrible September morning.
What does it mean for you to have Bikeman playing in New York?
Thomas F. Flynn: I've been watching the audience, and they are very much a part of it. And New Yorkers weren't ready to do that [before]. But I think they are now. One person said to me, "I was really reluctant to come, but I'm glad I did. I feel better."
Robert Cuccioli: Especially those [who] were very close to the event. They may be scared to revisit it. But I do agree that New York is ready. They've carried the weight of this around with them for all these years and I think they're ready to start the conversation now and allow that to come out again.
What was your 9/11 experience, Robert?
Robert Cuccioli: I was actually in Seattle doing a show and I was beside myself not to be able to be here. I wanted to get back immediately. This is my home. You know, this is my city. This is where I've lived all my life. I've grown up here, so I desperately wanted to get back here.
What drew you to this play?
Robert Cuccioli: The music of Tom's language is so beautiful, and as an actor, words are our life…that's what drew me to this piece, and more important, as an actor I strive to do things that mean something, that affect people, that are important.
What is it like for you, Thomas, to have someone playing you onstage?
Thomas F. Flynn: It's a hall of mirrors, you know. Sometimes it gets a little bit freaky, but what I've been trying to do is default to observing and separate myself from it that way. But sometimes you can't. There are parts of this book I can't read out loud, and there are parts of this play that drag me kicking and screaming back into the emotions of that time.
Robert Cuccioli: He wanted George Clooney, but…
Thomas F. Flynn: I got better! Bob is just miles better, and you can quote me.
What do you hope people will take away from this play?
Robert Cuccioli: I think with any powerful, controversial, cutting-edge kind of a piece, people will leave it thinking about it over and over again. They'll talk about it.
When I came back from Seattle [after 9/11], and finally got back to the city, I realized how much the city had changed, how much community and humanity was [here]. And it lasted, for a heartbeat.
Thomas F. Flynn: But it was there.
Robert Cuccioli: But it was there. And it just shows how capable we are of that. And I feel if anyone brings anything away from this, it's that feeling that we need to get back to that unity again: that we are one, not just in this city, but that we are one in the world. And we need to watch out for [one another] and be a part of a community.
Thomas F. Flynn: This hard-hearted, fast-driving city stopped for a minute and cared about [one another], and Bob's right, if they can do it for a minute, they can do it. That gave me a huge amount of hope. It still does.