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A Different World

With a mixture of sorrow and determination, theater companies throughout the U.S. get back to work after a national disaster. logo
Aleah Windham, Avery Brooks,
and Mercedez Tasharmba Mitchell
in The Oedipus Plays
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The day after Tuesday, September 11, Washington, D.C.-based actress Delia Taylor returned to rehearsals for what, a couple of days earlier, had been just another juicy part: Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra. The show is being presented by the Washington Shakespeare Company, which is housed at the Clark Street Playhouse--across the street from the Pentagon.

"We didn't rehearse on Tuesday but we were back at it on Wednesday," says Taylor, "I was glad that people talked about the fact that we're doing a play that's about death and war and the horrors of that. But the character I'm playing, at least, has the luxury of deciding how and when she's going to die. It's poignant, certainly."

"Poignant" is the watchword as theaters in New York, Washington (the two cities where terrorist attacks wreaked havoc and took untold numbers of lives last week), and around the country get back to work, facing uncertainty at the box office and filled with a new sensitivity to the role of theater in times of anguish. "There are productions of some very cogent plays coming out in the moment," notes Chicago-based reporter and critic Chris Jones. "One of the great examples is Steppenwolf opening Mother Courage, which is the consummate anti-war play. I think that will be a very resonant experience for the artists and the audience. It's taken on a whole different meaning."

Elsewhere in Chicago, the Second City comedy theater had to figure out how, if at all, its new revue (Embryos On Ice!, or Fetus Don't Fail Me Now) could go on. The company canceled performances on Tuesday the 11th, says producer Kelly Leonard, but "by Wednesday, we all had that great theater image of the blitzkreig going on and people doing Hamlet and so on. We realized that, as theater artists, we have a duty to entertain." (The reference is to the Battle of Britain, during which the West End theaters famously soldiered on as German bombs strafed the city.) "Then, as the day crept on, we realized what we actually do in the show," he continues: "We make fun of everything, especially America and Americans." So Leonard and his actors combed through the show and replaced "anything too offensive or twisted," including a joke about suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

In far-flung Chanhassen, Minnesota, home to the largest dinner theatre in the nation, the cloud of grief over administrative and artistic staffers has made the pragmatic question of the moment--how the national disaster will affect box office receipts--seem trivial, if not moot. "As horrible as you guys feel there, we feel almost as horrible here," said Chanhassen spokesperson Kris Howland last week. "People in our offices are crying, they're fearful." But, she added, "Our shows are continuing. We very much let our customers dictate what we should be doing, and people wanted to come." Ticket sales have not dropped off precipitously for the theater's current productions of My Fair Lady and Forever Plaid, says Howland, but "our phones got very quiet [in the days immediately following the terrorist attacks]. It seemed like people were hunkering down, waiting to see what happens."

One thing working in the favor of many regional theaters as opposed to most New York playhouses are large subscriber bases that, as Jones puts it, "save them from the vicissitudes of events like this." The Shakespeare Theater in Washington has seen hardly any drop-off in attendance for its production of The Oedipus Plays, even though audiences must travel to the theater through blocked-off streets and a tense atmosphere. It happens that most performances were sold out long before the 11th; and, as Anmarie McDonald at TST notes, going to see one of literature's most powerful tragic cycles might offer D.C. audiences a certain solace. "It's interesting to think, at this point, about the various reasons why someone might still go see the Oedipus Plays," McDonald says. "It's cathartic to see this great tragedy on stage. As our artistic director [Michael Kahn] has said, there may even be something else--people wanting to gather and have a common experience that is a positive one, to sort of be with humanity in a way that feels safe and good and appropriate."

If theater attendance nationwide doesn't suffer in the long run from the terrifying events of September 11, it will be for just that reason: Theater gives us something we can get nowhere else, especially in trying times. "If theater was just about escapism or light entertainment," says Chris Jones, "no one would have the heart to do it right now."

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