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And Then September 11th Happened

Updated: Jul 15, 2019

Seven theater stories in the wake of tragedy

Photo: Liz Lauren

MARY ZIMMERMAN (director and playwright): I was in New York with Metamorphoses. Our first preview was September 16, 2001, five days after the attacks. That show had been around for six years and been really successful. It has a lot to say about sudden, unwanted transformation; sudden, very violent change, bodily change.

We didn't rehearse that day, but we rehearsed the next day. It was an overwhelming experience. Then at that first preview, I felt, for maybe the one and only time in my life, that I actually witnessed catharsis; that is to say, the journey through pity and terror to the other side through representation.

A very important line in Metamorphoses comes toward the end of this sweet story of the gods in disguise visiting this poor couple and being served a feast. A narrator brings in a basket of apples and says, "Remember how apples smell?" I had everyone inhale as though remembering how apples smell. I felt like that actually was the most important line in Metamorphoses after 9/11 because the discourse at that time was that the whole world has changed. Everything has changed. Nothing will ever be the same. Everything is over and ruined. Well, that's ignoring the entire natural world, which was unchanged. “Remember how apples smell.”

The feeling in the room was so overwhelming because those ancient stories speak to something very primal and eternal in human beings. They speak to life-and-death. As I say, inevitable change—inevitable, unwanted change from which something new was born. Big old stories that are really well-written, and really touch what's most shared among us will seem to glance off contemporary things all the time, because they're speaking to something that is permanent, permanently true. They survive because they are perpetually relevant.


BARBARA GAINES: (founder, artistic director, Chicago Shakespeare Theater): I was about to preview Richard II. We had to cancel the first two previews because they wouldn't open Navy Pier. Everything was halted. After that, one of the earliest previews was a school audience, high school students. We had the talkback [after the show], and I remember a handsome young boy, very tall, with great grace. He said, "Why did you change Shakespeare's language?" I said, "I didn't. Tell me which line you're talking about." He paraphrased the line, "and with rainy eyes,” (meaning crying), “and with rainy eyes write sorrow in the bosom of the earth.” He thought I had added that because of 9/11. That was unforgettable. I haven't thought about it for many years, but that was the most beautiful moment within that theater. That he would remember and take that line unto his heart and soul and apply it to what was happening in the world at that moment. But we do that, right? It has to relate to now or I'm not interested in it.


GUY VAN SWEARINGEN (actor / founding artistic director, Red Orchid Theater): We were doing Tracy Letts’ Bug, directed by Dexter Bullard at the time. We had opened the show in late August, and we were running the show to rave reviews and selling out, and then 9/11 occurred. I remember that week there was a lot of discussion going around about whether we should or shouldn’t do the show. I know other theaters had gone dark. But I felt it was in the interest of, not just us but our patrons, to give people a place to go, to find that there are still things to hope for, that people can get along. Because clearly that horrifying act was an example of people not getting along. So I felt it was very important that we give people a place to go to get away from the TVs showing this shit over and over again.

It happened on a Tuesday. That following Thursday night we went on, and what happened during that show was very unusual. People laughed where they didn’t normally laugh before. They were laughing in the weirdest places, and they were laughing, I think, because they really felt a need to laugh, and to bond. I can’t explain it any better than that. The experience of 9/11 was that people wanted to be connected in ways different than they’d been connected in their lives previous. The theater of Artaud: “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.” Then Friday was back almost to what it was before.

MICHAEL SHANNON (actor/ founding ensemble member, A Red Orchid Theater): The central character in Bug, which I played, is Peter, a young man who was in the armed forces. He comes back to the states, and he’s developed some theories about the world that could be categorized as conspiracy theories. It’s a play about paranoia, among a lot of things. And then 9/11 happened. There was definitely a pretty palpable change in the temperature of the room. Some of the things Peter was saying didn’t seem maybe as crazy as they had.

TRACY LETTS (playwright/actor) : Some of those lines in the play, you could just hear a pin drop at the time. The whole concept of, we'll never really be safe in this country again was, I think, kind of a sci-fi concept when I wrote the play, but was not sci-fi after 9/11. There was a definite sense that we've crossed over into a new world now. Our national story has changed forever.

MICHAEL SHANNON: I know some theaters cancelled. It really didn’t make sense to cancel it because, in a way, it’s like a perfect time. Why run away from it when there’s that kind of synchronicity between what’s happening in the world and the kind of story you’re telling? Seems like you should take advantage of it.


ANDREW WHITE (founding ensemble member, Lookingglass Theatre) : We had started rehearsal for a play Laura Eason wrote called They All Fall Down, about Richard Nickel. He was a photographer who was fascinated by the architecture of Louis Sullivan and obsessed with it during the 1950s and '60s and early '70s when they were tearing down lots of Louis Sullivan architecture to make way for new, big glass and steel buildings. He was horrified by it and made it his life's work and duty to photograph these amazing buildings before they got eradicated.

We had started rehearsal on September 10th, 2001. The next day, I got in the car and was driving down to rehearsal listening to the news, and it's clearly apparent that something was happening that was bigger than they had initially thought, but I still didn't really understand the scale, yet.

We start rehearsal at 10:00. We get in a circle, getting everybody acquainted with each other. And people are on edge. Nobody has smart phones yet. Nobody's plugged in the way that we are now. But we notice that there was an absence. Somebody commented that we don't hear any airplanes. It was so quiet.

JESSICA THEBUS (director, They All Fall Down): I walked in and everybody looked stricken. We went to the offices at the Athenaeum [where we were rehearsing] and watched the images of the towers falling. Then we had to determine what we should do, whether we should rehearse or not rehearse, and everybody decided that they wanted to work. People were obviously upset but everybody was like, "OK, let's do what we love, and let's be together doing this, and let's take breaks if we need to."

So I said, "Alright, you guys, my job is to keep us focused on our work, and your job is to tell me when you need to take a break." I remember during the whole rehearsal process, feeling like, "I just have to keep this going and keep things really focused."

ANDY WHITE: They All Fall Down is about buildings falling down. It’s to the wrecking ball, but there was an odd and eerie synchrony with the twin towers coming down.

JESSICA THEBUS: Although, obviously, the story's entirely different, we talked about that, and then we decided, "Well, that's the story we're telling."


DAVID DILLON (playwright): I was in New Orleans. We were opening a production of my play Party down there. We were in rehearsals for an October opening. We were staying at the Hilton Garden Inn and the phone in my hotel room rang. I had not yet talked to anyone or watched any TV. It was our producer, and he asked me if I was watching the news. When I said no, he said "Someone just flew planes into the World Trade Center." I thought it was a pretty stupid attempt at humor. When he convinced me that he was telling the truth, he told me to come down to the lobby, that everyone was watching the coverage on TV.

When he said "everyone," I assumed he meant the cast and crew. They were there, too, but he meant a much larger "everyone." It seemed the entire hotel was in the lobby. People from all over the world. I remember there were people from England, France, Germany and a number of Middle Eastern countries. It was an amazing thing to watch what was unfolding with people from so many different nations, all of them as horrified and emotional as those of us from the U.S. There was a unity there that was palpable and very moving. They cried right along with us. It was as if we were all one. I'll never forget that. That day, the differences in the world took a back seat to a kind of universal humanity. I had never felt anything like it, nor have I since.

There was a little part of me that was concerned that our audiences would think us frivolous for playing comedy at such a tragic time in our history, but it was just the opposite. They hungered to laugh and be reminded of the good and the love that exists in our lives. Working on a comedy during those days was a bit cathartic for all of us. It took us out of the relentless state of grief everyone was in and gave us some momentary relief.

Theater and the families we create in the theater can impact our lives in ways we can never anticipate, and that is one great gift.


Malik Gillani was born in Pakistan and his parents immigrated to the U.S. when he was seven years old. He is an Ismaili Muslim, a Shia branch of Islam. His husband, Jamil Khoury’s, father is Syrian and his mother was born in Chicago. He describes himself as an ‘Arab Slovak Pole, raised in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian tradition.“ At the time of the attacks, Malik was an IT salesman and Jamil worked as a global relocation consultant. In 2002 they co-founded their theater company, Silk Road Rising, as a direct and immediate response to the events of September 11th and its aftermath.

MALIK GILLANI: On 9/11 I was in my office. I remember being called into the kitchen, and we watched the TV. It was like, "We've got to go home. It's not a working day anymore. We have to figure out what's happening in our world." It was shocking. I had never thought U.S. could be attacked. It was jarring. We all went home.

JAMAL KHOURY: I was a cross-cultural trainer, an international relocations consultant. I was in the second day of a two-day workshop in an office in the Civic Opera House, 16th floor, I think. We would do these very tailored programs for mid-to high-level executives for their overseas assignments. I was working with a couple that were going to the Czech Republic. We heard that the World Trade Towers were hit by a small plane.

Someone knocked on the door and said there was a problem. We were getting a better idea of what was happening. The management of the Civic Opera Building wanted us to leave. Because the Pentagon had then been hit, there was this idea that the Sears Tower was going to be hit, and, of course, we were just a few blocks from it.

I remember leaving the building. The Loop was dead. There was no one. Malik and I live in the Loop, and we had just moved into our home two months before. We had all these people calling, "Get out of the Loop, come stay with us."

MALIK GILLANI: Jamil comes home, and as soon as he came in, I said, "I hope these people aren't Muslim." And he said, "I hope they're not Arab."

Muslims had been in the spotlight before then, but after 9/11, they were more and more in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. I could see, in my mind’s eye, everything kind of falling apart because I've associated myself with a group that's just attacked our country. And I didn't know what that would mean, exactly, but I knew it wasn't good. Whatever it was, wasn't good.

JAMIL KHOURY: I distinctly remember thinking that whatever happened on 9/11, my life had changed, our lives are changed and we have to respond to this because it became fairly clear that this had been Islamist, probably Al-Qaeda, probably Osama Bin Laden. And that really began this conversation of how do we respond to what quickly became a climate of hostility and suspicion.

It reminded us of what we do in the theater. We are a gathering place for an audience. First and foremost, we must be that. And then once they gather with us they can commune with those actors in real time and share a space, and breathe the same air. I think everybody felt that. It was one of those moments where we understood that theater and church are not that different in many respects. It reminded us of the service that we give to a soul with what we do.his foreshadowing?"

I had read about these almost-like cities that were being built throughout the country, that were all empty, but their purpose was to serve as a jail. There were all these jails being built that were empty. I knew history. I knew about the Japanese internment. Of course, I knew about black history. I knew about the American Indian history.

And I started saying to myself, "Are these jails being built for us?" I said, "We are next. We are next. They are gonna be locking my ass up. And that's unfair. That's wrong." I could see it. I can even see it right now. Rounding up everyone who looks brown, or Muslim, or whatever, and round them up, and, "Let's just clean our house out."

And then I was denied access to server rooms by a couple clients, who said that they were asked by their CEO, or whoever, to not let me in. That was hurtful.And then, there was a smaller client in financial business, who said, "Come here. I'm going to show you something." And he took me to a server room, and there was a photo of Osama Bin Laden with darts through his forehead. And he's like, "This is what we think of Osama." And I'm like, "OKyyy…?"

Jamil and I spent a lot of time together in the days that followed. And something snapped. What snapped was this track that I was on which was: I'm making a good living. I'm living in downtown. We're subscribed to theaters. We were “Guppies” Gay Urban Professionals. Making good money. Had a condo; all this stuff. And we both said, We need to be part of the solution. There's a problem, and we need to be part of the solution. We don't know the problem completely, yet, we don't know the solution completely, but we need to do something. And we made a pact. And the pact was that we would do whatever we could to help the nation heal. This was not a norm that I wanted to accept. I cannot be a part of this new normal.

JAMIL KHOURY: September 11th became the impetus for our forming Silk Road Rising.


CRISS HENDERSON (executive director, Chicago Shakespeare Theater): We were about to open a production of Richard II. I remember being here [at the theater] with a handful of staff and actors, out on the balcony off of our sixth floor. We have this unique vantage point, the long view of that big sky and the skyline of Chicago. It was quiet; I don’t believe that this city has ever been as quiet as it was on that day.

It was one of those moments in our community, whose adage is always “the show must go on,” where many shows did not go on. I think we had to sort of break that theatrical commitment, which seems obvious, of course, because what happened was earth shattering. But in the theater, we take that commitment very seriously, don’t we? We play, no matter what, right? That is the essence of who we are.

I think we also became aware of our import at that point. A couple days later, people started to reconvene, to get back together. I can remember the importance of theater was palpable when five hundred people were able to gather around that thrust stage at Chicago Shakespeare. They weren’t just taking in a play; they were reminded that they were a community of people. They were sharing a story. Hopefully, it was taking them into Shakespeare’s story and diverting their attention from the horrors of the world at that time.

It reminded us of what we do in the theater. We are a gathering place for an audience. First and foremost, we must be that. And then once they gather with us they can commune with those actors in real time and share a space, and breathe the same air. I think everybody felt that. It was one of those moments where we understood that theater and church are not that different in many respects. It reminded us of the service that we give to a soul with what we do.

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