Theatre of Witness

Comments by Director Abigail Gampel

“Everything’s Back to Normal in New York City”… are the exact words said by one of our interviewees, he almost laughed as he spoke. For many years he had lived 3 blocks from the World Trade Center and this phrase was commenting on the fact that after surviving the horrors of 9/11, he and all of the tenants he was fighting for in his neighborhood - the downtown community - though very much alive, still had no electricity- the air they were breathing was toxic as was the water they had available- they had no access to the simple comforts folks uptown in Manhattan had and yet, as he said, the mayor was parading around Ground Zero exclaiming “Everything’s Back to Normal in New York City”.

The contrast of realities that group of words painted against the destroyed backdrop of lower Manhattan- brought forth a section of the theatre piece called “Surrealism” where all of the actors flew about the stage growing more and more frenzied. The many points of view that can be easily construed about things political, racial, the surreal quality that fear can generate and how terror can be embellished- all of these morphed together into a powerful theatrical statement.

We began the creative process of building this piece of theatre, by putting together an ensemble of 8 actors who would wear the hats of anthropologist, archaeologist, psychologist, performer, auteur and philosopher – all storytellers.
As a group, our ensemble interviewed people who lived or worked in lower Manhattan about their experiences around the subject of 9/11. From each interview we sought what resonated the most deeply, found repetitions of themes, and worked at distilling theatrical truth. Many of the interviews were transcribed verbatim from tapes, we wanted to use the language intact. We also used our own experiences as New Yorker’s and 9/11 survivors in telling the stories. The Ensemble then wrote scenes, monologues, poetry, stream of consciousness prose, selected interview segments, all of which became the sinew of this piece of theatre.

How to achieve the pulse of this topic. The after effects of 9/11 on residents of lower Manhattan. We discovered that the boundaries of lower Manhattan blur into countless neighborhoods, bridging the boroughs of New York, America and the world. As we work further on this piece, our challenge is to allow the act of witnessing to reveal and untangle the many tendrils of connection. It is a day that many we spoke to initially would prefer to brush off, as if it were a part of the past. But as more questions were asked it became apparent that even with all of the television shows, books and political agendas, the hurt and individual experience around 9/11 has not gone away. The core of its staying power being the fact that we can clean up the debris- but human beings don’t clean up so easily! We are filled with hidden places that haphazardly store away confusion and the pain of loss. Here we are 2 years later and “Everything’s Back to Normal in New York City” except for the fact that Ground Zero is a looking glass into the past and the future.

Theater Arts Against Political Violence, a theater of witness project sponsored by the International Trauma Studies Program at New York University has believed for many years that theatre is a valuable tool in aiding conversation, revelation and transformation for individuals and communities that have experienced the realities of trauma.

This theater project of the Downtown Community Resource Center of Lower Manhattan is supported the New York Times Co.
Foundation 9/11 Fund, and New York University’s Center on Catastrophe Preparedness and Response.