Low Plaza

The WTC Tragedy Turned Journalism Professor Anne Nelson into a Playwright

By Jo Kadlecek

From left to right: Sigourney Weaver, Jim Simpson, Anne Nelson and Bill Murray pause on the set of Nelson's play, "The Guys."
(Photo Courtesy of G. Rubio, EGG The Arts Show, Thirteen/WNET)

Anne Nelson had never written a play. As a veteran reporter and former war correspondent in El Salvador in the early 1980s, she viewed words and sentences as tools for addressing the issues of her time in hard news and features. Not plays. For Nelson—who is the director of the International Programs for the Graduate School of Journalism—journalism was as familiar as city landmarks.

Sept. 11 changed all that. Though Nelson had appreciated theater since her undergraduate days performing in musical theater at Yale, she never expected that the tragedy of the attacks would redirect her writing career, let alone introduce her to a real-life cast of characters that included a New York City fire captain, two movie stars and the director of an off-Broadway theater.

But Nelson came across a story so personal she could only tell it by turning to another genre altogether: playwriting. The result is the workshop production of "The Guys," a 90-minute play that opened Dec. 4 to sold-out audiences at Tribeca's Flea Theater and runs through Dec. 20. Based on Nelson's own interactions with a fire captain, "The Guys" is directed by Jim Simpson, and stars his wife, actress Sigourney Weaver in her unofficial return to off-Broadway theater, as the editor. The fire captain is played by Weaver's good friend and fellow actor, Bill Murray.

The unlikely chain of events began barely a week after Sept. 11 when Nelson was visiting her sister in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Nelson had spent the week looking for ways to respond to the tragedy. She held workshops training journalism students how to interview people traumatized by the events of the attacks, instructing them to ask permission, show empathy and avoid the stupid questions like "How does it feel?" She had even teamed up with her brother, Daniel Nelson, a child psychiatrist, who had led the Family Notification Unit at the Oklahoma City bombing, to produce a set of hand-outs and materials that found their way to journalists around the world. Still, she felt—like so many New Yorkers—somewhat helpless. She was in Park Slope to "get perspective."

That's when a friend of her sister's called concerned about a New York City fire captain she had just met. He needed a writer to help him write eulogies for eight of his men killed in the attack, and Nelson saw the opportunity to offer assistance. Because of her training, she thought she would be prepared to work with the captain. So she invited the captain over that same afternoon for the first of several sessions translating his stories into eulogies.

"It was painful to ask him questions, and it was painful to hear the answers," Nelson said. "But it had to be done. Memorial services were coming up, and I wanted to help him create eloquent eulogies that were still in his voice." From her interactions with the captain, she soon realized that though the tools of her craft were helping the captain, she was moved in a way that could not be expressed in journalism.

Then one night in mid October, she attended a benefit dinner for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights with her husband, who is on the staff of the organization. She was seated next to Simpson—the artistic director of the Flea Theater—who told her an actor in his company had challenged him to find a play that could speak to the tragedy as well as address the theater's needs. The Flea, an experimental repertory company located at 41 White Street only seven blocks from Ground Zero, had suffered drastically since Sept. 11. Shows were cancelled and audience attendance fell from 90 percent to 5 percent. Simpson knew he needed to find the right piece for the theater. When Nelson told him about her experience writing eulogies for the fire captain, he asked if she could communicate that in a play.

Nelson agreed to try. For the next eight nights, Nelson would wait for her two children to go to bed and then head to the computer. "It was the most unconscious writing I had done. It just flowed out," Nelson said. "Usually, I fret over my work. This was somewhat cathartic, a very complex experience."

She emailed the play to Simpson, who read it, gave a copy to his wife, and scheduled the production. Weaver immediately wanted to be a part of the workshop production, and sent the play to Murray. He agreed to join her and within a week, the four were meeting for rehearsal.

What was especially complex for the journalism professor was her previous resolve not to include herself in her writing. As a reporter, she tried to avoid putting herself in her stories; instead, she found and told other people's stories. And, as a professor, she had insisted on the same thing from her students. Playwriting, however, required something different from her.

"It's very exposed. The character in this [play] has an awful lot in common with me," Nelson admitted. "It remains a mystery to me that I could fret over an 850-word [news] story and yet here my first draft [of the play] is being performed."

Consequently, the play is an honest exchange between two people who were brought together only because of the horror of Sept. 11. "All over the city, people were jumping tracks. Nick and I were not supposed to meet," says the editor in the play. Yet the fire captain knows he needs the expertise of this woman as he faces the most difficult challenge of his career: eulogizing his men. In the same way, the editor—like Nelson—needs to do something, anything, to respond to the disaster. For her, words are the only way she can help.

The result is a moving theater experience that articulates the emotions and longings many people have faced since Sept. 11. It even includes a brief but soothing tango also composed by Nelson. "The Guys" has also been an ideal way to win back audiences while staying true to the Flea's tradition of outreach to the New York community and timely artistic expression.

"It's ironic that when the Flea found itself threatened, we rediscovered our ability to respond in an immediate and direct fashion," Simpson said. "Theater's obligation is to be more than escapist. It should offer an opportunity for the community to come together to encounter the catastrophe on human terms."

The future opportunities for "The Guys," however, are anyone's guess. While both Nelson and Simpson have declined compensation for the December run, choosing instead to donate it to the Flea, neither is certain what will happen when the play closes Dec. 20. They do know that they're giving all 75 seats one night to English and theater students from Stuyvesant High who ran for their lives the morning the towers were hit. And on Dec. 12 the house has been donated entirely to representatives from the fire fighting community. Nelson hopes the audiences will enjoy the play and find it useful.

"This little play has to show its own path," Nelson said. "Now it's free of commercial constraints. If it ends Dec. 20, it will have had its three weeks. If not, we'll see."

At least one future performance is certain: a scene from "The Guys" with Weaver and Murray will be included in "A Gala Evening" fundraiser celebrating the best of the Flea held Jan. 14, 2002, at 7:00 p.m. at the New Victory Theater 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue. (More information can be obtained by calling the Flea box office number, 212/226 2407.)

Published: Dec 13, 2001
Last modified: Dec 12, 2002


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