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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the September 11, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

September 11 on Stage

Exile is too strong a word, but it’s the closest New

York playwright and actor Marc Wolf can come to describe his own experience

of September 11. On the day that New York City was struck by terrorists,

Wolf was 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles performing his one-man documentary

drama about gays in the military, "Another American: Asking and

Telling."

The world changed, but Wolf had a job to do and the show went on.

He finished his Los Angeles run and proceeded directly to Seattle

where he went into technical rehearsals on September 17 and worked

through October. By the time he was ready to make his way home, Wolf’s

return trip had become part of a new play, commissioned through grant

monies from New Jersey’s Dodge Foundation. Driving from Washington

State to the Grand Canyon, New Mexico, across Texas, and on into Alabama,

Louisiana, and Mississippi, Wolf stopped to interview all kinds of

people about their responses to the events of September 11. Their

words will provide the text for his next play, which will premiere

at McCarter Theater during the 2003 season.

Even as the nation was being pounded by the previously unknown shock

and sorrow of September, 2001, the trustees and staff of the Geraldine

R. Dodge Foundation were addressing the unprecedented challenge. Given

its mission — "to support and encourage those values that

contribute to making our society more humane and our world more livable"

— the Dodge Foundation looked to its creative constituents for

ideas.

"We determined that the best way to support this mission was to

respond from our greatest strength — those organizations we support,"

explained David Grant, executive director of the foundation, "

— and to enable them to implement their own essential, responses

to the crisis." The Morristown-based foundation awarded just over

$1 million in grants to 45 organizations to support responses to the

extraordinary events of September 11. The Dodge program targeted its

funded organizations — primarily focused in the areas of arts,

education, critical issues, and welfare of animals — and invited

them to apply for special project funds.

The largest of the Dodge grants, $75,000, went to the Newark Museum

for the creation of its "Garden of Remembrance: A Memorial to

September 11." The indoor garden, which opened in March, is based

on the gardens of medieval Spain and represents an era when Christians,

Muslims, and Jews experienced what historians have called "convivencia,"

or living together. The museum garden, which has served as a site

for performances of music and poetry, lectures, and a town meeting,

can be visited through Sunday, September 15.

Also winning project grants were two of the state’s

leading theater organizations, New Jersey Theater Alliance and McCarter

Theater.

The New Jersey Theater Alliance, a consortium of all the state’s professional

theaters, won a $40,000 grant to support a public symposium entitled

"Theater: A Catalyst for Transformation in Times of Crisis,"

which took place in late January, 2002, at Crossroads Theater in New

Brunswick. The panel discussion, moderated by Clement Price of Rutgers,

featured playwrights Emily Mann, Al Carmines, and Deborah Brevoort,

and educators Israel Hicks and Kathleen Gaffney. Hicks, on the faculty

of Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, characterized today’s

theater as "one of the few places left on the planet where we

can gather together and have a collective thought."

Now the symposium transcript and an edited videotape are available

for college use. In addition, segments of the symposium are featured

in a one-hour radio program, produced by Ilene Delauhunty, and selected

for NPR’s national September 11 programing.

"I think everyone can agree on one thing, that the theater does

provide a forum for an exchange of ideas and dialogue, and helps us

understand ourselves and each other," says NJTA executive director

John McEwen. "Theater can be a tool; it may not provide all the

answers, but it can certainly provoke questions and dialogue. It also

provides a sanctuary where people can come together and experience

something as a community."

McEwen says the symposium gave rise to a follow-up project aimed specifically

at post-September 11 needs of young people. On Monday, October 28,

theater education directors and teaching artists will share a day-long

program, led by Kathleen Gaffney of Arts Genesis, designed to widen

the horizons of theater company educators and teachers on how to use

drama as a tool to promote tolerance, democracy, and even healing

in the classroom.

As Marc Wolf continued performing his one-man drama in Seattle after

September 11, he tolerated his life in exile.

"Even if I could have flown home or driven home, I had a job to

do," says Wolf, "and I was thankful to have something meaningful

and productive, a way to bring people together with something that

is about America and which is patriotic in a number of surprising

ways."

In response to the Dodge Foundation’s program, Emily Mann, artistic

director of McCarter, applied for funds to commission a September

11 drama from Wolf.

"It doesn’t matter where you were," says Wolf, "there’s

no rhyme or reason to one’s response. Because of technology, everyone

in America experienced September 11."

Wolf’s "Another American" deals with the experiences

of gays in the U.S. military. The play, which won an Obie Award, was

seen at McCarter Theater in January, 2001. Over the course of the

two-actor work, Wolf, simply clad in black T-shirt and chinos, plays

18 different individuals, men and women, each based on actual interviews.

As directed by Joe Mantello, he gave a powerful, seamless performance

of an exploration of the unexpected consequences of the government’s

"Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy.

As he presented "Another American" in nightly shows in the

shadow of September 11, Marc Wolf, whose home is in New York’s Hell’s

Kitchen, in the West 50s, was struck by the way his play, which he

had first presented in workshop productions in 1998, took on new meanings.

"I felt that while I was performing the military suddenly moved

to center stage in America. We now understand what an integral part

of our lives the military is, whereas before we sort of had blinders

on. Most of us thought of the military as something peripheral to

our lives."

Wolf was born and raised in Englewood, where his mother was a social

worker and his father worked as an anesthesiologist at Hackensack

Hospital. Wolf went on to Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts,

where he majored in both theater and political science. After graduating

in 1984, Wolf spent the next 12 years working as an actor in New York

on the Off-Broadway stage, as well as a serving time on the television

soap opera "Guiding Light." Although both his parents now

work in New York City, on September 11 they were with him in Los Angeles

to see him perform "Another American" at the Mark Taper Forum.

His brother, a painter, also lives in New York, and their sister,

a social worker, moved from New York to Massachusetts last year on

September 8.

The now popular docu-drama genre can be traced back to works such

as Emily Mann’s 1977 play "Annulla, An Autobiography," based

on interviews that explored the experiences of Holocaust survivors.

Even more influential was Mann’s hit play "Having Our Say,"

the story of the Delany sisters of Mount Vernon, New York, and their

"first hundred years." After a big Broadway success, the play

was made into a critically acclaimed TV movie.

Wolf’s dramatic method, however, is closest to the work of Anna Deavere

Smith, who creates her texts and performs them. Her "Fires in

the Mirror" is a 1992 play based on the racial strive in Crown

Heights, Brooklyn. And her critically acclaimed "Twilight: Los

Angeles, 1992" examines the aftermath of the police beating of

Rodney King.

The germ of Wolf’s newly commissioned play became evident to him as

soon as he left Los Angeles that first weekend after September 11.

Wolf’s customary assumptions no longer held. "I found I had an

opportunity as a New Yorker to explore the county when people were

looking at New York in a way that was different."

"In the past I’ve found that being from New York, people you meet

are either intimidated by you, or they have a chip on their shoulder

— but it’s not usually an opening to conversation," he says.

"In the airport, when I showed my New York driver’s license, with

my New York City address, one woman said to me: `You’re going home

to a lot of sadness.’ I wasn’t in fact going home, but her simple

statement had a truth to it."

Wolf was also struck by the more recent debate around New York’s September

11 public commemoration; rather than new speeches, the commemoration

centers on public figures reading historic works such as Lincoln’s

Gettysburg Address.

"It made me realize the power of the word," he says. "And

I think we often forget how important the power of the word can be.

People are turning to the arts to help them deal with this tragedy.

It’s so clear to me that theater and visual arts are different pieces

in a pie that adds up to a full society. My goal is to be one small

— but necessary — part of it."

Even though Wolf was safely out of the city on September 11, he believes

he has a statement to make.

"Exile is definitely too strong a word, but I think as an artist

I felt great dislocation and unease from not being where I felt I

needed to be. Cosmically or existentially I felt I needed to be home

— but physically I needed to be in Seattle. Then I thought that

as a creator of plays I was in a unique position. Through the interviews

with other people I could stretch out this great uneasiness of not

being home. I could use the place where I was."

Wolf is still in the earliest stages of listening to his taped interviews

and seeking a shape for the work. Even its themes are not yet clear.

But even though his informants come from other places, New York City

is at the heart of the play.

"I want it to be one of the pieces of human creation that comes

out of the experience," he says. "As a New Yorker, I want

to help my home and the home of other people to be better than it

was before. Maybe it can be one of the pieces in the huge puzzle that

helps to rebuild New York City. That is my goal."

— Nicole Plett

Marc Wolf and Emily Mann, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair,

609-897-9250. Marc Wolf will appear with Emily Mann of McCarter Theater,

as she introduces her latest book, "Political Stages: Plays That

Shaped a Century." Also joining the readings will be actress Blair

Brown. Free. Thursday, October 24, 7 p.m.


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