Posted 9:11 a.m. Monday, Aug. 16, 2021
UWL theatre production recounts memories of 9/11
Twenty years ago, the world changed.
Sept. 11, 2001, represents the deadliest terrorist attack in human history and continues to have profound effects in the United States and across the world.
A new UW-La Crosse Theatre Arts Department project seeks to capture the untold stories from that horrific day, as told by those who experienced it firsthand.
“So many people were impacted by Sept. 11, and we’re trying to wrap our arms around that and tell their stories,” says Associate Professor Laurie Kincman, one of the creators of “Severe Clear: Sept. 11 from Memory to History.” The in-person, fully produced play will debut Oct. 15 at UWL’s Toland Theatre. Tickets go on sale in early October.
“This is a story that everyone can appreciate,” Kincman says.
The play was inspired by Garrett Graff’s book, “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11.” Kincman was fascinated by the diversity of voices in the text, and by Graff’s ability to stitch them together into one moving narrative.
After finishing the book, Kincman approached Associate Professor Greg Parmeter to gauge his interest in creating a similar project, though it was unclear what form it would take.
“We were talking about a massive project, so there was always the fear that it wouldn’t work out,” Parmeter says. “That said, I didn’t need much convincing. I was on board almost immediately.”
In fall 2020, the pair taught a course in which students helped create the framework of the play.
Throughout the semester, they collected hundreds of memories — from New York City, the Pentagon, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and Air Force One — and transferred them onto note cards, which soon covered an entire wall.
Next, the class began the painstaking work of determining which stories to include and where to put them in the draft.
To maintain accuracy and authenticity, they decided that each story should be a word-for-word reading of quotes from witnesses, first responders, survivors and others.
They also didn’t limit themselves to the stories in Graff’s book, drawing from many other sources.
“It helped that we were a small group, and we all knew each other and what to expect,” explains Emily Ludewig, a May 2021 theatre arts graduate with an emphasis in design and technology. “As we dug into it, our brains started to click as far as what we could do for sound or lighting and set design.”
“Laurie and Greg had a good guiding vision but didn’t shoehorn us into following one direction,” adds Sydney Smith, a May 2021 theatre arts graduate with an emphasis in stage management. Even with several people working on the script, “we were able to keep consistency with tone and make sure everything felt good together, cohesive.”
After the fall semester, five of the course’s seven students continued to work on the play with guidance from Kincman and Parmeter.
The more they worked, the more they noticed themes and details that tied the stories together.
As a parent, Parmeter identified with first responders with children.
Kincman noted that 35 people described how blue the sky was that morning, as well as the surprising number of shoe references.
“Whether it was people running so fast they ran out of their shoes, or shoes being found in the wreckage, it kept coming up,” she says.
Kincman and Parmeter have their own memories of Sept. 11 — where they were, what they were doing — but the students assisting with the play do not.
Those fresh perspectives allowed the team to approach the script with greater freedom and flexibility, and fewer preconceived notions.
Researching for the play also gave the students a clearer window into a monumental moment in history — one with which they had been relatively unfamiliar.
“It was really interesting just to learn how much the World Trade Center was part of America,” notes Camille Foss, a senior theatre arts major with an emphasis in light design. “It wasn’t just offices. There were shopping centers and restaurants and tons of businesses people don’t talk about. And it wasn’t just the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. There were other targets as well.”
With the final script nearly complete, the team will spend the rest of summer and the first few weeks of fall building the set and effects, and holding rehearsals.
Writing and producing the play has been a deeply rewarding experience, students and faculty say. The collaborative nature of their work, Parmeter adds, makes it even more meaningful.
“One thing that can’t be understated is how instrumental students have been in the creation of this,” he says. “We wanted to give them the opportunity to create something lasting and worthwhile, and they rose to the challenge in so many ways.”