By Anne Nelson
Directed by Robert Egan
Main Season · Roda Theatre
May 16–July 5, 2003
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission
“We have no idea what wonders lie hidden in the people around us.”
Berkeley Rep brings you The Guys, Anne Nelson’s deeply moving exploration of loss and redemption in the tragic, numb aftermath of 9/11. Nick, a New York fire captain who is nearly mute with grief for his fallen friends and colleagues, turns to a stranger for help in composing eulogies for “the guys.” Joan is an editor who, like many of us on the sidelines, struggled to find a meaningful way to help mend this catastrophic rending of American life. Through the task of describing the men, Nick and Joan discover the healing power of celebrating ordinary, human lives. The Los Angeles Times exclaims, “This is why we have theatre!” and the New York Post calls it, “A stark and simple, potent and poignant play, brimming with edgy humanity.”
Anne Nelson · Playwright
Robert Egan · Director
Wil Leggett · Scenic Design
York Kennedy · Lighting Design
Bill Williams · Sound Design
Alexander V. Nichols · Projection Design
Maggie Yule · Costume Coordinator
Kimberly Mark Webb · Stage Manager
Nicole Dickerson · Assistant Stage Manager
Sharon Lawrence · Joan (May 16–25)
Keith David · Nick (May 16–25)
Lorraine Toussaint · Joan (May 27–June 8)
Dan Lauria · Nick (May 27–June 8)
Sharon Lawrence · Joan (June 10–15)
Joe Spano · Nick (June 10–15)
Linda Purl · Joan (June 17–22)
Joe Spano · Nick (June 17–22)
Wanda De Jesús · Joan (June 24–July 5)
Jimmy Smits · Nick (June 24–July 5)
Berkeley Rep is fortunate that so many accomplished actors expressed interest in performing in The Guys. By using a rotating cast, we have been able to involve more members of our larger artistic community in this production.
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
9/11. The phrase has entered our vocabulary with a power and clarity that feels permanent. A nodal point in our history that now defines all which preceded it and all that comes after. The America we were before 9/11 will never be retrieved, changed forever by the experience of subversive invasion coupled with an overwhelming feeling of collective vulnerability that had heretofore been unimaginable.
In the immediate wake of such an event it becomes almost impossible to sort through the chaos of our feelings: love, grief, worry, relief, hysteria, exhaustion, guilt, giddiness all collide in some gigantic emotional stew which sits in our hearts and heads, waiting to be released. And over time the feelings are released, transformed into desires for both empathy and revenge, finally into thoughts, opinions, and strategies that define our reaction.
We are living in the middle of this reaction right now. We will be living in it for quite some time. How we choose to deal with our feelings becomes a litmus test for our entire culture. This is clearly a defining moment for America.
The Guys is a deceptively simple play. It tracks one man’s arc of feeling in the aftermath of 9/11 as he tries to find a voice for his grief. But the ramifications of his mourning, how he chooses to release his feelings, have the potential to provide insight or doom him to endlessly recycling his anger.
Our infamous short-term memory and the focus on the war in Iraq and the economy may lead us to think of 9/11 as somewhat distant or unrelated to current events. Certainly there is a collective desire to put the event behind us, to move forward, to live without fear. But as we join together to build a future, let us understand what we have done with our own feelings, how we choose to interpret what has happened to us and how to turn our grief into blessing.
The Guys was originally developed by playwright Anne Nelson through a series of staged readings during which the actors held the script in their hands. What began as a useful rehearsal tool, however, soon emerged as an essential conceit for the play. Having actors with scripts on stage allowed the performers and audience to focus on the reality of the events and the individuals whose lives were lost in this tragic moment of our history. By keeping the script visible, we are constantly reminded that this is not about actors losing themselves in fictional characters, but rather members of our artistic community bearing witness and creating a living testimonial to the lives lost on 9/11. We, in turn, are allowed to watch both the performers and the characters, focusing primarily on the ritualized aspect of this event. In this light, what appears to be a constraint we hope will be seen as a source of creative freedom.
In her own words: Anne Nelson on The Guys
I teach at the graduate school for journalism at Columbia University in New York, and I oversee some thirty international students. On the morning of September 11, 2001, we had sent them out, along with their American classmates, to cover the mayoral primary. It would be days before we knew that all of them had survived.
I had learned about the attack on the World Trade Center in a call from my father in Oklahoma. I watched the images on television until the second tower went down. Then, numb, I turned off the television, voted, and went to my office. I remember taking out my calendar and looking at it, wondering which of the events I had planned, if any, now had any meaning. I walked over to the hospital on the next block to donate blood. The emergency personnel turned me away. They were kind, but they wanted to keep the hospital clear for the wounded. They looked over my shoulder as they talked to me, searching the traffic lanes down Amsterdam Avenue for ambulances bearing victims of the attack—those ambulances that would in fact never arrive uptown. There were far fewer wounded than anyone expected. Most of the casualties were dead.
Twelve days after the attack, my husband and I took our children to visit my sister and brother-in-law in Brooklyn. Families in New York wanted to huddle, to eat together, and to talk quietly. A friend of my sister’s called, looking for my brother-in-law, Burk Bilger, who is also a writer. The friend had met a fire captain and wanted to find someone who could help him. Burk was working on deadline, so I said I would help. The captain came over that afternoon. Once he got there, he told us his story: He had lost most of the men from his company who had responded to the alarm at the World Trade Center. The first service was only days away, and as the captain, he had to deliver the eulogy. But he couldn’t find a way to write anything. Burk put aside his project and joined us. He and I reassured the captain and started to work. Together, the three of us spent hours producing eulogies. It was clear to us that the captain, like many New Yorkers that month, was quite literally in a state of shock. Suddenly, a significant number of the people he was closest to simply weren’t there. Yet in only a few days he was supposed to get up and speak before hundreds of mourners, to put something into words that would reflect their loss, as well as their esteem and affection for the fallen man.
Through the strange mathematics of chance, neither my brother-in-law nor I had lost anyone close to us in the catastrophe. But like most New Yorkers, we were stunned, grieved, uncomprehending. That afternoon turned into evening, and at last we finished the final eulogy for the services that had been scheduled. The captain thanked us, several times, and then said, “You should come to the firehouse and see what I’m talking about.”
I did, a few days later. Like most civilians, I had never ventured beyond the firehouse doors. I saw the environment described in the play—the kitchen, the tool bench, the black boots set out on the floor ready for the firefighters to jump into at a call. I saw a long row of names written in chalk on a blackboard, which listed men as “missing” even though, since it was two weeks past 9/11, those men were surely lost.
The captain impressed me deeply. I thought that I had never met anyone so generous. I realized that generosity was the essence of the job—a firefighter’s work was about saving lives, and the more often and effectively he did it, the happier he was. I also learned that like many of his counterparts, the captain had a boundless curiosity toward the world around him, including a fresh and eager appetite for the arts. That first meeting in September opened a door to the world of the firefighters, and as I continued to learn about them, my admiration grew. Over the coming weeks I read reams of press coverage on the aftermath of 9/11, but I felt as though my experience had given me a glimpse into another dimension. Three hundred and forty-three firemen lost is a number. I had had the privilege of being introduced to men—their qualities, their families, their daily life—in a way that made them real to me, and allowed me to mourn them and the others who had died.
On October 18, I attended a benefit dinner for my husband’s organization, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. Sitting at my right hand was a pleasant-looking man named Jim Simpson, who was married to a Lawyers Committee board member, Sigourney Weaver. Jim and I were on duty as spouses, and over dinner, the conversation quickly turned to September 11. He told me that he had founded a small theatre and repertory company in TriBeCa, just seven blocks from the World Trade Center. The Flea Theater had been flourishing but was now in danger of going under. Because of the attack, the area had been closed off for weeks, and once it became accessible, audiences avoided it because of the smoke and debris, as well as the general pall of disaster. Businesses all over the neighborhood were dying. The Flea Theater continued to operate, but the company was playing to empty houses. One of his young actors, Jim said, wanted to do a play that spoke to the situation directly. But what could that play be?
I commiserated. At the same time, I felt paralyzed as a writer. I was teaching and did not have a regular outlet. Yet writing was what I did—writing was how I had always made sense of the world. I felt a building pressure to write something to help me make sense of what had happened, and was happening now. Jim and I agreed that it would be good to have a further conversation, but I didn’t really expect anything to come of it. But Jim followed up the next day with an email. Somewhere along the way, I brought up the eulogies and told him how writing them had affected me. Jim encouraged me to write a play based on the experience.
I was motivated to capture what I had observed and experienced through my conversations with the captain. That night I visited the firehouse again. “Look,” I told the captain. “I’ve been asked about writing a play. I’d like to try it, but I won’t if you have a problem with it. And I won’t include anything that you think would hurt anyone.”
He considered it, and looked straight at me. “Do it,” he said. As it happens, the captain is an off-off-Broadway theatre buff. In keeping with his nature, he was worried about small theatres suffering from the attack and about the young actors who would be thrown out of work. And I think that he was clear from the very beginning that this might serve as a memorial of words, both to those who had died and to those who were trying to find a way to go on. I told the captain I would change names and details in the interests of people’s privacy. He wanted to remain anonymous, and I said I’d do everything I could to achieve that. But I also said I wanted to share the essence of what I’d learned.
“I want people to know about these guys,” I told him.
“Yeah,” he said. “So do I.”
I went home and started to write. I would start my days at the office, go home and, with my husband, feed our children and put them to bed, and then end up at the computer, writing into the small hours of the morning. I only wrote at night, liberated by the license of sleep deprivation. I have never written anything in such an uninterrupted fashion. No outline, few preconceptions, no notion of what would be the beginning, middle, or end. I just typed forward. I think it helped that I had no certainty it would ever be produced.
I emailed a draft of the play to Jim. I called him the next day, saying that I had to fly to Barcelona to give a lecture. I would welcome his comments so that I could work on a rewrite on the plane. When I got back, Jim said he wanted to produce it. I was taken aback. I called the captain, who had not expected anything to be written so quickly. He came up to my apartment, and my husband and I read the play aloud to him. “Do it,” he said. “It’s what happened.” He asked me to make two changes—nothing I would ever have expected, but points that were sensitive to firehouse culture. I made the changes instantly.
Jim had asked me if I had any problem with the idea of his wife, Sigourney Weaver, playing the role of the editor. Dream on, I thought. “No problem,” I answered. In short order, I was told that she had contacted her friend Bill Murray about playing the fire captain. The four of us met in Jim and Sigourney’s living room several times a week, with Bill and Sigourney reading over the piece, making minor adjustments, and letting it sink in. The three of them brought acute intelligence and an instant, fierce commitment to the project. I cannot remember any collaboration, at any point in my career, being as satisfying as this one. We sat in that light-flooded room over a dozen November mornings and I listened as they breathed life into the words of The Guys.
The Guys premiered as a workshop production at the Flea Theater in New York with Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray. It opened on Tuesday, December 4, 2001, twelve weeks to the day after the World Trade Center attack.
Excerpted from The Guys by Anne Nelson, copyright 2003 by Anne Nelson. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.