On September 11, 2001, the students of Stuyvesant High School started their mornings expecting nothing out of the ordinary. However, the horrendous events that unfolded made the sunny Tuesday morning one to remember.
In an attempt to find information about the state of the school, which had been commandeered as an aid center, Stuyvesant students started sharing their stories through online bulletin boards. The students’ forum inspired English teacher and then-adviser of the Stuyvesant Theater Community, Annie Thoms, to create a group of monologues, titled “With Their Eyes,” based off interviews with members of the Stuyvesant community about their experiences during 9/11. The interviews were conducted by a group of ten Stuyvesant students, including two freshmen, three sophomores, two juniors, and three seniors.
Ten years later, the STC is revamping “With Their Eyes” for this year’s fall drama, which will be performed on October 20, 21, and 22.
However, this is far from the second time that the play will have been performed. Since its original Stuyvesant production in 2001, about 30 schools across the nation from the Upper East Side to Wheeling, Illinois, Kansas City, Missouri, and Orange County, California, have put on productions of “With Their Eyes.”
“We really wanted to do a show about September 11th, and we thought [“With Their Eyes”] presented a very interesting perspective of the day and the aftermath,” Casey Long, Managing Director of the Chance Theater in Orange County, California, where the play was produced in 2006, said in an e-mail interview.
The Coterie Theater in Kansas City, Missouri, also staged a performance of “With Their Eyes” in 2006. Young professional actors performed the play for an audience of primarily high school students.
“We soon realized that the high school audiences were in grade school those five years earlier, and mostly remembered the event as the first time they saw their parents cry,” Jeff Church, Producing Artistic Director of the Coterie Theater, said in an e-mail interview, when asked about the audience’s emotional reaction.
West Leyden High School in Wheeling, Illinois also produced the show, just last year.
“I loved working one-on-one with the actors, bringing out emotions they never had before, and really feeling what the characters were feeling, because they were real people and discovering what acting really was,” Adriana Pilolla, Student Director of the play at West Leyden High School, said in an e-mail interview.
The ubiquity of the play has had a deep impression on senior and STC Communications Coordinator Emma Handte. “I think that just goes to show how unique Stuy was in how it was affected, and that’s really important,” said Handte. “Clearly a lot of people feel that this close perspective is really important for remembering the history for future generations.”
Thoms said that she is very humbled by the many productions of “With Their Eyes.” “Many people have found value in hearing the voices of our community, and I think that is very moving,” she said.
Thoms has attended three other productions of “With Their Eyes” aside from the original: the performances at the Spence School, the Chance Theater, and the Coterie Theater. “One of the things that was so interesting was that there were different laugh lines. There are some references that the Stuyvesant audience, knowing Stuyvesant, would find very funny that other audiences would miss,” she said.
Many who have been involved in a production of “With Their Eyes” remember it as a very sensitive experience. “To hear these stories from people that really went through what most of our performers only watched on television gave me goose bumps,” Long said.
For the students involved in the original production, the experience was even more moving. “The first night we all read the monologues aloud to each other was very emotional. There were things that resonated, as well as new discoveries about what other people around me were feeling,” alumnus Liz O’Callahan (‘02), who acted in the original production as former student Hudson Williams-Eynon and Machinist Kerneth Levigion, said in an e-mail interview.
“We didn’t have the luxury of falling back on caricatures, because the people we were portraying would be in the audience. It lent a different kind of anxiety to the performance, not wanting people to feel that they had been portrayed unfairly in any way,” O’Callahan said.
For Thoms, who had only been able to guess at the play’s potential, this read-through was an astounding success. “I thought that this was an idea that might work, but I had no idea the strength of the stories that were going to come out of it,” said Thoms.
Despite the difficult subject matter of the play, O’Callahan said, “We had a lot of fun and had a bunch of inside jokes during the show. I could not have asked for a better group of people to work with. I made friends that I never would have made otherwise. Even now, we’re still very connected in a way that I am not to most other people from high school.”
Thoms has met with the STC slate and will be meeting with the directors as well, acting as a consultant and offering advice throughout the rehearsal process. She has been arranging a rehearsal day in which the original cast and the current cast can work together in order to further improve the production.
The STC and production slate have also planned a visit to the World Trade Center site with Thoms and several alumni who acted in the original rendition of “With Their Eyes,” along with faculty members who were present at Stuyvesant during 9/11, including Levigion, social studies teacher Matthew Polazzo, and former faculty member Katherine Fletcher.
Handte, who was a second-grader living on the Upper West Side when the attacks occurred, feels that the play helps bring the personal side of that day to those too young to remember. “I knew what was sort of going on, but not exactly, so it’s really interesting to hear the different sides of the story, and what was happening so close by,” Handte said. “Most of my friends lived on the Upper West Side, so I didn’t really get that sort of personal story.”
Thoms, who teaches “With Their Eyes” in her Women’s Studies class, also expects the reactions of this audience to differ from those of years past.
“When I started teaching it, it was with students who had been here on September 11th, and then it was with students who had been in junior high [at the time], and now it’s with [students] who were in, like, 3rd grade. Seeing the way that most current students are removed from the events from September 11th, I thought that, in terms of an oral history of something major that happened in our community, it would be an appropriate time to reach back there,” Thoms said.
“To know what an event means to a population, I think you have to understand what it meant to individuals. [“With Their Eyes”] tells some of those stories, and they’re not the same. That’s part of what’s so awesome,” O’Callahan said.
After ten years, what originally started as an exercise in expression after the trauma of September 11th has grown into something much larger. Having been performed in schools throughout the country, and progressed from a commentary on a contemporary event to a piece of theatrical oral history, the revival of the show at the school at which it was incepted is highly anticipated.