In a week of stark images, somber ceremonies and pleas for Americans to re-animate the spirit of unity engendered by the horrific events of September 11, 2001, as politicians and pundits deliver sobering speeches and commentary on the grim realities of terrorism and war, it is the artist who will focus on the human interior, transforming the literal calamity into the legend and folklore of our time. Composers, visual artists, choreographers, filmmakers and playwrights have spent the past decade trying to make sense out of 9/11. As this tenth anniversary unfolds, the nation is presented with a vast and varied gallery of artistic treatments.
LA’s critically acclaimed Son of Semele Ensemble was compelled to be part of this national artistic conversation. Artistic director Matthew McCray was anxious to find a play that not only commemorated the horrors of 9/11 in a non-literal manner, but also explored the response to the tragedy from those on the West Coast. His mind kept going back to a script he had received a few years earlier from New Dramatists through its “Script Share” program, which matches playwrights with like-minded theaters. Playwright Stephanie Fleishmann had fashioned a fascinating piece floating between fantasy and reality that paired the 9/11 attacks with Danish fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen.
McCray loved the play, but it was all about New York and he wanted the LA connection. Fortunately he found in Fleischmann the kind of playwright who was willing to rework and redevelop a project she thought was finished. McCray recalls Fleischmann’s stories of creating the play immediately after the event. “She didn’t step out to write a 9/11 play using Andersen tales. In fact she couldn’t write, she was shut down after the attack.Â She would just walk the streets and start collecting and writing down imagery she was seeing ““ things people might forget.Â She already had this idea to create a bunch of Andersen adaptations and had one or two already written.Â Then she started to add those images to the play. People are fascinated by this melding of Andersen and 9/11, because it is so unexpected.Â But she didn’t have a divine plan, she was just compelled to bring these two disparate elements together.”
What was surprising to Fleischmann, and later McCray, was how well the pairing worked. McCray explains, “Andersen blends mythic ideas with mundane and pedestrian characters. He creates a world where impossible things happen. That’s what I found was interesting about the play when I first read it, that in the play impossible things happen. On 9/11 the impossible happened.Â It takes the idea that 9/11 is not a fantastical thing, it’s a very real thing, but on a scale and type of event that is completely unfathomable or was at that time.Â The idea that a plane would fly into the World Trade Center and it would collapse and New York would be shut down – those kinds of things now we are almost numb to, but at the time it was completely unimaginable.”
McCray knew he wanted to produce the play for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but he was still concerned about the LA connection. Â McCray explains the process that led to rewriting the play. “Stephanie is originally from LA and still has family here. She came out and we did a reading for her. We had already committed to the production but didn’t really know what that meant.Â We had informally talked about putting an LA story into the play.Â While we do agree 9/11 hit New York City hardest, we also wanted the unusual perspective of seeing the event from afar and what that does to somebody. That’s our experience and we wanted to bring it into the production.” Fleischmann was happy to work with the company. The structure is a melding of five contemporary adaptations of Andersen stories. She agreed to cut one of the tales and replace it with a new one. “Stephanie wrote an entirely new adaptation of “˜The Little Mermaid’ set in Los Angeles.Â It is woven into the piece and became our starting point for the play.”
Though it becomes clear that the theme of the play is the September 11 attack, it is never specifically and literally stated. McCray wanted to create an enormous fantasy world that is shaken into reality by the attacks. The production is one of the largest undertakings in Son of Semele’s 10-year history.Â “It is very visual,” McCray says. “There is a substantial amount that needed to be created from scratch because the images are so important. It is also a very physical piece. Everybody is playing multiple roles, so it’s like Greater Tuna for 11 actors, but has a real dramatic core.Â It is in two parts with completely different styles — one is more of a fairy tale or stylized farce and the other is more grounded and centered in story.”
The essential story and image is from a little known Andersen tale, “What the Moon Saw,” about the moon remaining above the earth observing the trials of humanity. McCray describes the visual and psychological images he wanted.Â “I was very interested in vertical space, that the moon is above looking down as a frame for the whole play. It is like the interstitial material that ties everything together. It is like four Andersen tales wrapped in a fifth. Andersen himself is a character as he travels throughout the stories; he and the moon hold the play together. We have embraced the idea that this is an event that can never be fully captured on stage. That the tragedy is better spoken about in metaphorical, poetic terms.”
Staged Hans Christian Andersen of course evokes images of children’s theater, but the 9/11 theme would argue against it. McCray explains, “Though this is not specifically for children, it is not overtly unfriendly for children. There is a “˜Toy Theater’ aspect to the play, because there is a childlike wonder about Andersen’s tales, and I wanted to capture as much of that as I could even though we’re blending it into tragic events.Â It is a high-contrast production aesthetically and story-wise. It goes from a Story Theater, plastic two-dimensional world into a very gritty three-dimensional reality that hopefully touches the audience.”
In 2000, McCray, a recent graduate of Chapman University’s intense actor training program gathered 10 fellow actors (classmates, teachers, friends) with a burning desire to create. They began with McCray’s new script Earthlings, which launched an artistically and critically successful decade. “We produced first nomadically for two years,” McCray recalls. “Then in 2003 we started our own space because we were finding it difficult to do some of the more technical and visual elements of our pieces under the rental system where we’d only get a few days before performances.”
The original concept was that it was a company of actors, but that changed as directorial concepts and new dramatic directions became more important than just good roles. “I directed the first show we did, but considered myself primarily an actor.Â It has become a directors’ company – as we discovered what we were.Â We really wanted to be inside pieces that were directorially driven, rather than actor driven. We were excited to do the kind of work we weren’t getting elsewhere.”
In addition to fulfilling the company members’ own artistic ambitions, Son of Semele set out to give a hand to other fledgling artists though an innovative program called SOSES Host.Â “We host other artists in LA for free at our venue,” McCray explains. “I pick those projects and curate them throughout the year. We take applications. When we have available time in our theater we actually pick the projects, based on artistic merit rather that rental fees. We don’t take the forefront of the producing, but I tend to assist them in getting the show up.Â We support them as we can ““ we are a small organization, but for our size to be able to offer what we are in terms of resources and time is sort of unheard of. We pick projects that would probably not be produced elsewhere. We look for new plays, plays with an aesthetic we are fascinated by. We want anything we do to further the branding of the company, not just pay the fee.”
This generosity of artistic spirit fulfills the the promise of the company’s name. The son of Semele is Dionysus, the god of wine whose festivals brought forth the creation of western theater in ancient Greece.
What The Moon Saw, or ‘I Only Appear To Be Dead,’ Son of Semele Ensemble, 3301 Beverly Boulevard, LA. 213-351-3507. September 9 – October 9. Fri-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m. Some Mondays, 7 p.m. (check calendar). www.sonofsemele.org/shows/moon.html.