By Holli Harms
Telling our stories has tremendous healing power. The same can be said for hearing the stories of others. Especially in times of unheard-of loss. 9/11 was one of those times. We all watched again and again on our screens the horror of the planes, the buildings, the smoke, and the people affected by the tragedy.
For the students, faculty, and staff of New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, they lived it all, in real-time. From the explosion of the first plane to the collapse of both towers. The school sits not three blocks from where the World Trade Towers stood. The towers were part of their everyday existence so on that sunny warm Tuesday morning of September 11th, 2001 when the first plane struck they felt it, they saw it right outside their school. They were soon ordered to leave the premises, told to start walking north up the West Side Highway. And so they did.
One of the teachers there that day, Annie Thoms, a Stuyvesant English teacher, and former Stuyvesant student herself, was walking with them.
In the weeks and months after the attack, Ms. Thoms, a theater advisor, started working with her students through the catharsis of putting together a play using the stories of individuals from the school and their experiences during and after. She was very familiar with Anna Deavere Smith’s works with “verbatim theater,” which is theatrical works created from interviews and transcribed verbatim. Ten of Ms. Thoms’ students interviewed 23 individuals from the student body, faculty, and staff, and then transcribed their words into a collection of stories as diverse as the individuals themselves. Those stories were woven together to create With Their Eyes, a beautiful, heartfelt, and yes, humorous theatrical journey that has been filmed with this year’s Stuyvesant students who weren’t even born when the towers went down. The first production of the play was produced only months after 9/11 at Stuyvesant High School, and again done on the ten-year anniversary mark, and was scheduled for the twenty-year anniversary but that was last year and a pandemic shut us all down. So this year, 2022, the all-student-run theatrical company at Stuyvesant put on the show. For safety matters, theirs and ours, they filmed it and put it on YouTube, which for all who do not live in the city is an unexpected gift.
The entire hour and forty-minute production can be seen HERE. It is a remarkable show. The students embody the real people they are portraying, some of whom are still staff and faculty at Stuyvesant. All of the performers (each wonderful in their portrayals) wear Covid masks that by their very nature, remove most of their face, but for the eyes, creating a Greek mask effect that allows you to truly hear the words and see the feelings expressed in the physicality of their bodies. It works beautifully. Nicole Itkin and Michael Borczuk, both co-directors of the piece, and Stuyvesant students themselves worked to trim the two-plus hours of the original to focus on the core elements of the stories.
Their staging creates flow and movement when needed and calm stillness when called for. They do a marvelous job with the piece. The casting does not conform to gender or race, and Itkin said this could not have been stressed more by Thoms. A story is a story, so let that be the focus, and the direction of the student actors only emphasizes that point adding clarity with movement. Theater is not easy, especially right now in this time of ours, but even though many rehearsals were on Zoom and the cast never really worked together in the same space until days before the production, the show still miraculously, as shows often do in the end, came together and rose off the page to present a heart pulling, compelling piece of theater.
As an English teacher Ms. Thoms believes, “The role of the English classroom is to help people to understand themselves and the world around them. If we want students to participate fully in the world we need to teach them to listen to themselves and to the many complex voices around them.”
I urge you, now that you have the wonderful opportunity to listen to the emotionally complex and multifaceted voices of the everyday people and their experiences being so close to 9/11, to watch this production and gain new insight.
You will honestly be surprised by what you didn’t know and what you will learn about that day from eyewitnesses to a catastrophic time in our history that forever changed the New York skyline and the world.
With Their Eyes has been produced in High Schools throughout the country. You may go HERE for more insight into Ms. Thoms creation With Their Eyes and her Monologue Project. And consider possibly creating a Monologue project in your community.
With Their Eyes, presented by Stuyvesant Theater Community.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
With Their Eyes PROGRAM