Je Suis Paris

by David J. McGraw
Print

The attacks in Paris once again brought home the question of what the arts can do in the wake of terrorism.The previous post to this one (How Do You Say Standby) was inspired by a former student who was planning her first European tour as a stage manager and happened upon Mark Mongold’s translation tools in her preparations.  She arrived in Paris three days before the attacks and I have never been more grateful for social media to learn that she was safe that night of the attacks.

Thinking of my friend in Paris, physically safe but searching for what a stage manager should do during such an enormous tragedy, brought back memories of a first rehearsal.  It was a challenging show, the biggest of the season, and I had been planning for months to have my team ready for Day One.  Day One of rehearsal was September 11, 2001.

We were rehearsing in New York State, but not the City.  Physically, we were safe, at least as safe as anyone felt in any American city that day.  But most of my actors had apartments in NYC and those that didn't had dozens of friends there.  And here we were, a group of adults employed to stage a comedy.  “Farcical” took on an added meaning that day.  What to do?  What should my friend do with her company in Paris?

I am not trained in mental health, but what we did in 2001 is what I recommend stage managers do now: fully embrace the tragedy but offer solace through what we do best.  We didn’t try to ignore or hide anything: you are not protecting anyone and the world will puncture any bubble of denial you try to create.  After the first wave of shock and phone calls, we held a company meeting with no agenda.  We didn’t try to explain or make sense of the situation.  We simply created a forum for people to talk.  Or not talk.  Some just wanted to not be alone.  

We then discussed what we should do next.  This was our first day of rehearsal, but we already had a common bond that none of us wanted.  We discussed ending the project and sending everyone back to the city.  It was really helpful to talk about that option because some of my cast had the instinct to do just that.  But the more we discussed it, the more we realized that theatre folk trying to rush into the city during the crisis would not be particularly helpful and might even strain resources more.  How could we be helpful?  We could ‘go on with the show.’

We saw it with David Letterman and other entertainment leaders: people needed to grieve but they also desperately hungered for some traces of normalcy.  The theatre could offer our audiences an escape.  And I, as stage manager, could offer my company the normalcy of rehearsal.  So we embraced what happened but we fell back on our routines: read-throughs, blocking rehearsals, fittings, etc.  We weren’t being insensitive to the victims; we were honoring them with our honest work.  As Irving Berlin wrote, “There’s no people like show people, they smile when they are low.”

Let’s go on with the show.