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An online collaboration among more than a dozen American playwrights written during the six months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Return to the Upright Position explores reactions to the tragic event that shook America.
The play will be performed by the Athena Company, a mostly female student theatrical group founded last year to provide an alternative venue for women who otherwise might not participate in campus theater.
The play’s title, taken by editor-writer Caridad Svich from a billboard advertisement in New York City located near Ground Zero, embodies the theme of regaining stability and normalcy during turbulent times.
Perhaps the play accomplishes this goal so well because it was not intended, at first, as a theatrical piece. After Sept. 11, 2001, Svich and 13 other writers (whom she had worked with previously on other plays) exchanged e-mails of journal entries, stories and poems as they struggled to express their emotional response to the attacks.
“I was at a bit of a loss as to where to go next as a writer,” says Svich, a current fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “I got an e-mail from [previous collaborator] Julie Hebert, who said she was filled with silence and didn’t know what to do with it but felt that it was full of something to say.”
The play combines many individuals’ political and personal experiences during the months after the attack on the World Trade Center.
The script consists of integrated poetry and monologues which can be divided between different characters as chosen by the director; it has been previously read by casts ranging from three to nine actors.
“I tried to weave it in some fashion so that it would tell the story of a personal journey refracted from many points of view,” said Svich. “I wanted to keep the idea of a document, the record of a time, but also find ways of presenting it so…we can think beyond the specific events of 9/11 to [catastrophic] world events now and in the past.”
Laura P. Perry ’04, an Athena Company board member at the time of the play’s preparation, agreed that the play would provide a sort of time-travel experience back to an historical turning point: “It’s a transportation back to a year and a half ago to what we were thinking then and not what we’re thinking now. With the rapid change of world events, it’s nice to stop back and see how it started.”
The innovative play will undergo even more experimentation at the Athena Company’s reading for Arts First.The Athena Company first planned the reading as one workshop within a series which would allow students to work with professionals on play writing, light design and acting. Athena asked Alan Symonds of Radcliffe’s Agassiz Theater to lead a workshop on light design, Svich to lead a workshop about writing and Lisa DiFranza, a director of the Portland Stage Company, to work with students on directing.
The performance, to be delivered with scripts in hand, will feature seven actresses and will take advantage of what Svich calls the “intimate but slightly public feeling” of the Carpenter Center and the venue’s advanced lighting and sound technology. Svich also said that she and DiFranza will present an interpretation of the piece that unifies the characters’ perspectives by meshing their voices in new ways and placing some actresses in the audience.
“Caridad was very much influenced by the media coverage of September 11,” said Perry, “What we’re trying to convey is that you’re in a TV studio and that you’re saying various clips telling about their reactions and feeling overwhelmed the way a lot of people felt after September 11 with the deluge of all the information and images.”
Svich said that she wants this version of Return to take the audience on “an emotional journey in a very compact time.”
“The play will really be surrounding them, engulfing the audience through sound and spoken word,” she says.
Despite Athena’s relatively short preparation period—the group says it will not stage a dress rehearsal in the Carpenter Center—its strong record indicates that the actresses, especially with the guidance of a professional director, will both learn and convey much through their performance.
The company staged the Vagina Monologues and an all-female version of The Merchant of Venice earlier this year, as well as an anti-war reading of Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata.
Perry said, “What we strive for is not only to put on really good shows and have fun, but to include people who might not get involved in theatre, especially women, and to create a safe, fun and welcoming environment where people can make friends and not feel really competitive.”
—Return to the Upright Position will be performed Saturday, May 3 at 2:30 p.m. in the Carpenter Center.
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