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'The Guys': Anne Nelson's 9/11 play dances with relationships

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 22, 2011 - The terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, transformed us, as a nation and as individuals, in ways both predictable and unexpected. To her surprise, it turned journalist Anne Nelson into a playwright.

A two-person play born of Nelson's emotional conversations with a New York City fire captain just after 9/11 will be presented Aug. 26 through Sept. 11 at the ArtSpace in Crestwood Court. The St. Louis staging of "The Guys' is one of many across the nation commemorating the 10th anniversary of the strike against the Twin Towers, as well as the Pentagon and the thwarted effort that crashed near Shanksville, Pa.

Just after 9/11, the veteran war correspondent and Columbia University journalism professor was called upon to help the captain write eulogies for eight men he'd lost in rescue efforts. The hours she spent with the captain were both heart-wrenching and inspiring.

Nelson wanted to share the experience but felt an article wasn't enough. Though she had acting experience in high school and as a Yale undergrad, she'd never written a play. But with the words pouring out of her every night after putting her 9- and 10-year-olds to bed, she finished "The Guys" in little more than a week.

"I'd sit down and write until I would just fall over," Nelson said.

It turned out that "The Guys" had legs that took off due to another fortuitous encounter. Just after finishing the play, Nelson met actor Sigourney Weaver's husband Jim Simpson, artistic director of the off-Broadway Flea Theatre, who was interested in what she had written.

Within weeks, the production featuring Weaver and Bill Murray was playing to sold-out audiences. Weaver also starred with actor Anthony LaPaglia in the 2002 movie by the same name. Since then, the play has been presented in more than 60 theaters throughout the U.S. and in 14 other countries.

In one of the most moving scenes, the characters of Joan and Nick dance the tango. During a recent interview, Nelson talked with the Beacon about the inclusion of the whimsical sequence and her overall vision for "The Guys." Here are some excerpts:

There are other plays based on 9/11. Why is yours still relevant?

Nelson: Some of the other plays have a lot of anger and bitterness. There was already enough darkness, and I was trying to grab on to some rays of light.

There was this moment when I thought, "This play is getting so dark," and I put in the tango, and then I thought, "Nobody is going to let me do this."

Then I thought, "No one is going to produce this play anyway, so I can put in anything I want."

Did the two of you actually dance?

Nelson: He was indeed a serious ballroom dancer, but we did not dance.

One thing I wanted to say in the play is that a man and a woman can have an intense bond that's not about sex, that's just a friendship and a mutual understanding and a respect. That happens in life but it doesn't get depicted very often.

We all dance with each other all the time: writers dance with their editors, teachers dance with her students. We're all engaged with each other like that, and that's the beauty of life.

More than 300 firefighters died in the rescue efforts of 9/11. What have been the reactions of first responders to the play?

Nelson: I can't tell you how many firefighters have brought their families. They say, "It's really hard talking to my wife about this stuff so I'm gong to bring her to the play so she understands."

What about critical acclaim?

Nelson: Well, it's not avant guard, and it's not edgy. The people treat each other well. And I just say, "You know what, this happened, too, and not everything has to be avant guard and edgy and have people taking their clothes off." In terms of the arts establishment, I had to let that roll off my back.

"The Guys" is coming back to Simpson's Flea Theatre in New York along with its other anniversary stagings. What other legacy does it have?

Nelson: A fire officer who's also actor used it at the New York state fire academy to lead workshops for counseling in line-of-duty deaths. It was so effective that he took it to the national fire academy and to a national chiefs meeting, and those chiefs took it home and used it at conventions all over the country as an opener for a conversation about support services.

You're from Stillwater, Okla. What connections to St. Louis do you have?

Nelson: I've been to St. Louis a few times. When you're living in Stillwater, St. Louis is the big city to the east, so that's how I always thought of it. I'm so pleased that it's being done in St. Louis because everything that's done in the Midwest has a special meaning for me.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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