Jo Salas

Writing and Playback Theatre

When it happened

(I wrote this reflection in September, 2012. Now it is September, 2016)

For a while after September 11th we didn’t know how to refer to the cataclysm we spoke of day and night. “The bombing” wasn’t accurate. “The attacks on the World Trade Center” was too much of a mouthful and left out the Pentagon and the plane that fell in the Pennsylvania countryside. What we usually said was “when it happened” or “since it happened.” There was no need to say what “it” was. After a while—weeks? longer?—it acquired a name: “September 11th” or “9/11.” Now that date is here again.

A year ago, I was at my desk when my daughter phoned to say that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. “Listen to the radio!” she told me, and rushed back to her own radio. I turned on WNYC, the source of news in our television-less household. Nothing but an unnerving silence. I learned later that WNYC’s transmission antenna had been on top of one of the towers. It was months before I heard WNYC’s familiar voices again. I tried another radio station. Confusingly, they seemed to be talking about two planes, not one. I called to the carpenters who were working on my house. They came inside and we listened to the unfolding news together, staring at each other in disbelief. Our small town is an hour and a half from Times Square. Local residents go there for lunch, or a show, or to work. Many of us have family members and close friends who live in the city.

From that moment on, I had the unprecedented sense of knowing that whoever I was with, strangers or not, many or few, we were all engulfed in the same shock and grief. Conversations began easily, slipping without hesitation to feelings and personal stories. Our emotions were on our skin. Every day I wept, prompted to tears by a song, a radio interview, a news report of a rescue or a last message of love on someone’s voice mail. I didn’t grieve for the World Trade Center itself. I had always disliked the arrogance and ugliness of the buildings: the flaunting of wealth and power. My tears were for the three thousand people in the planes and the buildings who had had scant moments to know that they were about to die; it was for their families; it was for us, exiled forever from our illusion of safety.

But it was not long before that extraordinary shared grief became mixed with a sense of profound division. The clamor for violent retaliation rose quickly, undampened by the fact we could not identify any other nation as being responsible for the attacks. Some took revenge into their own hands by insulting or assaulting people who might be, by their appearance or name, of Arab origin. Others of us had different instincts, fearing most of all the prospect of a war that was potentially endless against the abstraction of “terror.” We wanted to protect ourselves without creating more tragedy.

American flags sprouted overnight on cars, houses, storefronts, and telephone poles. They made me afraid and angry—most of all when they were raised like horns on each side of a brand-new, gas-hungry SUV, as though our addiction to oil had nothing to do with this catastrophe. I had to calm myself by seeing the flags as superstitiousness, signs of fear and the longing to be safe, like two crossed fingers held up against the devil. Someone planted a small flag in the pot of chrysanthemums on the porch of the converted Victorian house where we had an office. After a couple of days I asked my neighbor in the office next door if he knew who’d put it there. He didn’t. He went downstairs to ask the building’s owner, and came back in a minute, flag in hand. The owner had no idea how it had got there either. None of us embraced the bristling patriotism it represented. The flag did not return to the porch.

I had the strange sensation of being in a prolonged and shared dream: the difference between dreaming and waking became blurred. Like others, I felt a dreadful vulnerability and fatalism, along with disbelief. Could this really happen? Had this really happened? Then why not again, and worse? Again, the dreamlike sense of inevitability, passivity in the face of doom. My husband was about to go to Burundi to work with a group of Hutu and Tutsi actors and in preparation was reading a book about the massacre in Rwanda called We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. The title of the book flooded me with despair for the Rwandans whose fatalistic words these were, but also, I realized, for ourselves. I turned the book over on its back every time I saw it lying on a table or the couch.

I was travelling too. A couple of weeks after 9/11 I was in Germany, teaching theatre. Participants in their sixties, old traumas stirred up by the attacks, told stories about being bombed in the Second World War. They were full of concern and empathy for us. I appreciated their kindness but I could talk about what had happened for only a few minutes before I had to excuse myself and find somewhere to cry.

The night before I was to fly home I was in an Indian restaurant in Berlin. “The war has started,” the waiter told me in English, smiling. Perhaps he thought I would be pleased. Later that night, sickened, I watched news coverage of the first US attacks on Afghanistan. I tried to block thoughts of the increased danger of air travel now that we were “at war.” In Zurich airport, where I waited for several hours between flights, passengers sat in tense silence. When a door slammed people leapt up from their seats, ready to run.

Travelling again in February and April, this time to New Zealand and Japan, I hardly heard the words “9/11” at all. The events of that day, though deeply felt everywhere in the world at the time, had receded for people in other countries and in other parts of the US. In New Zealand the topic among my friends and relatives was the increasingly dangerous behavior of Bush and his team. Although I shared their perception I surprised myself by wanting to be back home where others still lived with the aftermath of trauma the way I did, constantly present in our feelings as well as in the practicalities of our daily lives. Life was far from back to normal.

Now it is a year later. In my community we still say and hear “September 11” or “9/11” many times a day. The skies have cleared but the loss of life and livelihood shadow us.

We are still afraid, but the fear of another terrorist attack is now compounded by the violence that our own government has unleashed and will yet unleash, unconstrained, it seems, by accountability to the rest of the world. The backlash against people of Muslim or Middle Eastern origin has shifted from assaults by individuals to the more insidious threat of imprisonment and deportation. Long-standing residents have been taken away in the middle of the night, even in this benign town. In March the New York Times reported that 1,000 people from the northeast were being detained in New Jersey jails, unnamed and uncharged. The government is busy creating a massively funded department of “homeland security” which will employ 170,000 people and operate in secrecy. The last presidential election taught us not to count on the democratic process. We have never been so powerless.

We live now with a sense of contingency: nothing is the same, nothing is safe, danger is everywhere. And yet ordinary life continues, in its comfortingly small scale. We treasure our joys and hold hands against terror.



The link is story

There is a link, of course, between my fiction-writing life and my Playback Theatre life. The link is story. In Playback performances, workshops, and rehearsals, I listen to stories about real life, all kinds of stories, from all kinds of people. Sometimes the teller tells something that immediately sounds like a story: it begins with a “once upon a time,” a “platform,” in Keith Johnstone’s terms, and goes on to some kind of turning–a surprise, a disaster, a revelation. And eventually there is a resolution, or at least a considered place to stop.

Often the teller’s story does not yet have this arc. It may be implicit, and will take form with a judicious question or two.

Five-year old teller in Scotland.

Five-year old teller in Scotland.

Or it may be more like a cluster of thoughts, feelings, observations. But there is always something emerging, something that propels these words to be spoken, in this place and time, in front of these particular people. The teller talks and the story comes into the light, sometimes changing direction or crystallizing as the conversation unfolds. As the “conductor,” I sit beside the teller and listen, occasionally asking a question to clarify a detail or to reflect what seems to be the path of the story. There comes a moment when what needs to be told has been told, and now it is up to the actors and musician to transform it into embodied theatre, reflecting the story’s meanings to the teller and to the audience. So that everyone understands. So that the story situates itself in our minds, hearts, and bodies.

This kind of storytelling is, integrally, a collaboration between the person who lived this experience, the performing team, and the audience. We are all necessary to the outcome. The story, as it moves from spoken dialogue into theatre with movement and interaction, and then into collective memory, belongs to all of us.

When I write fiction I am alone with my laptop. I have no collaborator. The story may grow from something that a real person said or did, something that I witnessed. But quickly it slips into a different realm. The story is not a factual record. I do not portray real people but people who have acquired faces, voices, histories, and yearnings in the realm of my imagination.

As with the Playback scenes, a story emerges, with shape, themes, a set of meanings that interweave and refract each other.

Many of the stories I hear in performances are rich enough to work on the page. But I don’t parlay Playback stories into fiction. They are not mine to write. My relationship to them is midwife, not author. I do not want to exploit this bond of trust.

But my two story worlds are not entirely separate. Playback teaches me what a story is. It teaches me how to construct something with aesthetic form out of the raw material of a life event, or an arresting perception. Writing stories sharpens my discernment of the layers of these unrehearsed but resonant narratives offered by audience members. It tunes my ears to beauty and meaning.

“A literary vision of Playback beyond theatre”

A man in Germany sent me this email recently after reading Dancing with Diana:

“I sat down, took your book, reading – tears coming – continue reading. I was kind of surprised how tense and how painful you was [were] willing (and able) to depict those scenes at school, and also their reverberations in later life. I also appreciate – and share – your empathy with Diana in her last days.

The reader grasps the possibility of change, at least in our mind and in what we remember, when Alex returns to his former school and speaks frankly. I think this is a literary vision of Playback beyond theatre, of a single – yet connected human being who is acting as a citizen.”

Alex and Michele’s experience with bullying is firmly based on Playback work in schools but I had not thought of this further connection. This reader is a filmmaker who is familiar with Playback Theatre. His comment illuminated something for me—the parallels between this story and Playback’s role in society of bearing witness.


People ask me…

…why on earth did I write a novel about Diana? This is what I wrote at Codhill Press’s blog:

While painting my kitchen a few years ago I listened to CDs of Tina Brown reading her book The Diana Chronicles. Amidst the mostly familiar saga of ill-fated romance, pomp, glory, and rebellion, she recounted the story of Princess Diana’s schoolgirl visits to an institution for people with disabilities. There, while her schoolmates hung back in embarrassment, 15-year-old Diana was perfectly at ease. She would dance with the patients in wheelchairs, grasping the arms of the chair and moving backwards with her dancer’s grace.

I was struck by this story. It seemed to show that Diana’s extraordinary ability to connect with all kinds of people, particularly those dealing with illness or hardship, was present long before she was in the public eye. And I found myself wondering about the people she danced with. What was it like for them? Did any of them remember that moment later when she became the most adored person in the world?

That brief anecdote was the seed of Dancing with Diana. The unnamed adult patients inspired my imaginary Alex, a boy the same age as Diana. Alex has cerebral palsy. He also has guts and a sense of humor, and gains a kind of wisdom as he gets older. With his friend Michele, he endures severe school bullying from children who have no understanding of disability. Michele’s tragic fate leads him indirectly to his encounter with Diana.

Having involved myself with a main character who was disabled, I tried to learn about what his life might have been like. I visited the town in the west of England where I pictured him living and asked people there about how disabled children would have been educated in the 1970’s and 80’s. I listened to long interviews with individuals with cerebral palsy who would have been about Alex’s age. And in London I met a young man in a wheelchair who generously told me about his life.

Dancing with Diana is also her story. Diana’s life, of course, is highly documented, but I imagined thoughts and memories and aspirations that might have been in her mind on that final day before her death. And I gave her a big, wonderful project that (as far as I know, and the British government isn’t telling) is entirely fictional.

Man at the helm

Recently read Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe, having hugely enjoyed her memoir-in-letters Love, Nina. Man at the Helm reads like a memoir as well. It’s a sad and funny story, closely based on her childhood, when she and her sister tried to cope with harsh village prejudice by finding a new husband for their youthful, posh, penniless, alcoholic, and divorced mother. Stibbe has a great voice and a wickedly observant eye—I’m curious what she’ll write now (both of these recent publications were actually written thirty years ago).

© 2023 Jo Salas

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑