I could share, as I have before, something deeply reverential and reflective about what transpired for me on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the 10 years since. Or I could go another way and quote Flora, a 9/11 widow, about why she doesnt like to attend the memorials of that day:
When I do go to those things, people are just so incessantly respectful, ya know? Even peoples voices -- however sweet they mean to be -- just the tone is like nails on a blackboard. They talk to everyone like theyre 90 years old: 'Oh, yes, yes, dear, we have a special section for you all. I mean seriously: ugh & Solemnity has its limits ...
Incessantly respectful? Did she just say that?
Its not what you think shell say, playwright/director Charles Evered says in our recent interview.
There is a smidgen of satisfaction in his voice when I mention the impact of Floras scathing honesty because she is a figment of Evereds imagination, a character in a play he has written. Yet in a way, she isnt imaginary at all. This is art spouting truth.
What Evered has done is capture how exceedingly comfortable one has to be with another person to express this way. It is arguably what is most engaging in his 12-minute play -- Ten (premiering at the Arts Council of Princeton on Sept. 10 at 4:30 p.m. EST ) -- written to mark the surreal decade since the day that changed everything. In it, Flora is conversing with Doug, a police officer shes known for a long time, who confronts her at a suburban New Jersey train station about why every day, even 10 years later, she still waits for her husband to get off the train at 7:38.
One doesnt have to have a memory of 9/11 to understand this play at all, Evered says. You just have to have lost.
And he has. Again and again. His parents when he was young. His brother last year. It is why he can earnestly talk about gallows humor as a way to survive. And why he has developed the following approach when he talks to his two kids about death:
& [L]ets live a kick-ass life. Lets be engaged and communicate. Lets not leave anything on the table. The pain of death is that which is incomplete, that which we didnt say to each other. If you live a full life that is engaged and in the moment, then death isnt as scary because you dont have regret.
Case in point -- of a full life, that is -- is the unfolding of Evereds, the paths he has taken, the instincts he has been smart enough to follow. A native of Rutherford, N.J. who graduated from Rutgers-Newark and then went on to earn his MFA at Yale, he enrolled in the Navy Reserve at age 34. Read that again. Yale Drama and the Navy.
The idea of someone in the military services becoming a creative writer is only strange in the last 20, 30 years, Evered says. Thats my estimation. Because when you think about Norman Mailer, who served, or my teacher at Yale, George Roy Hill, who was a great writer/director, he was a marine. When you think of Glenn Ford, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, when you think of any number of people that served their country, it wasnt that strange back then. But from Vietnam on, there seem to have been two worlds created.
Rare or no, it is when those two worlds coalesced for Evered that who he is and what his art could be started to take shape.
I dont understand how we are going to make good theatre if we dont live interesting lives first, Evered says.
It was in 1999 while researching a project for DreamWorks that Evered found himself in San Diego on an aircraft carrier. While there, he became acutely aware of the disparity between kids who are making maybe 17 grand a year living in their little cots and he and the producers who had pulled up in a limousine.
I just couldnt have felt worse about myself or my career, he says. I just thought to myself, if theres a nadir of your career, its when youre stepping out of a limo to be given a tour of an aircraft carrier. Youre not really adding anything to society. I thought, Im not doing anything. Im super well-educated. Im making what people might consider a lot of money. But I felt totally hollow in what I was doing.
The next thing Evered knew, he was entertaining the notion of joining the Navy Reserve and then making it a reality. His wife thought he was crazy, but was supportive. During the week he was rendezvousing with agents and producers in his Hollywood life and one weekend a month he would go to Point Mugu in California and pick up cigarette butts and meet people of different stripes.
It was the most amazing thing I ever got to experience, Evered says. It was a complete blessing. It was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life because it diversified my life. It shook it up and it took me in a direction no one expected me to go.
It wasnt patriotic jingoism. It wasnt like I was waving a flag. It was saying I want to serve something greater than my little world.
About a year and a half into it, Sept. 11 happened and he feels strongly he got it on a level he might not have had he not joined the Navy. He got it as a man who had taken an oath to defend the constitution and support the president.
It was a groundbreaking, eye-opening awakening for me that these things happened in order that way, Evered says.
He was 3,000 miles away in Walla Walla, Wash., as a writer-in-residence at Whitman College when those planes hit the Twin Towers. His Naval Reserve unit was based in Manhattan, though, so he had been commuting to New York once a month. As soon as he was able to get a flight a few days later, he came east. He and the navy photographer in his unit soon realized there would be no helping to save people at that point, only clearing.
It was still on fire, it was still hot, he says. Everybody was still in shock. I remember the perimeter, the alarms every couple of minutes, thinking there might be another collapse of another building & I remember these amazing images of catering. All these amazing restaurants uptown would send down food for the workers and & so youd be sitting there at these white linen tables eating food that would typically cost you $45 a plate while across the street youre looking at literal hell.
Like so many Americans, Evered felt the tangibility of evil as he looked at the twisted metal and chaos.
It wasnt theoretical, it wasnt in a college course, it wasnt in a fairy tale, it wasnt in a movie theatre, he says. Someone thought about this. At that time we didnt know exactly, but two years previous there were young people in Munich sitting around and then Florida and then Newark & planning the deaths of thousands of people.
When he flew back to Whitman College in Washington less than two weeks after the attacks, Evered recalls being on the idyllic, grassy campus and hearing all the philosophical discussions that were already taking place. During one of those, he looked down at his black work boots and around the ridge where the leather meets the rubber, he noticed about an eighth of an inch of gray ash.
I remember realizing those were the shoes I was wearing on the pile, he says. Here I am, 3,000 miles away within earshot of this theoretical discussion on why this happened to us in the middle of this beautiful campus, looking down at part of the remnants of 3,000 human beings.
That kind of stark reality is what the product of Yale Drama and the Navy Reserve is bringing to his craft. From there, for the first anniversary of 9/11, he wrote a short play called Adopt a Sailor about a young sailor from Arkansas who comes upon two people on the Upper West Side. This was Evereds two worlds merging in his art -- an intimate knowledge of the intelligentsia in New York and that of military life.
Adopt a Sailor went on to become a feature film (it is currently airing on Showtime) starring Bebe Neuwirth, Peter Coyote and Ethan Peck. Directed by Evered (his first feature), it was an official selection at more than 20 national and international film festivals. Since then, he has started a production company called Ordinance 14 and among his play, film and television credits is his latest film, A Thousand Cuts, to be released this fall.
Evered and his family divide their time between Princeton and Los Angeles, a lifestyle he has taken to and loves sharing with his children. In addition to living in the moment, he makes a point of stressing to them the importance of engaging fellow human beings. That idea comes through powerfully in Ten as Flora and Doug connect on an anniversary fraught with emotional landmines.
Oh, and the reading of the names thing, Flora says in the play. I feel like this year -- this has GOT to be it for that. They gave us our 10 years, but come 11, mark my words, itll be like an announcement before a play: In lieu of reading the entire list of names, we will be reading a randomly chosen sampling of only those names containing the vowels a, i and o. I mean seriously, who could blame people for getting a little sick of it, ya know? I mean, I read & I go online, I listen to people, I hear what a lot of people are saying: Move on.
Part of it & is she wants her humanity back, Evered says. While shes appreciative of all the names being read, part of her might be relieved that that stops because she wants to move on & This is about hopefully getting unstuck in time.
Evered says the characters lived in his head for months. He was haunted by an article describing how police officers were called upon to drive home some of the cars abandoned at train stations and fascinated with how those stations became memorials. Then, understanding the psychology of wanting a magic solution after great loss, he constructed a scenario for Flora where the number 10 figured prominently in her life; in that light, expecting her husband to disembark from that train on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 seemed almost logical to her.
This play took me 45 minutes to write and 10 years of living to get to that 45 minutes, Evered says.
So the takeaway for the audience ideally is?
I have no profound insights except maybe just to walk away with more of an understanding of what moving on means, Evered says. And the appreciation for living the every day and how its important that we stay open and stay alive in terms of our inner life. Because really this is a story that in 12 minutes a woman goes from being deluded in the worst kind of way to being open at least to taking someones hand and perhaps moving on with her life. And thats a big leap to take in 10 or 12 minutes.
Or, in some cases, a decade.
Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.