Annie Thoms on Devising ‘with their eyes’ in the Wake of 9/11
BY ALLIE WAXMAN
Stuyvesant High School English teacher Annie Thoms opens up about developing the play 'with their eyes' in the months after the September 11 attacks.
Stuyvesant High School English teacher and theater advisor Annie Thoms was 25 the morning she stepped out of the subway on September 11, 2001 and realized the world had suddenly changed. In the months following the September 11th attacks, Thoms and her students returned to their school just four blocks from Ground Zero, and began creating an interview-based biographical piece of theater inspired by the work of Anna Deavere Smith. The play, with their eyes, is comprised of 23 monologues from the perspectives of the school’s students, faculty and staff, and offers individual perspectives on a tragedy that affected the entire community. In this interview and in the accompanying short, Thoms reveals how she and her students pieced together the play and what it meant for their school community.
HBO: Walk me through the process of creating with their eyes.
Annie Thoms: I was in my second year of teaching at Stuyvesant, and I was the theater faculty advisor as well as an English teacher. In the days and weeks after September 11th, I was struck by the students’ need to tell their stories. I was struck that even though we had this experience that was the experience of our entire community, there were these variations of experience that people really felt they needed to share. When we came back together, I worked with our students to create a play made of interview-based monologues in the style of Anna Deavere Smith. We chose more than twenty interviewees from the Stuyvesant community, [including] students, faculty and staff. The basic idea of this play is that a single story is not enough to show the experience of a community. You can get to the truth of the experience and the complexity by hearing these different voices.
HBO: Why was it important for the students to perform stories that weren’t theirs?
Annie Thoms: We were following the model of Anna Deavere Smith. In her plays, she interviews a number of different people from different backgrounds. Part of the empathetic link of the work, and part of the power of this kind of oral history-based theater, is that you have somebody who is interviewing a speaker and portraying the person they interviewed. It’s a combination of distance and empathy. When you are tasked with interviewing someone and portraying them you have a responsibility to that person. We felt strongly that it was important for students to interview and perform across gender, race and age lines. In some ways these stories are both individual and deeply human and communal.
HBO: Was there anything you learned while creating the play that surprised you?
Annie Thoms: We were recording these interviews in late October, November, early December — right after the attacks. We had this one evening where we sat on the stage of the theater and everybody read their monologues out loud. It was astonishing to me in that moment that we had really captured such a variety of voices. In each of these monologues there was something familiar; when there was something not familiar there was a [response of], “oh, that wasn’t my reaction, but I hear that now.” It surprised me and made total sense that there was a moment where everything was still very raw but we had had a little time to start to process it. It was the right moment to capture those stories.