Anne Nelson had tough choices to make. As an eager twenty-something from Oklahoma, she looked forward to seizing opportunities beyond the panhandle state, but questioned whether or not she had the fortitude to deal with traumatic events. She came to the conclusion that a choice to back away from life’s discomfort is not a healthy way of living and took the plunge into journalism. It took her to Central American war zones in El Salvador and Guatemala. In her position as a foreign correspondent, she would meet fellow journalists for coffee and days later, would learn that they had been tortured and killed by death squads. “Suddenly, I came back to New York and would attend dinner parties where I felt like the ‘weird one’ because I just wasn’t on the same wavelength,” she said during a recent phone interview. “Normalcy meant working my way back to a state where I’d be able to fit in.”
Those experiences helped to inform her work on the stage and in 2001, she made her play-writing debut with The Guys, a bare-bones drama about 9/11 which premiered at Manhattan’s Flea Theater exactly twelve weeks to the day following the attacks. Prior to its staging, Nelson was seated at a bar in Soho with Jim Simpson, the artistic director of the Flea. The company had been looking for a piece that would artistically speak to the horrors of 9/11. At that point, Nelson, who had already written the play, didn’t yet have an agent. She grabbed a cocktail napkin and wrote, “I donate this play to you [Simpson] for a month”. In spite of having little publicity, the show, which starred Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray, became a phenomenon and has been produced every year since it’s been written. Last month, Bear Back Brooke Productions staged a version at the Davenport Theatre, a former fire house in Hells Kitchen. It will also be seen at the New York City Fireman’s Museum on February 20st and is planning to remount in a New York City venue soon.
Shortly after the initial stage run, Hollywood knocked. Interested producers wanted to give it a conventional treatment in sensationalizing the poignant play with a depiction of the falling twin towers and adding a sex scene. Nelson, maintained her integrity and refused. Later, she met independent producers who gave her script approval. “I didn’t want the piece to re-traumatize people but rather, I wanted it to be a healing experience. What resulted was a smaller budget art-house film that is honest and artful in its own way.” The 2002 film was released by Focus features and starred Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia.
The two character story introduces us to “Joan” (an auto-biographical version of Nelson) and “Nick”, a firefighter captain charged with delivering eulogies to eight men who were killed on the day that two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. Throughout the one act piece, Joan delicately inquires about the lost lives so that Nick is able to deliver a fitting memorial to their family and friends. “One reason that people respond to this play is because they share the same emotions as Joan,” Nelson explained. “You start out with this fuzzy notion of who firefighters really are and in the course of writing and hearing these eulogies, the ciphers become fleshed out into human beings. In that way, you care more and can access your emotions.” Nelson noted that writing the piece proved to be a cathartic experience for her, as it enabled her to process emotions she felt during her time covering war torn areas in Latin America. In addition, those experiences led her to become the director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. In this role, she worked on protocols and wrote guidelines for journalists who had interviewed survivors of traumatic experiences.
Nelson, who serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor Lecturer of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, did not rest on her laurels after the success of her first play. Since The Guys, she has written Savages, about military occupation in the filipines, and is currently fine-tuning her third play, set in Jordan. Her goal is to write a trilogy with an overarching theme of Americans in the World. “Between my experiences of being a Midwesterner, a New Yorker, and traveling to countries for human rights research, I wanted to explore the role of the United States in these global relationships.” She’s also finishing a book about a spectacular rescue of Jewish Children in occupied Paris. It has been optioned by the Weinstein Company and soon, she may be writing the screenplay for this yet to be titled project.
In the meantime, Nelson approves all productions of The Guys and is proud of the fact that it has been used by fire academies and State Fire Associations to deal with line of duty deaths. The Kennedy Center has also used her work to create a high school curriculum to teach students how to use dramatic writing to cover actual events.
The Guys will play a special performance on Saturday Feb 20th at 7:30 PM ET at the New York Fire Museum (278 Spring Street between Varick and Hudson) For tickets, click here . For further information, visit: http://www.theguysplay.com/