Print Edition: May 20, 2015
Gallery 7 Theatre stepped outside of the box this month, breaking away from their traditional venue at the Abbotsford Arts Centre to bring 110 Stories to the Reach Gallery Museum in Abbotsford. Written by Sarah Tuft and directed by Carissa Boynton, 110 Stories, named after the number of floors of the World Trade Centre, is based on accounts from people who witnessed the September 11 attacks, including fire fighters, police officers, ironworkers, New York City-dwellers, homeless persons, and employees within the Centre. The show debuted in New York in September 2003 and has since become popular all over North America, performed by high schools and at near-annual readings in New York by the likes of Neil Patrick Harris, Katie Holmes, and Samuel L. Jackson. By using relatable language and a minimalist set design, 110 Stories is accessible to performers and audiences alike.
The closeness of the attacks Tuft’s play is based on (happening within most of our lifetimes), as well as the chic location of the Reach, brought in a great turnout. However, the full impact of the personal accounts didn’t come across because of some simple logistical issues.
The largest problem with the Reach’s mini-stage was its acoustics, and the effect it had on the actors’ volume. The incessant echoing across the poorly insulated gallery took away from the play, simply because the audience couldn’t hear them. I found myself straining to make out the words, varying from actor to actor in their clarity and enunciation.
The Reach stage was set up like a thrust — a theatre with an audience sitting around three sides of the stage — built by UFV alumnus and head carpenter Bryan Cutler. Even though the seating was quite intimate, it did not work well for the way the play was performed. There were several times in the show when the actors would join together upstage to form a line, cutting off the vision of those sitting in the far seats of the bowl. A simple stage with seats facing one way would have been more effective, allowing the audience to see facial expressions without craning their necks.
With regards to acting, many of the actors suffered from classic problems: What do I do with my hands, and What is my next line? These questions were clearly noticeable from some members of the cast, who would have jerky hand gestures and put pauses in awkward places in their lines. The greatest loss of genuine character development happened when the actors over-emoted in their storytelling — as if their character saying they saw “a woman wearing sunglasses” was somehow significant or tragic.
Besides these fundamental issues, the set-up and concept of the show was fresh and dynamic — a move from Gallery 7’s usual choices of traditional plays towards more current drama.
The first half of 110 Stories built suspense, introducing characters and delaying the details of their deaths until the end of the act, when the second plane hits the South Tower. After the intermission, the latter part of the show explained the emotional and psychological trauma in the aftermath of the attacks. The second half was more reflective, talking about the dedication to working on Ground Zero, the horror of finding and removing bodies from the rubble, and the altruism that sweeps through a community when disaster strikes. While the play doesn’t contextualize these actions within the political climate at the time of 2001, 110 Stories does confront the audience with the controversial and insensitive capitalization of Ground Zero after the initial clean-up, where vendors sold American flags and merchandise as if the World Trade Centre was a patriotic tourist attraction.
Within this narrative framework, and working with the play’s minimalist aesthetic, the cast also created images outside those usually used when talking about the events of September 11. At one point, a handful of actors in black clothing appeared, working with cubed black boxes against a white background. The simple setup allowed the actors to paint a vivid picture for the audience using only their script, without distraction from elaborate props or clumsy costume changes. A narrator introduced the characters as they each came forward to speak, and the ensemble was not frozen, but present and looking at one another as they spoke. It was like watching a group therapy session moving around the room like clockwork — each person’s reactions and physical movement affecting the others, working together to move the story along.
The recurring theme throughout the play was what happens when people try to “move on” from a tragedy. As one character said, the kindness and compassion from those in New York faded away after awhile: “It’s a lot like Christmas; you want it to last all year.” Seeing as September 11 happened more than 10 years ago, this line seemed to resonate with the audience; some audience members covered their faces with their hands while leaning forward and watching with misty eyes. The very end of 110 Stories hit home with one more question: “When will humanity learn from their mistakes?”
After the bow, the actors exited stage-right in single file, while a select few audience members slowly stood for a standing ovation. There was no cheering.