STAUNTON — Eighteen years ago, two planes struck the Twin Towers in New York City.
In the following weeks, while first responders and volunteers worked toward recovery, Americans became united across the country in patriotism.
“110 Stories” will premiere Thursday, Sept. 12, at ShenanArts, and share the experiences of 27 individuals on Sept. 11, 2001. The title references the fact that the Twin Towers were each 110 stories high.
Audience members will be introduced to 27 characters portrayed by 14 actors, said Director John Kirby Craft. Each character is based on a real person who was affected by the tragedy of 9/11. Each character relayed his or her story to playwright Sarah Tuft, who was at Ground Zero.
According to Tuft, “110 Stories” has been developed or read at the Geffen Playhouse, Public Theater, Vineyard Theatre and Toledo Rep. Actors who have performed include Billy Crudup, Edie Falco, James Gandolfini, Samuel L. Jackson, Tony Shalhoub and Kathleen Turner.
“110 Stories” will be the second production Craft has directed for ShenanArts. In fall 2018, he directed “Rabbit Hole,” David Lindsay-Abaire’s story of grief, loss and healing.
Craft said he has a “taste for things that really tell a story.”
In preparation for “Rabbit Hole,” Craft said Lindsay-Abaire provided support via Facebook messaging, and Craft and the cast of “110 Stories” might get support from Tuft via Skype.
Tarken Davis of Stuarts Draft portrays Brooklyn firefighter Lou Trazino and New York Post photojournalist Bolivar Arellano.
“[Arellano] gives this very heartbreaking story of his taking photos as people started jumping from the towers,” said Davis, a 2010 Stuarts Draft High School graduate.
For Arellano, Sept. 11, 2001 was Election Day, and he had been out taking photos of candidates running for office. When he returned to the office to develop his photos, his editor told him what had happened.
Arellano’s photos, according to Davis, were among 23 photographs from that day the Post ran in a photo gallery. A woman came to look at the photos, and Davis said she recognized her husband as one of the jumpers in Arellano’s photos.
In preparation for his role as the photojournalist, Davis watched interviews on Youtube.
“The toughest thing for me personally was to put the [Spanish] accent with [my role],” Davis said of his portrayal of Arellano.
In Youtube videos, Davis said he watched Arellano and Trazino both show by their mannerisms that they “are very shaken about that day.” Both men broke down while being interviewed.
Trazino lost friends at Ground Zero, however, Davis said he never found evidence that Trazino was at Ground Zero. Sept. 11 was his day off, and he was teaching his daughter how to ride a bicycle.
“The one thing I hope for that [audience members] take away from [“110 Stories”] is no matter what background you came from, no matter who you were, it kind of unified folks,” Davis said.
Craft is a member of the ShenanArts board, and he said he proposed the show to the seasons committee along with a proposal of how he would present the production on stage. The time frame to open the show in September “did fit very well” in ShenanArts’ season schedule.
“I told them I wanted to make 9/11 a night that was free of charge [for first responders],” Craft said.
A big part of ShenanArts is “what we say we do is build bridges in our community.”
“We want to honor them not only for their service, but because they connect so deeply to these stories,” Craft said.
Local first responders will remember the unity Americans felt on 9/11, and the need that first responders felt to go help in New York City following the tragedy that killed almost 3,000 Americans and injured more than 6,000.
The cast is preparing for the show with the idea of ‘remember the fallen, remember the heroes,” Craft said.
“This was a tragedy,” he said.
And he said maybe the show will rekindle a sense of unity among audience members like Americans felt after 9/11 happened.
Allison Sprouse of Stuarts Draft portrays Karen Slade, a mother who dropped her son off at school in New York City on 9/11, then went shopping. She is also portraying Merlin Durham, a canine handler.
In preparing for both roles, Sprouse, a 1989 graduate of Waynesboro High School, said she searched online for as much information as she could find about both individuals.
“110 Stories” will be Sprouse’s first dramatic production and first production at ShenanArts. She has performed in mostly comedies with the Waynesboro Players and Oak Grove Theater.
“When I read [“110 Stories”], I couldn’t say no. All of their stories are so powerful,” Sprouse said.
Sprouse said that before preparing for the show, when she thought of 9/11 she thought of the first responders, but not of the different perspectives experienced that day: from a mother looking for her son after the tragedy to Merlin and her dog, Hermit, searching for bodies in the debris.
Sprouse said that she is not a mother so preparing to portray Slade was more challenging, but as a dog lover her preparation for Merlin was easier.
“Merlin, I feel she’s under the impression when she first goes [to Ground Zero] — she’s going to find survivors,” Sprouse said.
But with Hermit at Ground Zero, she quickly realizes they are searching for bodies.
“I just remember on Sept. 12 just how unified we were as a country,” Sprouse said. “We weren’t Democrats. We weren’t Republicans. It just seems we were kinder to each other.”
Bill Martin of Waynesboro brings Terrence, a homeless man, and Father Bob Deming to the stage.
In preparing for his roles, Martin said that he had his own memories of that day. As he read the script, he thought about what the playwright had in mind when she wrote it.
“I think they both tie together because nobody knew what was going on,” said Martin of his two roles.
Terrence, his wife and friends live in an alley near the Twin Towers, and as individuals come into the alley to escape, the homeless lead them to a hospital.
Deming was an Episcopal priest at a recovery center at St. Paul’s Chapel near Ground Zero.
“Everyone just jumped into action, and started helping each other no matter who you are,” Martin said.
He said he thinks that the reaction of Americans after 9/11 showed the true nature of Americans. Americans have never been more united than after 9/11.
“It would be nice to experience that again without such tragedy,” Martin said.
Martin, who grew up in Norfolk, began performing on stage 15 years ago with ShenanArts, in roles including “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Giver.” He has also performed in “My Fair Lady” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” at The Wayne Theater, as well as in Oak Grove Theater productions.
Theater became a hobby for Martin after driving his son to theater rehearsals when he was 14 years old.
His son is now in his 30s and a teacher, “but I got the theater bug and it hasn’t let me go yet.”
Craft said that what is important for him is to continue to see new faces in the theater.
“People are hungry to come out and think through new [perspectives],” he said.
And the challenge of theater is to get audience members to see someone else’s perspective that is different from their own, and leave the theater thinking differently.
“[‘110 Stories’ is] just a powerful, unifying story which is something I think we need right now,” Craft said.
On Sept. 11, local police, dispatch, rescue and fire personnel are invited for a free performance at 7 p.m. Tickets are available by calling (540) 712-0001 or calling the ShenanArts box office.
The performance is a “reminder that they’re not forgotten,” according to Craft, who is a 25-year law enforcement official.
On Thursday to Saturday performances will be at 7 p.m., and at 3 p.m. on Sept. 15. Tickets are $14 per adult, $12 per senior or college student and $8 per child under age 18.