STC’s “With Their Eyes”: Commemorating 9/11 20 Years Later

To mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Stuyvesant Theater Community presented “With Their Eyes,” a monologue-based play, for their 2022 winter drama.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Cover Image
By Francesca Nemati

In honor of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Stuyvesant Theater Community (STC) presented the winter drama “With Their Eyes,” produced by seniors Ava Yap and Samuel Espinal Jr. and sophomores Vanessa Chen and Eliza Oppenheimer. Due to the surge in Omicron COVID-19 cases in January, “With Their Eyes” was prerecorded in-person at the Stuyvesant theater and released for free online on January 29.

Based on the works of Anna Deavere Smith’s interview-based monologue plays, “With Their Eyes” is a collection of interviews from the Stuyvesant community on experiences during the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. English teacher Annie Thoms, who was the faculty advisor of STC at the time, worked with 10 cast members to interview and create a monologue-based play that was performed in 2002 as STC’s winter drama. “We envisioned it very much as an ensemble performance—a way to kind of capture the great variety of stories that existed in our community after this really traumatic event of September 11,” Thoms said. “It’s a combination of drama, oral history, and poetry.” Since the original production, STC has performed “With Their Eyes” every 10 years to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

In this year’s show, one individual delivers a monologue on stage at a time, with a few background characters. “It creates a very powerful sense because it’s just one person on the stage. Instead of having to focus your energy and your eyes on every bunch of characters talking all at once, you just have to watch this one person exhibit all of their emotions,” Yap said.

When working with cast members, the cast directors emphasized the importance of empathy in understanding their characters. “It was a lot of ‘how can you, as a person, change your ideals to fit this other person [whom] you’re playing?’” senior and cast director Michael Borczuk said. “It was very important just because of how his personal monologues could get [...] Think about how you would feel in this moment and how that helps you understand how your character would feel in this moment.”

Freshman Adeline Sauberli, who played the two characters, Ilya Feldsherov, a Stuyvesant senior, and Haydee Sanabria, a student at P.S. M721, which was located within the Stuyvesant building, found it necessary to make conjectures to portray her characters. “There is a lot of inferring that needed to happen, and a lot of us didn't necessarily know too much about how our character would react,” Sauberli said. “[So we worked by] making leaps that made sense, educated guesses about how they would act, putting your own spin on it.”

STC built three sets—a bedroom, coffee shop, and school—to mimic the ordinary nature of the day. “A big part for us is making sure that the set was dynamic,” senior and cast director Nicole Itkin said. “What was important was making sure that we emphasize how young a lot of the people were [as] students and how normal their day had been up to the [attacks].”

Due to the surge in Omicron variant cases and school precautions, STC had to work with a shorter timeline in producing the show. “Our [art] crew had to pay the senior bar in one day, which was the result of the tech crew being delayed by five days,” Yap said. “It was this whole domino effect that led to us not having as much time as we would have wanted to.”

The cast of “With Their Eyes” also met with members of the original cast through a Zoom meeting organized by Thoms weeks before the performance, allowing current students to converse with the people that they were to act as onstage and to hear reflections of alumni. “The best part of the meeting was honestly the questions because any question we had about the people themselves, they very clearly remembered,” senior Katherine Lake said. “We’d read the words, we’d read the front, and we knew what they were, but they actually had met this person. They had lived, studied, worked with this person, and that is something that we could [...] never have captured without their input.”

Some of the original cast members also watched the live performance during the official recording. Watching their reactions to portrayals of themselves on stage helped current cast members instill a more nuanced outlook of the monologues. “When they were watching the show in-person, what was really notable was that they were laughing a lot,” Chen said. “But because they’re laughing, it brings a different dynamic to the show. We’re trying to show the personalities of different actors, so [that’s] how a situation can be really funny. Because of that, it brings so many different perspectives into the play, which makes it really special.”

Given that “With Their Eyes” was created by the Stuyvesant community, listening to their monologues has helped current Stuyvesant students grapple with the complexity of 9/11, especially since they belong to the post-generation. “Especially in hearing stories of 9/11 from other people, it never really let me relate to it because it is typically from an adult point of view,” Espinal said. “But all [of] these monologues were from teenagers or students who were in the same position that we are now [in], and it [...] was very easy to see the point of view from their eyes.”

Lake, who grew up in Australia, initially viewed 9/11 with a distant connection. “I didn’t know about the attacks until I moved here and even then didn’t properly learn about it for a very long time,” she said. “When I was bouncing ideas off with tech, stage, and lights and sound, I was really worried because I was like, ‘I don’t feel connected enough to this.’ I feel like I’m kind of coming in as an outsider.”

However, participating in “With Their Eyes” provided a newfound insight that allowed Lake to form a deeper connection to the event. “The depth that I really dove into the character, really going into their thoughts, acting it out with other people, seeing their portrayals of these other people and their opinions from different ages, different backgrounds, different experiences in life made me feel less like an outsider,” Lake said. “It shows that 9/11 isn’t limited to any specific group of people [...] I was [not only] able to learn [what happened] from the perspective of people [...], but also [able to] find my own personal connection through their stories and through their lives.”

Despite the COVID-19-related disruptions, STC remains positive about “With Their Eyes” as a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. “This is the first year [...] none of us have that connection [of being] alive at the time,” Yap said. “The reception that we’ve gotten from every member of the STC community has been so positive and so reassuring, and I think it’s been just really nice to be able to indulge yourselves [in] the stories and get to know the characters and get to know the experiences that they went through.”