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You had to be there

Among the plays that were scheduled to open in New York right after 9/11 were two productions that happen to be playing this weekend right here in the Rogue Valley.

The new musical "Urinetown," now on stage at Southern Oregon University, was in previews that week preparing to make its Broadway debut on Sept. 13, at Henry Miller's Theatre. The show's formal opening finally took place a week later on Sept. 20.

Shelly Mitchell's one-woman piece, "Talking With Angels," now playing for one night at the Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, began its five showcase performances starting Sept. 19, as scheduled, at the Milagro Theater on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

"Urinetown" was one of the shows that reopened on Broadway for a handful of frightened New Yorkers the Thursday after 9/11 at the urging of Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Recalling the moment, Greg Kotis, who co-wrote "Urinetown," said: "Theater is a poor relative in some ways to other forms of entertainment, to cinema or television. But that night, for those audience members, there could have been no greater way to spend the evening than sitting in a theater witnessing fellow New Yorkers tell a story on a stage a few feet in front of them. Whatever fears that group of theater-goers had, for themselves or their city, the actors and the musicians and the crew had also. But those fears were shushed away for the evening by the choice to be together, in that place, at that time."

Mitchell's "Talking With Angels" has garnered positive audience response wherever it's been performed. After the show played in Ireland at the Dublin International Theatre Festival, the Irish Theater Magazine wrote: "Mitchell switches seamlessly between the aged Mallasz and the grace of the seraphs, interspersing ethereal matters with the more earthly concern of the ever-increasing danger of living in Nazi-occupied Hungary. ... Mitchell's consummate skill as a performer illuminates this thoughtful combination of human bravery and the divine."

Michael Murphy, the founder of Esalen said: "Extraordinary light emerges from the dark in Shelley Mitchell's brilliantly realized production of 'Talking With Angels': the astonishing story of revelation and redemption in the midst of the Holocaust."

The show was a natural for New York audiences. Eight days before it was due to open, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred. The play's message of hope seemed all the more relevant. Given the uncertainty of air travel, Mitchell and Robin Fontaine, the play's director, made the trip from San Francisco to New York by car. It took them three days. The show sold out and "Talking With Angels" was invited back to New York in May 2002.

Such is the power of live theater. I was reminded of this recently when I bought the book "Upstaged: Making Theatre in the Media Age." It's a collection of interviews with 24 stage actors, playwrights and theater directors about whether live theater still has a place in a culture increasingly dominated by movies, television and computers.

The general conclusion reached by the likes of Simon Callow, Julie Taymor, Tony Kushner, etc. is that live theater has a place. A unique place. A decidedly human place. But perhaps a smaller place than its competition on the screen.

Describing one of theater's staying powers, British playwright Patrick Marber said: "But theater will carry on because human beings gathering in a place to watch other human beings doing something seems to be necessary — be it sports, theater, opera, church, a wedding, a funeral. This is the stuff of human life; we need to watch each other."

People needed to see each other after 9/11. They needed to know that somehow, life would go on and that the human spirit was truly indomitable.

The Thursday night that "Urinetown" reopened, two days after 9/11, the play's director addressed the small, anxious audience before the show started. Recalling that night Kotis said, "Our director, John Rando, walked on stage and said simply that another word for life is creativity. Theater, he said, could not save lives, nor could it put out fires, but it could offer creativity and life, which is what we hoped to offer that night."

And live theater is still at it.