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Released August 21, 2003

THEATER PRODUCTION COMMEMORATES SEPT. 11 HEROES

HATTIESBURG - Anne Nelson's play "The Guys" is based on her experiences as a journalist in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City. Theater critic Evan Henerson hails it as "a connection that audiences at a theater 3,000 miles away from Ground Zero need to make."

Bringing Nelson's poignant drama to the local stage, the Department of Theatre and Dance at The University of Southern Mississippi is partnering with the city of Hattiesburg to present the national touring production - starring The Actors Gang, a theater company based in Los Angeles - on Sept. 5 at the Saenger Theatre in downtown Hattiesburg.

The two-character drama centers on Nick, a fire captain who lost eight men in the collapse of the World Trade Center, and Joan, an editor Nick enlists to help prepare eulogies for his fallen comrades. Together, they put together the difficult, heartfelt speeches that Nick must deliver with honor, humor and poise - all the while, navigating his way through his own emotional response.

"The play is about emotional healing and coming to terms with the events of Sept. 11," said Frank Kuhn, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at Southern Miss. "It has been acclaimed in New York and Los Angeles, but the Pine Belt, along with the rest of the country, shared in the events of that day and the ongoing process of coming to terms with the aftermath."

Suzanne Hirsch, development officer for the College of Arts and Letters at Southern Miss, said her department began conversations about a year ago with the Actors Gang about their moving production. "After hearing about it from organizations in North Carolina, Georgia and New York, we felt this would be a tremendous gift to our community as we are nearing the two-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 tragedies," Hirsch said.

Hirsch also explained how the Department of Theatre and Dance teamed with the city of Hattiesburg in presenting this unique production.

"Because of the nature of the performance, we at Southern Miss felt this would be appropriate for the city to be involved in promoting such a moving tribute to our nation's heroes," she said. "Mayor Dupree has been a longtime supporter of the arts at Southern Miss, being a board member for Partners for the Arts and the Community Arts School. He did not hesitate to offer us the use of the Saenger Theatre and in providing promotional assistance."

After the partnership was established, other good things evolved around the event. While the professional actors are in Hattiesburg, they have agreed to offer an acting workshop for local high schools, thanks to a grant from the Southern Arts Foundation.

Also, as a tribute to local firefighters, the Hattiesburg Coca-Cola Bottling Company has purchased tickets for the city of Hattiesburg fire fighters to attend the performance.

Nelson had never written a play but was a veteran reporter and former war correspondent in El Salvador in the early 1980s. For her, the director of the International Programs for the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, journalism was familiar, and she viewed words and sentences as a means of writing hard news and features.

Sept. 11 changed all that. Though Nelson appreciated theater since her undergraduate days performing in musical theater at Yale University, she said she never expected that the tragedy of the attacks would redirect her writing career.

The chain of events leading her to write her play began shortly after Sept. 11 when she was visiting her sister in Park Slope, Brooklyn, trying to find perspective. A friend of her sister's called about a New York City fire captain she had just met. He needed a writer to help him write eulogies, and Nelson saw this as the opportunity she needed to do something useful.

"It was painful to ask him questions, and it was painful to hear the answers," Nelson told reporter Jo Kadlecek of the Columbia News. "But it had to be done. Memorial services were coming up, and I wanted to help him create eloquent eulogies that were still in his voice."

Later, while attending a benefit dinner for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights with her husband, she was seated next to Jim Simpson, artistic director of the Flea Theater. He told her that his company had been challenged to find a play that could speak to the tragedy and could also address the theater's needs, having suffered drastically as far as audiences since the fateful day.

When Nelson told Simpson of her experience in writing eulogies for the fire captain, he asked her to turn it into a play. She agreed to try. Her play first premiered at Tribeca's Flea Theater in December 2002 to sold-out audiences.

The San Francisco Examiner calls The Actors Gang "... an enormously talented and versatile ensemble." Founded in 1981 by a group of renegade theater artists, The Actors Gang strives to create bold, original works for the stage and daring interpretations of the classics. During the course of its first 20 years, the company has produced 68 plays and won more than 100 awards, winning acclaim for interpretations of Shakespeare, Bruchner, Brecht, Moliere, Aeschylus, Ibsen and Chekhov. At the same time, it develops and presents new plays that address the world today, like Nelson's "The Guys."

The Saenger Theatre performance Sept. 5 starts at 7:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $10 and $8 for senior citizens, students, and city employees.

For tickets, call the Southern Miss Ticket Office at (601) 266-5418 or (800) 844-8425. Order online at www.usm.edu/tickets.

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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM

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