There have been several theatrical productions that deal with the tragedy of 9/11 and with the 15th anniversary approaching next month, Isle of Shoals will present a revival of Occupation: Dragonslayer. This musical takes the personal accounts of Stephen Ryan who had firs-hand experience as part of the rescue and recovery team at Ground Zero. Ryan has a day job as a sergeant at New York Supreme Court, located near the World Trade Center and for weeks after the disaster actively participated in the rescue work at “The Pile” at Ground Zero. I spoke to him between the rehearsals about the play, the experience of working on a subject that is so close to home, and the relevance of this work fifteen years after the event.
Tim Ranney: Tell us about OCCUPATION: DRAGONSLAYER.
Stephen Ryan: OCCUPATION: DRAGONSLAYER is a musical fable about being alive in New York in the shadow of what happened on 9/11. It’s a year after, at a diner near Ground Zero whose favorite customers drift in on Christmas Eve. There are sassy waitresses, children Christmas caroling with their mom, cops stopping by for a coffee, actors at their day job, and a real estate mongrel – sorry, mogul – who is exploiting the redevelopment tax breaks to his fullest advantage. A stranger in a Santa suit also appears with a bag of presents, He doesn’t know who he is or why he’s there. Hey, a typical romantic musical. Most fundamentally, this piece is about hope. One of my favorite lines is “Hope is a kind of miracle.” Gets me every time. Did I mention it’s a musical?
Tim Ranney: Your OCCUPATION: DRAGONSLAYER story began as a real-life experience… Can you tell us about it?
Stephen Ryan: My day job is as a sergeant in State Supreme Court, and on 9/11 my regular assignment was in The Bronx. I was supposed to report the next day to the courthouse in lower Manhattan. So, if the attack had happened even one day later I would have been with the officers who ran to the towers. Three of my colleagues – Captain Harry Thompson, Senior Court Officer Mitchel Wallace and Senior Court Officer Tommy Jurgens – gave their lives rescuing others that day. We all felt their loss very deeply. What I did do was join the rescue and recovery effort at the disaster site, what we called “The Pile,” alongside some of the finest people I’ve ever met. Tireless, dedicated men and women, risking their health and safety. Many suffer to this day because of it. As days went by, there was less and less hope of finding any survivors. To this very day it is hard to return to these memories. In our cast of sixteen, the youngest is nine and the most seasoned is north of 60. It’s compelling to direct cast members who directly witnessed 9/11 shaping that experience back and forth with the kids who weren’t there. And our young cast members are amazing!
Tim Ranney: How did you get involved with this show, and with Isle of Shoals?
Stephen Ryan: Well, OCCUPATION: DRAGONSLAYER was created by Bryan Williams and Lance Hewett, commissioned originally by the Public Theatre. It had a production in 2002. I wasn’t involved at the time, and I didn’t see it, but my sense is it was just too soon, although those who did see it were tremendously moved. I think, though, that people weren’t quite ready for a show – and a musical at that – addressing such a painful time. Bryan put it aside and wrote a slew of other musicals for Isle of Shoals, our production company. Lance and Bryan cast me in one of them in 2007. I’ve been here ever since, not just in musicals: the company does straight plays and classics as well. When I joined Isle of Shoals, I found something many actors dream of, a theatrical home. A creative home filled with talented, dedicated and friendly people. It is that to this day. There’s a reason so many performers and artists return again and again to work on IOS projects.
Tim Ranney: Last year, you landed a role in a Island of Shoals production that corresponds to your real-life experience.
Stephen Ryan: Yes, I played the construction worker who has been spending his days digging up remains at Ground Zero and sings a song titled “The Pile”. That song resonates powerfully for me, having experienced exactly those things the character sings about. They are difficult memories to come to terms with. Singing that song every night was cathartic and healing in its way, but now that I am trying to direct the entire production, going into the same emotional place would be just too much. I swore I wouldn’t put myself through that again. So this year I’m only directing - all I have to do is boss everybody around.
Tim Ranney: The fall of the World Trade Towers is, shall we say, an unusual subject for a musical.
Stephen Ryan: It’s not a musical about the fall, but about the living afterwards. It’s hard to remember now, but for quite some time after 9/11, New York—the whole country, really—was indeed a kinder, gentler place. Every time I rode the subway, yes, I saw people on the lookout for suspicious objects or behavior. But what we actually began to notice was how many of our fellow New Yorkers were in need of just a friendly word. And we began to connect. When I traveled, and people found out I was from New York, they were unfailingly supportive. Across the country, total strangers found connections in our shared sorrow. I miss those days.
Tim Ranney: It’s been 15 years since 9/11. Why revive OCCUPATION DRAGONSLAYER now?
Stephen Ryan: Well, as the character of the Duchess says: “Now, it’s time.” For years, Lance and Bryan had been planning a revival. The country had changed so much since, but they were unwilling to let the “terrible beauty” of that time disappear into the spin room.In February of 2015, we had our own disaster. Lance, our co-founder and director, passed away, quite suddenly and unexpectedly. He and Bryan had always been artistic partners. Bryan always wrote and composed, and Lance always directed. We didn’t know if Isle of Shoals could continue without Lance. He had always carried this company on his own shoulders. We didn’t know if a bunch of actors could even mount a show. But we had to put up something, if only to prove to ourselves the company was still alive. So we pulled everybody together for an evening of scenes from some of our best musicals, and after intermission presented 45 minutes of what we claimed would be our next year’s production, OCCUPATION: DRAGONSLAYER. Somehow, together, we pulled the whole thing off. Only three nights, just to prove to ourselves we could do it. But we sold out every one. People came from other states. So this year, for the 15 anniversary, we’re doing the full DRAGONSLAYER. But here’s the thing. Last year’s show ended with the lines:
Only lonely strangers reaching out,
Reaching for, what, they never know.
But oh, without love, they’re a lot like you and me.
Lonely strangers, to each other,
Which was pretty much where we were, then. It was very moving, and well received. It’s still in the show. But this is a whole year later. And this year, when Bryan handed out the scripts – he’s been rewriting – he gave us another ending. Every time I hear it, my eyes mist. I think it speaks to us, our friends, the ones who are no longer with us, and yes, to being alive after World Trade.
Miracles surround us everywhere,
Waiting to transform us if we dare.
In this season of the dove,
Anyone who’s lost a love,
Feel the healing power in the air
Conquering the dragon of despair.
The miracle of hope is everywhere.
Miracles don’t happen - till they do…
The Robert Moss Theater
440 Lafayette Street - NYC
Previews on September 8th-25th.
$18/ $15 for seniors and students