Philadelphia Fringe Festival curator Nick Stuccio is always quick to let you know that he never books or presents his festival from any position of premeditation or with any sort of preordained theme. Rather, his Fringe’s themes come, after the fact, from the world in which we live and the trends that fly through the air.
And while there is nearly no programming at FF2021 that has anything to do with COVID or the pandemic (“Thank God,” says Stuccio), or even much that isn’t live and on-stage—as opposed to 2020’s virtual/Zoom heavy festival—one thematic arc that does stand out, quietly, is the Fringe Fest’s shows that examine the reality or impact of the tragedy of 9/11 as we approach its 20th anniversary.
Along with Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre representing “Love Unpunished” now until Sept. 11, Philly-based producer-performer Liz Zimmerman will stage, for the first time, her cathartic, self-penned “20 Years of 9-11: Memories of a Witness,” across two festival dates, Sept. 10 and 11. The latter performance, at Cherry Street Pier, occurs in the morning, timed to the hour of the Twin Towers’ collapse at the hands of terrorists.
“This Pig Iron show was beautiful and brilliant, then, and is again now,” says Stuccio whose Fringe Festival first mounted “Love Unpunished” 15 years ago. “It is interesting to watch a company such as Pig Iron re-mount a production as it is a chance to remold, to evolve a piece, and make it stronger. (Pig Iron co-founder/director) Dan Rothenberg doesn’t speak of it as a “9/11” piece, but rather a framework for thinking about loss, and many other things. Performing it as they will on 9/11, people will draw that inference, and it does have a sad and beautiful reverence, some of the things we think about when mourning 9/11. It is fascinating watching Dan and the company wrestle with something so elegiac.”
Though a singer with “A Piano and a Cocktail Murderess,” and a producer of Fringe Festival sound walk events past (along with show cases at Eris Temple Art Space in West Philadelphia), Zimmerman doesn’t usually act or speak as part of her productions. “Even though I can perform, I don’t always feel the need to,” she says.
“20 Years of 9-11: Memories of a Witness” is different.
“It’s safe enough for me to look back now,” she says. “This was history and I was compelled. I had an epiphany several years ago that I had a piece of history that lived within me. It has colored and impacted my life, and altered the decisions that I have made in my life. I’m trying to live life beyond the tragedy. I can bring this to life. There are parts of me in the show that people who know me will not expect or recognize.”
Maybe even parts of herself that she doesn’t recognize.
Zimmerman was a student at NYU at the time of the terrorist attacks, a freshman. On that morning, she walked to class the wrong way down Broadway from Union Square to 8th while all the World Trade Center victims made their way up the street toward her. That’s when the ghosts appeared.
“I didn’t see the towers fall, but I saw and smelled the effects firsthand. Things began dawning on me slowly, as if I had stepped onto a movie set, I saw people covered in ash and dust. There were no cars. No traffic. Just people walking slowly on the street towards me – everyone bewildered, disgusted, crying, troubled, afraid. People without cell phones were looking for pay phones. I breathed in all of the toxicity, literally and figuratively. And to this day, I can’t wear high heels or stilettos. I never know when I will have to need to run away from something fast.”