The Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design presented the panel “Time Stands Still,” Oct. 17 which included a guest appearance from playwright Donald Margulies as well as two veteran conflict journalists, Sheila MacVicar and Brian Palmer.
“Time Stands Still,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play written by Margulies, explores the lives of two journalists who covered war and conflict abroad and their attempts to settle back into a life free of gunfire. Between discussions led by Karen Curry, executive director of the Kal and Lucille Rudman Institute for Entertainment Industry Studies, faculty and students from Drexel’s own theater program presented scenes from the play.
“This play came out of a particular period during the war in Iraq when every day, the news was plagued with another car or market bombing. It haunted my days, just trying to function as a creative writer when this was going on somewhere else,” Margulies said during the panel. “The juxtaposition of my comfortable life to these horrors and that chaos was absurd. I thought there was a play there — that there was some way for me to capture that.”
After sustaining debilitating injuries from a roadside bomb in Iraq, the play’s protagonist, Sarah, a conflict photojournalist, returns home to heal. Her arm in a sling, leg in a cast, and face mutilated by shrapnel scars, Sarah has to deal with the limitations of her body and mind. As she is plagued by flashbacks and crippling guilt, Sarah’s mood swings and outbursts find a victim in her boyfriend of many years, James. However, James, a fellow wartime correspondent, has his own fair share of wounds to heal.
“I thought it would be kind of fresh and interesting to portray the life of journalists. Journalists never appear in plays. They’re only ever depicted stereotypical ways in various movies,” Margulies said.
As the actors performed selected scenes between Sarah and James, real-life conflict journalists MacVicar and Palmer expressed how they related and reacted to the character of Sarah.
“I remember coming back and being angry. You’re returning from this place where people were picking up pieces of their friends, to a world of lattes,” Palmer said. “I’d be sitting at my desk with my double latte after teaching a class at NYU, and I would have this crushing sense of guilt and anger. The anger destroyed relationships. I reacted a lot like Sarah.”
A turning point in the play occurs with the introduction of Richard, a close friend of Sarah and James, who works as a photo editor for a news magazine. In what seems to be a grave lapse of judgment, Richard brings his new love interest, Mandy, a shamefully young and pretty party planner, with him to visit Sarah.
During the visit, Richard chastises Sarah for her desire to return to conflict photojournalism, stating that she must have a death wish. This was a sentiment that hit close to home for both Palmer and MacVicar.
“There was merit in bearing witness to these events. I was covering something that I thought no one else would talk about if I didn’t,” MacVicar said. “At the end of the day, I had a passport. I could have called home and left any time I wanted. But the people I was doing this for, the ones living there, they couldn’t leave.”
“I remember family members who just held their tongues after my first and second trips. When I came home the third time and was getting ready to leave again, they just exploded. They asked me, ‘How can you do this to us?’” Palmer said.
Working independently as a freelance journalist, documentarian and photojournalist, Palmer has written for and contributed video reporting to various news media outlets. His documentary, “Full Disclosure,” based on his experience spending three embedded media assignments with a U.S. Marine infantry unit in Iraq, premiered in 2010.
MacVicar’s experience as an international correspondent with news outlets like CNN and ABC includes coverage of some of the world’s most dangerous and troubled regions. She has reported on the conflicts in Bosnia, Iraq, Israel, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo while investigating terrorism and security issues throughout Europe and the Middle East.
“How do you change your life? How do you do anything else?” MacVicar asked.
Nick Anselmo, associate teaching professor and theater program director at Drexel, played James and directed the scenes performed during the panel. Teaching professor Bruce Graham performed as Richard. Annette Kaplafka played Sarah.
Alaina Beaver, a junior nursing major who played the role of Mandy, said that the panel was much more than she had expected.
“I had no idea it would be like this. Sitting onstage and listening to the reporters’ stories after each performance really brought their experiences to life,” Beaver said. “It was amazing that I could hear and connect what they had to say with what we had just performed. Part of me wanted to get the performances over with so I could listen to them instead.”
The panel was presented as part of a new fall course, “Imaging War,” which looks at how war and conflict are portrayed in media. The course utilizes guest speakers and lectures, all of which are free and open to the public.