The arts looking forward from 9/11: Q & A with Bill Rauch of the PAC at the World Trade Center

By the time that Bill Rauch became the artistic director of the performing arts center on the site of the World Trade Center, it had been nearly two decades in the making. On this, the twentieth anniversary of the WTC’s destruction – which is two years after Rauch moved to New York to begin the job full-time —  it will be another two years before the arts building, now referred to as the PAC, will be open for business.

The reasons for the delay are manifold, including the pandemic, but, as he says in my interview with him below, “to me the question is not why did it take so long, but how did this miracle even happen…(g)iven the physical and societal and emotional complexities of the site…” He laid out for me what the arts will look like at the World Trade Center site: performances that blur boundaries, a lobby open noon to midnight with free shows, a building that glows at night.

Bill Rauch, when I interview him in his office at the OSF in Oregon about his final season there.

I first interviewed Rauch in Ashland, Oregon about the last of his much-lauded twelve seasons as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he had been responsible for originating such phenomenal plays that wound up on Broadway as Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” Robert Schenkkan’s “All The Way“and its sequel “The Great Society,” (both of which Rauch directed on Broadway) and the Go Go musical “Head Over Heels.” I talked to him again for an article published in American Theatre Magazine in October, 2019, about what seemed to be a theater building boom, both nationally and in New York, with the World Trade Center site one of three ambitious plans for multi-disciplinary, multi-use performing arts centers in the city — the others being The Shed, and Little Island. Both of the others have opened – the Shed in April 2019, a year before the pandemic shut it down, Little Island in May 2021, a year after the pandemic began, when the arts started to reopen.  The PAC, originally scheduled to open this month, stopped construction in March 2020 for 52 days because of pandemic-related restrictions.

When it’s finished, the PAC will be the final piece of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, which includes the 9/11 Memorial and the 9/11 Museum. The center will be a three-story building — 129,000-square feet with three flexible venues that allow for 11 different possible configurations, ranging from 84 to 1205 seats.

 When I last talked to him, I asked Rauch how much 9/11 will inform the arts at the center. “There’s no way you can start up on that sacred ground, and not have it inform every choice. That doesn’t mean it will be relentless 9/11 art. The whole notion is a response to 9/11. It’s about building community and building hope, and bringing people together.”

I thought now a good time to talk with him again – so that on this day we can look ahead, rather than focusing on “never forgetting.”

Jonathan Mandell: What will the arts be like on the site of the World Trade Center, and when will it be happening?

Bill Rauch: Our formal name is the Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center, but we often refer to ourselves as the PAC for short. Construction is under way on the PAC, and we will welcome audiences sometime in 2023. We haven’t set the exact date yet. We will both present and produce theater, dance, music, chamber opera, film and performances that blur boundaries between disciplines.

Our public level will be open every day from noon to midnight, with a restaurant and bar and terrace as well as a small lobby stage with free performances throughout the year. We aim to attract people from all five boroughs as well as domestic and international visitors to New York with our performances. We are also lucky that we are located at a transportation crossroads, with so many different subway lines, the PATH train to New Jersey and the Staten Island ferry all part of our neighborhood.

Mandell: How have the plans changed since you arrived in New York City in the fall of 2019?

Rauch: I’ve been joined by two wonderful colleagues on the artistic side of the house: our Producing Director Meiyin Wang and our Director of Civic Alliances Jenna Chrisphonte. It says something about our priorities that, this far in advance of our opening, we’ve added a key staff member to focus on civic alliances. We want to build mutual relationships with community organizations from across all five boroughs of New York City. We will even have occasional projects that involve the participation of community members onstage as artists, building on my 20 years as founding artistic director of Cornerstone Theater Company.

Mandell: Has the pandemic itself altered anything besides obviously the timeline for completion. For example, will there be more digital theater incorporated?

Rauch: We are fortunate to have a building that was designed to be flexible. Almost none of the seating is fixed, so we can be responsive for instance if there are future needs for social distancing. Proper air circulation and touchless restroom features have all been incorporated. We will be primarily focused on live events in our building. With that said, many of the most interesting artists have been experimenting with digital work through the pandemic, and digital work has the huge advantage of creating access for people without geographic proximity to our location. We will certainly want to explore the inclusion of art with digital components, especially from artists who work in hybrid live and digital formats.

Mandell: I was across the street from the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, as the editor of a public policy site about New York called Gotham Gazette; I had arrived earlier than usual at the office that day because it was the day of the primary. By the next day, we created a new sub-site called Rebuilding NYC, and continued our coverage of what the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation called the collective effort to “Remember Rebuild Renew” for the next three years. A thread running through that entire time was what to do about the arts. I’d like to ask you questions about the future based on some of what happened in the past.
The arts have been part of September 11th from the beginning, when makeshift shrines and spontaneous walls of “Missing” posters sprouted all over the city — which were transformed into first informal and then formal art work. Can you explain the connection between the arts and tragedy or trauma, in general, and whether the function of art as healing will play a part of the programming at the PAC?

Rauch: Our mission is to create connections. The entire premise of having arts and culture at the World Trade Center is life-affirming and celebratory of community. The building is designed to glow from within at night, a true beacon of hope. There were over 90 countries represented in the people who lost their lives on 9/11. New York is a microcosm of the world, with so many immigrant communities. It’s our job to bring people together across any number of differences in our art and our audiences.
And, of course, there are many layers of trauma as well as glimmers of the best of what our country might be embedded in the land of Lower Manhattan: from Dutch settlers driving out the Lenape, to enslaved New Yorkers being buried outside what was then city limits, to the wave after wave of immigrants that arrived in this part of New York harbor. The Twin Towers themselves were intended as a symbol of international peace. Even when works of art in our building have a tragic theme (and there will be plenty of joyful projects as well), there is something inherently optimistic and hopeful about performing arts happening on this site. I absolutely believe that art is healing, and live performance has a special ability to bring people together in life-altering ways.

Mandell: A performing arts center was always pictured as part of the rebuilding of the 16-acre World Trade Center site. It was a significant part of Daniel Libeskind’s 2003 master plan for the rebuilding. The Drawing Center,  the International Freedom Center, the Joyce International Dance Center and the Signature Theater Company were originally going to be the tenants, but that fell apart for various reasons. It was rethought and refinanced, but it wasn’t until 2016, when Ronald O. Perelman gave a gift of $75 million, that the long-delayed project, now named after him, got back on track.  Why has it been so difficult to bring the arts to the World Trade Center site?

Rauch: The events you cite all predate my involvement so I can’t shed light on any of those specifics. But honestly, to me the question is not why did it take so long, but how did this miracle even happen? There were generous and visionary people who were relentless in their belief that arts and culture needed to be part of the World Trade Center. Given the physical and societal and emotional complexities of the site, it’s remarkable that we’ll be sharing work with audiences in a beautiful, extraordinarily intimate and flexible space in 2023.

Mandell: Some of the original arts institutions planned for the site were accused of producing inappropriate art for the location — that was the phrase, “inappropriate art.”  Will the PAC have to deal with such criticism? Will there be some works that you will deem inappropriate for the location? 

Rauch: I respectfully don’t accept the false binary of “appropriate” vs. “inappropriate.” Our mission is to create connections, and every project needs to be approached through that lens: does this work of art help connect people? Taste is personal, and I know firsthand from decades of arts leadership that not everyone will like everything. With that said, what will matter in all our programming is mission alignment.

Mandell: Do you see any connection between 9/11 and the pandemic?

Rauch: I didn’t live in New York in 2001, but I am amazed by how the days after 9/11 revealed the resilience of New Yorkers and of Lower Manhattan in particular. This neighborhood became much more residential, filled with vitality and with more tourists as well. I have faith that our immediate neighborhood and New York as a whole will rebound from COVID in much the same way that it did from 9/11. Of course, the pandemic along with the latest chapter in our country’s ongoing racial reckoning has revealed huge reservoirs of inequality that have always been present. It is incumbent on every arts organization to work to address our society’s and our field’s inequities.

Mandell: The Shed and Little Island have now opened. Have you been to them, and what have you learned from them? How does the PAC differentiate itself from them?

Rauch: I have had multiple wonderful experiences as an audience member at both the Shed and Little Island, and really meaningful conversations with their leaders. We aspire to be good neighbors with all our peers in New York; collaboration with others should be a hallmark of all of our work.
I think what I’ve learned the most from those experiences and conversations is the importance of being true to our own identity. Our greatest difference from our peers lies in our location. We like to say that the PAC is where the world trades ideas, and that commitment to multiple communities is probably what distinguishes us the most. With that said, as a director I never know what a show is until the audience teaches me once they arrive. The same is true of a new organization: we can rigorously plan all we want, but it’s our audiences that will really teach us what the PAC is and what it can be.

Mandell: What is your day like since the pandemic began? Have you been working full-time?

Rauch: I very much work full-time. There is endless planning to be done and small and large decisions to be made about our building, our organization, and our programming. I am speaking to you the day before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and I will attend the reading of the names on the Memorial Plaza tomorrow. Our responsibility to be a respectful neighbor to the Memorial and Museum is always on my mind, but especially right now.

Author: New York Theaterh

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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