Several weeks ago I sat on the floor of Studio 300 in the Barbara Barker Center for Dance at the University of Minnesota. All throughout grade school, middle school and most of high school I dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer. During my junior year of high school I took an American Government class where I discovered my second love: politics.
Abandoning my dream of becoming a dancer, I came to the University of Minnesota where I am studying political science. Being back in a dance studio and taking a formal dance class after two and a half years, I fell back into dancer mode easily, and remembered what had kept me dancing for so long. At the beginning of our class on this day we sat in a circle and introduced ourselves and stated if we had been to a dance or theater performance in the last week. One of my classmates described “REMEMBERING 9/11” a piece by two doctoral students in the theater program at the U. The piece was powerful and thought provoking for her, so I decided to contact the two creators.
After three days of rehearsals, “REMEMBERING 9/11,” a theater piece by Elliot Leffler and Mike Mellas, was staged throughout the Rarig Center at the University of Minnesota and outside on the West Bank of campus. Comprised fully of volunteer actors, the interactive piece provided a variety of perspectives on 9/11 and its aftermath.
Leffler and Mellas met in their doctoral program in the U of M ‘s theater department. Prior to creating “REMEMBERING 9/11” both men had experience in socially conscious art, having done topical workshops in schools and prisons. Leffler initially conceived of the idea for the project and then asked Mellas to join him as a co-creator. On the first anniversary of 9/11, Mellas attended an interactive theater piece that proved impactful for him. In the years following 9/11, Mellas continued returning to that memory. He was driven to create a piece that would be interactive and similarly create a forum for a community dialogue where all voices could be safely shared and heard, yet simultaneously challenged. Mellas noted that we tend to feel compelled to discuss 9/11 yet decreasingly have venues in which to constructively do so.
From the outset the two men knew they wanted the piece to be a collaborative effort among volunteer actors. Actors were given “homework” assignments that led to contributions to the piece. In addition to creating an interactive piece, Leffler and Mellas wanted to ensure that they included a variety of perspectives, both in opinion and background.
The dialogue at the end of the piece was the culminating moment, the true goal of creating the piece. Mellas asserted that he feels that action is important, but similarly important is processing and discussing, and that reflection must be had before action can be taken. Among the audience members were individuals that were in grade school at the time that 9/11 happened and individuals who were grade school teachers at the time. One of the reactions that stuck with the two creators was that of a student who said that they felt “betrayed” by their teachers, as they were kept out of the loop as to what was happening, mainly on the basis that they wouldn’t be able to understand the events or their implications. A teacher in the audience reacted to this sentiment, stating that they felt helpless, as they were tied to their classrooms, unable to turn on a TV, and fully grasp what had happened until they went home at the end of the day.
Ten years ago I was 11 years old and in sixth grade. My concerns lied mainly with ballet class, if my mom had washed my leotard, what role I would get in the Nutcracker and everything else ballet related. I’ve since left the dance world, put my pointe shoes in the closet and embraced the world of politics activism. But stepping back into the studio, I’ve remembered what I forgot to miss. But my values and priorities now lie in different places. No longer do I identify primarily as a dancer and an artist, but rather as a progressive and an activist. Speaking with Leffler and Mellas served as a reminder not only of the personal impact art can have on one but how societally profound it can be.
Leffler will continue with the theme of politically oriented theater in March, when she will direct a piece on the Tea Party.