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Building Bridges with Art

by Melanie Merians
USA

Building Bridges with Art, by Melanie Merian

[Photo: Stephanie Diani]

When I got the call from a friend in New York that the World Trade Center was being attacked, I was stunned, in a state of shock. Although I now live in Los Angeles, I'm originally from New York, so I could clearly understand the scale of the destruction. At that moment I felt powerless. My hometown was being attacked, and what could I do?

As events unfolded, moment by heartbreaking moment, the work that I had been doing as a theatrical director seemed pointless. The play I was developing felt irrelevant and the script's perspective superficial. How could I continue my work in theater, when the world had been turned upside down? With the prospect of global conflict looming overhead, what could be more frivolous than theater?

At this point I had been practicing Buddhism for 19 years. Through my practice I believe I have been able to develop a deep respect for the interconnectedness of all life. As a result, despite the turmoil I felt, I knew in my heart that I was not powerless, that it must be possible to effect a change for the better. It was up to me to create something positive, hopeful. I could not just "drop out" of theater and the work for which I felt such a strong sense of purpose. Rather, I knew I must use my theater work to give voice to the conflicting emotions that beset me. And I must do so without succumbing to the tidal wave of fear and distrust that seemed to be sweeping the world.

Buddhism teaches that all life is subject to the law of cause and effect. I realized that this tragic event could be seen as the effect of a complex series of causes on an international scale. As a Buddhist, I felt a responsibility to try to make new "causes" to transform the sources of human hatred and suffering. It was now imperative to implement the deeply humanistic principles of my Buddhist practice in all aspects of my life.

I made a strong determination that I would encourage people through theater--to give them an opportunity to reflect, to be touched and to renew their sense of optimism. More than anything, I wanted to give people back their sense of hope for humanity's future.

After 10 days of prayer, dialogue and attending memorial services, I met with the playwright Paul Jordan. We agreed to create a completely new project, one that directly addressed the events of September 11. Because the events were so overwhelming, we chose not to depict them onstage, but to address the impact of the tragedy on personal relationships. We wanted to bring things back to an intimate, human scale. We felt an urgency to depict the difficulties that ordinary New Yorkers faced, a stressed time in which some relationships became frayed and fell apart, but others were created.

Devon Michaels (left) and Stan Klimeck performing "Coffee" from "September 25th.
Devon Michaels (left) and Stan Klimeck
performing "Coffee" from "September 25th."

Within three months, we developed, wrote, rehearsed and produced the play "September 25th," so named because the events of the play take place two weeks after the terrorist attacks. It consists of three one-act plays, "Coffee," "Someday" and "Poconos." As the first theatrical production in Los Angeles about the terrorist attacks, it received much attention. The audiences that filled the house each night responded with tremendous enthusiasm. Over and over again, people expressed to us their appreciation at having been uplifted in such dark times.

SGI President Ikeda often speaks of the role of the arts and their ability to create profound bonds of trust between peoples separated by differences of political or religious ideology. In particular, I have drawn inspiration from these words: "As long as you have courage, wisdom and sincerity, you can turn everyone and everything into allies through the art of humanity. I hope you will all become this sort of great artist, overflowing with the spirited determination to build bridges of trust and peace in your communities."

I am determined to use my work in theater to build bridges of trust from one human heart to another. For I believe that such bridges are the truest, most enduring form of art.

[ Courtesy July 2002 SGI Quarterly ]

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