There’s a harrowing moment in Charles Mee’s “Big Love,” when Constantine describes coming home from war, “and then when it’s over/suddenly/when this impulse isn’t called for any longer/a man is expected to put it away/carry on with life/as though he didn’t have such impulses/or to know that, if he does/he is a despicable person.” We send our warriors out to fight and possibly die or sustain life-changing injury, but what do we understand about what happens to them on the battlefield, or after they come home? What are their deployments and homecomings like for families and loved ones? We talk about war in dollars and body count but there are unspoken costs that are no less meaningful. How can theatre address those costs, and work to heal those who pay them?
When JoAnne Winter and Amy Kossow heard Siobhan Fallon on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross, they knew they wanted Fallon’s “You Know When the Men are Gone” for Word for Word. A military spouse, Fallon has written a series of interconnected stories that Winter calls “beautiful and exquisitely human. These are not political stories, but human stories. No matter how you feel about war and U.S. involvement in Iraq or wherever, you can certainly empathize with the people, the families and the soldiers and what they go through. That’s what Siobhan talks about: the war experienced from life on a military base.” Word for Word will perform two of the stories: Kossow directing “Gold Star” and Joel Mullennix “The Last Stand.”
Presenting these stories may also help soldiers reintegrate into civilian communities—indeed, that may be the original point of Attic drama, the wellspring of Western theatre. In his article “The Birth of Tragedy—Out of the Needs of Democracy,” psychiatrist and author Jonathan Shay, who works with Vietnam vets, contends that “[A]thenian theatre was created and performed by combat veterans for an audience of combat veterans; they did this to enable returning soldiers to function together in a democratic polity...[T]he ancient Athenians reintegrated their returning warriors through recurring participation in the rituals of the theatre.” Stanford’s late John J. Winkler read archaeological evidence to indicate that audiences were seated according to military unit and rank.
Bryan Doerris, director of New York’s Theater of War (ToW), calls Attic drama a “military technology” that was “developed in response to a citizen soldier populace that spent nearly 80 out of 100 years in war. The plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus [both veterans] deal with topics that only those who have been to war or those who care about those who have been to war could understand.” These shows didn’t just entertain citizens and honor Dionysus; they showed new soldiers what they might expect from war and its aftermath while giving voice to the experience of veterans. Distressed by newspaper headlines about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Doerris wanted to see if theatre could be used as a “therapeutic and public health tool.” So in 2007, he started taking scenes from Sophocles’ “Ajax” to United States military bases and giving his “voluntold” audiences the opportunity to talk about what they were seeing. The result was electrifying; one of the first times he took the show to a military audience, he’d scheduled 45 minutes after the performance for a discussion that lasted several hours and finally had to be cut off at midnight.
“It was as if it was written in a code I could not understand until the audience explained it to me. Something is unlocked and something is revealed. There are so many levels on which there is so much true reciprocity.” Since then, ToW has garnered Department of Defense funding, played to 50,000 people, trained 13 other companies (including ACT) in their model, and developed 10 similar projects dealing with such populations such as the elderly, addicted, and incarcerated.
According to Doerris, only 1 percent of the U.S. population serves in the military, meaning that the lives of soldiers and their families aren’t familiar to the general populace, which Winter confirms: “Just going into that world was a real big learning curve. We did a lot of research into what the life is like. It’s a whole different life. On the bases there are regulations, certain kinds of things have to be the same, it’s very regulated and very military but it’s also where children live. We had to learn the ranks of the different soldiers, lots of jargon. The whole world is a surprise, like going to a foreign country in your own country.”
Winter says, “[T]here is a different tone than in a lot of our pieces. We’re trying to be very respectful, trying to get everything right, trying to make sure we have exactly the right uniforms and that kind of thing. We are respectful of the text and what the author’s trying to do. This is another culture that we’re trying to get right.” The company is offering free tickets to veterans and active military and half-price tickets to families of service members—giving something back to those prepared to give everything.
Word for Word’s “You Know When the Men Are Gone” runs at Z Space through February 24, 2013. The February 7 show will have a post-show talk with Norberto Lara from the Wounded Warrior Project and the February 16 show will feature a special post-show reception with author Siobhan Fallon. Visit zspace.org.
Lisa Drostova was a theatre critic for the East Bay Express before jumping ship in 2007. She is now acting around the Bay Area and a member of Butterfield8 Theater Company.
Photo: “Battle Stare” by Michael Connell on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.
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