Joining Forces: When Theatre Artists and Military Personnel Come Together, Assumptions on Both Sides Are Transformed

By Sanchez, K. J. | American Theatre, July-August 2011 | Go to article overview

Joining Forces: When Theatre Artists and Military Personnel Come Together, Assumptions on Both Sides Are Transformed


Sanchez, K. J., American Theatre


THIS PAST WINTER, I WAS INVITED BY PRODUCER Mark Russell to participate in a "speed-dating" event for presenters attending the Under the Radar festival in New York City. I was there to talk about ReEntry, a play I directed and co-wrote (with Emily Ackerman) as a commission for Red Bank, NJ.'s Two River Theater Company in 2008. ReEntry is based on interviews with U.S. .Marines Corps members returning from deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. In the past three years it has been produced at Two River as well as Urban Stages in New York and at Baltimore's CENTERSTAGE. My company, American Records, has also been hired by the military to present the play at national military conferences, Marine Corps bases and, most recently, the Armed Forces Public Health Conference, where it was performed for members of all branches of the military.

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As one of six companies participating in New England Foundation for the Arts's National Theater Pilot, American Records is gearing up to tour ReEntry--hence the invitation to the speed-dating event. As I sat down at my first table of presenters, someone, having just read the description of the play, said to me, "Oh! You're the military brat!" At first I didn't even know what he was talking about, but then it dawned on me, and I just laughed. These last three years have taken me on quite a journey: from downtown theatre gal--who grew up in avant-garde dance-theatre, attends every peace rally she can and is as "lefty" as they come--to someone who could now be seen as a military brat.

Even though ReEntry's co-author Emily has two brothers who are marines and have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and I had five brothers who served during the Vietnam War, neither of us would ever describe ourselves as coming from a "military family." Until we began writing this play, we didn't have a clue as to what our brothers did in their military roles. "I think of military families as people who grew up with it in their childhoods--my brothers joined when we were already adults, so it was a different thing," as Emily put it. "Having to learn all about an at times insular community with its own culture and traditions was overwhelming at first. I had a lot of misconceptions. 1 had no idea how to be supportive, or even whether I wanted to be. It took a lot of time to understand just what my brothers were doing, why they were doing it, and how important it was to them. And that's still continuing."

MY OWN TRANSFORMATION BEGAN WHILE I WAS an artist in residence at the University of Washington. One day Jon Jory (the former artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, who is on faculty there) came up to me and said, "KJ, someone has to start interviewing all these people coming back from war." Soon after that I began working at Two River and decided, with then artistic director Aaron Posner, that I should pursue the returning veterans idea. Emily and I had worked together on other interview-based plays (we're both associate artists with the Civilians, a New York City-based documentary theatre company), and I knew of her brothers' service, so I asked her to partner with me.

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Creating a play based on interviews is a viral process: You gain one person's trust, and they introduce you to two of their friends, and so on. We traveled quite a bit, going wherever a lead took us. In California, where Emily's brothers were stationed, we began interviewing them and their buddies. We crashed conferences where we knew we'd meet high-ranking officers--at one, we cornered an unsuspecting colonel, delivered a passionate pitch and solicited an interview. We always got the same response: a polite smile and a clear look of disbelief and mistrust. We were often held at arm's length. Later, when we earned some credibility, we found out why: Most military personnel saw us as "Hollywood," and many feel that war-fighters are often grossly misrepresented by Hollywood--either via the figure of the emotionally damaged, distraught and abusive vet, or the "lone wolf," fighting off the bad guys single-handedly. …

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