War has always been a sexy topic, and these days you can't swing a DD214 (the piece of paper that summarizes one's military service) without hitting an artist who wants to "deal with" PTSD. As a creator of theatre, I can sympathize with the urge to address these important topics. As a veteran, I often find the attempt falls short; limited by assumptions which are shaped, in ways that neither the artist nor the civilian audience are even aware of, by Hollywood and a political discourse removed from the reality.
So when I found out about the Veterans Play Project, I jumped at the chance to be involved. The VPP has been a collaboration with real veterans at every step of the creative process, from concept to performance. Its agenda is to give a voice to a wide range of veterans' experiences, to help bridge the comprehension gap between veteran and civilian. It brings forward both the differences and the unifying nature of military service in disparate time periods and in various roles.
Director Leah Cooper* and her team started by talking to groups of vets, gathering stories that would become the raw material of the show. They workshopped those stories collaboratively with vets who helped flesh out the nuances of military culture and experience. And finally they cast the show with a combination of vets and actors (and some of us who fit both categories). Even during the rehearsal process, our feedback (and our rambling detours down memory lane) has been sought and incorporated into the script. The result is a play that gives us a voice, rather than a play that talks about us. I can't even begin to explain how much that means to me.
Working on a creative project with other vets has been eye-opening for me. My experience as a non-combat Iraq War veteran who joined voluntarily is vastly different from that of Sam, a Vietnam combat vet who was drafted right out of high school. Strange as it sounds, when I went on my first deployment, it did not occur to me that I would be a veteran. That didn’t sink in until I was treated to a welcome home briefing on VA benefits. It took me a couple months to wrap my head around the idea.
It took Sam years to even start that process, and this play is just now allowing him to fully embrace the identity of being a veteran. We have different feelings about something as simple as being thanked for our service.
And yet, there is just something about having worn a uniform, about having been part of a war, and about the difficulties of expressing that experience that provides common ground for us all. It's been a privilege and a joy to work and play on that common ground. In one of our early rehearsals, Leah remarked how quickly the vets had become comfortable with each other, how easily we developed a sense of trust even though we were complete strangers. I think that observation pretty well sums it up.
We vets are notorious for not wanting to talk about our experiences. Even if we're not traumatized, it's just difficult to relate. The creative team and actors involved in this project have allowed us to break down their assumptions and are helping us to tell our stories.
The Veterans Play Project is not about war or PTSD. It's a play about the good, the bad and the real of serving and being a veteran of the United States military. So we are talking about it, and we'd be honored if you would come listen. Did I mention the choir numbers sound amazing?
*Editors' note for full disclosure: Leah Cooper is a founder of Minnesota Playlist. She had no direct involvement with this article.