Under the oak trees that shade Central Park in Louisville, Ky., a troupe takes the stage. Although most of them have never performed before, they've been rehearsing for months. Their weekly rehearsals have paid off-- the performance is flawless. Each performer recites their lines with conviction and poise. They conclude the performance by locking arms and reciting--"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers." Thunderous applause erupts from the stands and as the newly minted thespians exit the stage, many in the audience thank each one for their service.
The group lacked prior acting experience, but all shared of the common experience of serving in combat. Some were drafted into Vietnam. Some dutifully enlisted in recent years and served in the Middle East. Some retired as high-ranking officials. Others served in the infantry. Some bore physical injuries of war, while others sustained the invisible wounds of PTSD. The group appeared intrinsically bonded by their newfound shared experience.
The founder of Shakespeare with Veterans, Fred Johnson, has said that no one in the English language speaks more directly to the Veteran experience and the warrior's heart than William Shakespeare. As a veteran himself, Johnson also participated in the program. Kentucky Shakespeare provided the direction, which is free for the veterans, and the outlet to perform during the annual Shakespeare festival.
Johnson wanted to promote positive change and healing within the veteran community. The Louisville Vet Center, which provides combat veterans and their families with readjustment counseling (including PTSD, sexual trauma, bereavement and transition into civilian life), outreach (including community events like Shakespeare for Veterans) and referral services (including employment assessment) provided a healing environment for the veterans to meet and rehearse.
Johnson approached Al Snyder, Team Leader at the Vet Center about getting involved. Snyder began his career in the army 23 years ago as a private and now holds the rank of lieutenant colonel. He's been deployed twice to Iraq. He admitted he was skeptical at first about whether or not veterans would be interested in the program. But he was happy to report he was wrong.
"The program has been phenomenal," said Snyder. "It brings the supportive nature of the group dynamic with learning about how to use your emotions. It's very effective."
Themes of war, empathy, tragedy and redemption flow through the monologues. The program allows the veterans to talk about how they feel with those who unequivocally understand. Prose from The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet and Henry V were merged into one culminating performance.
"The Merchant of Venice was about revenge and the cycle of revenge," said Johnson. "Arguably, this is how wars are started and perpetuate. It is also about looking at the enemy through a different lens. Our enemies are just like us in many ways--the same wants, desires, etc. An aspect of counterinsurgency is about understanding the enemy and the people."
Associate Artistic Director for Kentucky Shakespeare, Amy Attaway, provided professional instruction to the group. (Johnson expressed tremendous gratitude to Kentucky Shakespeare, calling them the heroes of the program.) While directing the group during rehearsal, Attaway exhibited the focus and expertise you would expect from a director; although she spent much of the time joking with the veterans between lines. Her kind and patient nature seemed to be a perfect fit for the therapeutic aspect of the program. She also spoke about how the prose related to the veterans.
"We spent a lot of time going through the text and what it actually means," said Attaway. "They would say, 'this speech sounds like exactly what I would say to my soldiers in the field,' or 'this sounds like it could be today'. Those moments have been really exciting to me--new people waking up to the poetry and the power of the words. If you let yourself dig into it, you'll find whatever you're looking for.
With Shylock [a character in the Merchant of Venice], it was about understanding the other. We had a lot of conversations about a time during deployment when they encountered the other. A couple of people talked about how the speech from a Jew's perspective made them feel about how they were taught to feel about the Iraqis, or the Vietnamese or Afghanis."
Other featured monologues also related to the struggles many veterans face today.
"The Hamlet monologue is about suicide, "said Johnson. " It's well known we have a problem with that in the military. The verses speak to the inner dialogue some of us have had about killing ourselves and in some ways what kept us from doing it.
The Henry V monologue captures everything about why we fight--for honor, duty and for each other. That monologue alone qualifies the statement of speaking to the warrior's heart."
Patrick Alexander is a counselor at the Vet Center, a veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and a participant. (Full disclosure, he also happens to be my husband.)
"I believe this type of therapy is good for socialization and reintegration," Alexander said. "Veterans who are just getting back from conflict that may or may not have specific stressors and just want a community like they had in the military can come for programs like Shakespeare for Veterans. If you need readjustment from military life, the Vet Center is there for you."
"The chaos that erupts when we're playing the games is my favorite part," said Attaway. "These men, who did not sign up for military service and spent their whole lives not talking about it, have come in this room and played these silly games and they just laugh and laugh. Then they're able to take that energy and openheartedness and put it into the Shakespeare text. It's beautiful."
The positive impact the program has made on the veterans involved has been one of Johnson's favorite parts of the program. He said he's preserved during tough times through the healing power of art and wanted to share that experience with others. While getting to know other veterans, he said he hasn't experienced such comradery since he donned the uniform himself. He considers the other participants, who were strangers months prior, dear friends.
He proudly spoke of a few vets who participated in the program like Dan Minton, a Vietnam veteran who said the program was the best therapy he had in more than 40 years. Dorris Arnold, courageously filled in during performances despite her profound shyness. Marcus Murray, whose injuries left him paralyzed, drove two hours each way at least weekly to participate in the program.
Johnson said now that the goal of positively impacting the veterans who participated in the program has been realized; he wants other veterans to join. He invites any combat veterans who want to be a part of the program to join. He also believes this program can help bridge the gap between veterans and civilians. He aims to have more performances at universities, social clubs, businesses and essentially any outlet where people want to listen to their story through the words of Shakespeare.
"When folks get to know veterans, they will be far more informed in a personal way," said Johnson. "When national leaders call to put 'boots on the ground' in a war-- people who have seen us on stage, met us after a performance and shared a beer or soft drink; they will know that those 'boots' have people in them."
Read more of Farrah's work at fortheloveofwineandcoffee.com
To locate a Vet Center near you, go to http://www.va.gov/directory/guide/vetcenter.asp