Operation Sharing Their Truth
Veterans move to create community, invite dialogue
BY SUZI STEFFEN
They love to hang out together. They make dinner, play video games, speak of absent friends. They tease each other constantly, sometimes yelling across campus to (or at) each other. Some jump at loud noises. Some hold their anger in. Some walk away from political discussions; some engage with other students about the election, foreign policy — and the wars.
|PATRICE BAKER IN REHEARSAL
And as they reveal one part of their histories, other students ask them things:
What was it like in basic training?
Why did you sign up?
Did you ever get to kill anyone?
“Yeah, they ask it like that,” says Josh Coombs. “I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked that.” The 22-year-old LCC student and former Marine rolls his eyes. The other veterans, students at the UO, agree: What a question.
But they have queries for themselves as well:
Will I be going back?
Will the pain ever go away?
Was it worth it?
One veteran is majoring in Italian and theater, planning to go into the Peace Corps. One hasn’t been deployed yet but knows he faces six years in the Navy after graduation. One, injured in basic training, helps counsel fellow veterans who have trouble with drugs or alcohol abuse.
And now, after working with hope and dedication since last spring, they’re taking their stories to the stage. On the weekend of Feb. 8-10 at the Veterans Memorial Hall, the UO’s Veterans and Family Student Association (VFSA) embarks on a unique theater and community project that gives veterans a voice. Their play, free and open to the public, shares parts of their stories with a town some of them say seems eager to see them as cartoons, stereotypes instead of real people.
Responsibility to Help
Telling, a play written by former UO staff member Jonathan Wei and current Ph.D. student Max Reyneard, started life last year after a series of veterans’ panels on the UO campus. Wei, then the VFSA student advisor, started thinking about something that was a bit more directed. Sometimes the same three or four people would be at each panel, and sometimes the questions felt offensive. “If it’s a smart question, we would answer it with dignity,” says Army veteran and UO senior Lemuel Charley. “But if it’s a nonsense question …” He shakes his head.
VFSA co-director Shane Addis, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq after his freshman year at the UO, appreciated the chance to talk in the panels, but he knew the play would help combat stereotypes. The 11 cast members —?eight men and three women; two Army, three Navy, three Marines, one Air Force, one recruit and one civilian spouse — say that they want to give the Eugene/Springfield community something new to think about.
Sean Jin agrees. He’s a UO senior headed into the Navy’s Officer Candidate School after he graduates with a degree in economics. Jin serves as the activities coordinator for the VFSA, which means he’s usually running errands, sending out press releases and considering the advice his elders give him.
“They see us as one of two stereotypes,” Jin says. “One is that every veteran is pro-war, pro-government, and the other side is that vets are completely disillusioned, anti-war, maybe homeless.”
“Or they even see us as just completely anti-establishment,” adds Jason Alves. Alves, a marine biology major at the UO, spent four years in the Navy after high school to help pay for college. He’s vocal about disagreeing with some of the other vets’ political opinions, but, he says, “Our respect for each other transcends our opinions and lifestyles.”
They don’t share a common political point of view. They don’t share class, race, gender or religious backgrounds; they don’t all have the same branch of the service in common. And they represent far more veterans than appear on stage.
Wei and Rayneard, in consultation with the veterans, set up the questions for the oral history-like interviews: Why did you join the service? Tell us about basic training. What was your service like? What’s it been like coming back home?
Over the summer, 24 student veterans told their stories to the writers and the camera. Charley, a digital arts major who served in the first Gulf War, Haiti and Bosnia as a paratrooper and heavy equipment engineer, recorded more than 40 hours of their answers. Charley holds hero status with many of the others; his stories have entertained and educated them at every turn. “It’s creating a dialogue between our community and the rest of the community,” Charley says.
The play used to be called True, but over winter break, the veterans decided it made more sense to call it Telling. The show consists of them, alone and together, speaking their stories and those of others who couldn’t be in the play. But each monologue, each carefully constructed scene, tells more than their particular tales.
(Don’t) Talk About It
Play director John Schmor, the chair of the UO’s theater department, laughs when he remembers what Wei and Rayneard told him last summer. “We’ll have you a script by September,” they said. He’s amazed, he says, that they could “farm through” so much material and still keep their energy going as they wrote. Schmor and the actors saw a more finished script late in fall term, long after Wei moved to another job and another life in Austin, Texas.
Wei makes that long trek back to Eugene to help Rayneard work out final details as the weeks tick down toward performance. Their words tumble out as the two of them speak about how the experience has moved them, how passionate the students are. Wei and Rayneard are clearly devoted to the veterans who opened up and trusted the writers with their life stories. And the two of them — liberal, interested in social justice — have done what good listeners do: They’ve taken on others’ belief systems in pursuit of art and the truth as the students spoke it in their interviews. Consultant Cai Emmons, who has taught in the UO’s creative writing program, helped refine the script during rehearsals. She says, “The biggest thing keeping humans from working collaboratively is not listening. Here, you can’t deny it is their experience.”
No one’s getting wealthy working on this project. Telling is a mostly volunteer, one-shot deal that the writers, director, consultants and VFSA hope to make a model for veterans’ organizations across the country. They’ll put a video about the making of Telling on the website, and Charley has what he calls a “field crew” of helpers filming all three performances.
Wei hopes it will be like a looser replication of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, with the basic form in place but specific, individual stories every place a play like this runs. As for Telling, the plan is to run these three shows — and see what happens. A veterans’ group in North Bend, Ore., has asked them to perform. Some of the cast members clearly want to keep on going, perfecting the show. Jason Alves jokes, “There’s whispers of D.C.!”
Jeremy Coombs, a senior history major and Josh’s older brother, looks at Alves and says, “Are you crazy?”
The cast seems weary. Willing, but tired. The students and Schmor gave up Friday nights all fall term for a basic performance class, a way to get them used to things like vocal warm-ups, stage movements, projection, loosened jaws. “Everyone was self-conscious,” says Jeremy, a Marine corporal who served several times in Iraq. “Everybody was like, ‘I don’t want to look like an idiot.’ So it helped a lot.”
Since winter break ended, the cast has made good on a commitment to Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons, rehearsing in the cold upstairs at the Veterans Memorial Hall on Willamette Street. The space, often used for dance classes or as a ballroom, echoes with the tales of countless vet functions. Sometimes the bar at the back corner of the room holds water, wine bottles and other stock for the night to come.
Now, come Saturday at noon, there the young veterans are — one in a Gryffindor jacket, one sporting a Minnesota Wrestling T-shirt, one always sprouting a blue and grey striped stocking cap — trying to stay loose-limbed and ready to move, open-jawed and prepped to speak.
When the process started, many say, they were doubtful. Patrice Baker, who was injured in her first weeks in the Army, says, “I didn’t think it would really happen. I thought only the people who were in the room would hear the stories.” And she’s nervous now even if she’s also pumped: “I didn’t think it would get this far —?I was hoping it wouldn’t get this far!”
But Baker knows it’s vital for veterans to tell their stories. Take Navy veteran Shirley Cortez. She worked in the service as an elevator technician for four years after high school, and now she’s majoring in English at the UO. She thought her story wasn’t interesting, wasn’t important. “Max told me I was self-effacing,” she says. After months of work, she tells her story with a measure of confidence. “Now it seems more significant,” she says. When she sings at the end of Act II, everyone gathers around to listen. She’s the bridge.
Jeremy Coombs picks up her singing from time to time during the show. Jeremy used to sing to “his guys” in Iraq, John Schmor says, even in the worst of circumstances. Jeremy explains that even though he’s been reluctant, he knows talking about his experiences can help other vets as well. “My buddies and I, we look up to guys who went through WWII, Korea, Vietnam,” he says. “One old-timer who was a bazooka gunner told about shooting a Japanese tank, being so close he could see the underside of the tank before he shot. Then he said, ‘That’s nothing compared to what you’ve gone through.'” Jeremy shakes his head. “But a lot of the old-timers are dying off, and a lot of them don’t want to talk about it. So it’s important for other vets.”
Sean Jin thinks it’s important for his friends in the show as well. “I’ve seen you guys come to terms with your stories,” he tells the others. Even if attendance at the free plays is low, they all say, at least they’ve been through the process. They list the relatives they’ve invited — parents, grandparents, siblings. And they think the audience will include other veterans who patronize the Veterans Memorial Hall, which donated a huge chunk of time and change for the students to have a space for their play. Eugeneans without a connection to the military might be reluctant, they acknowledge. “The building is intimidating to some people,” Cortez says.
But director Schmor hopes for an audience far beyond the veterans and their families. After all, he’s opposed to the war, and as he got involved with the play, he worried about how that would go over. “I’m a Prius-driving Obama sticker guy, and some of them tease me about it,” he says.
The first time Schmor met with the entire group, a cast member mistook him for one of the Coombs brothers from across the lawn and started yelling (affectionate) obscenities at him. “So that was my introduction to them,” he says.
But he was up for it. “In the theater, we’re so ideologically locked; there are things we don’t want to deal with. So it’s been fun to work on material that may not be my own opinion,” he says. He’s glad for his learning curve. And, he adds, “I hope my righteously liberal students will go to the play too.”
Theater Boot Camp
Schmor realized it for the first time in October: He didn’t have to treat these students with kid gloves. As a matter of fact, once he got fed up with their chatting and teasing during performance classes and called them out on it, things improved dramatically. “I can bark at them, and they’ll fall into line,” he says.
On a Saturday in January he lets loose again. By this time, he’s busy casting his play Or Not to Be for the Lord Leebrick Theatre, and he doesn’t have time for the self-consciousness or goofing around that marked the previous week’s rehearsal. “I gave them the Nazi speech,” he says at break. Not the one about fighting Nazis so much as the one where the director is the all-powerful leader, and they have to bow down before his will. “I said, no more fucking around. It’s not about your individual experiences anymore. It’s about how the play works as a whole.”
In the week before showtime, the rain dripping outside of the rehearsal hall sounds a familiar refrain. Schmor tells them there’s no time before the practice run to take one last pee break: They’ve got to be ready to roll. There’s no set; four black bar stools are the only props. The lighting conditions aren’t ideal. The actors aren’t sure what to wear at the performances — plain T-shirts and jeans, maybe, or fleece jackets. Unmarked. Civilian clothes.
They stop talking. Lemuel Charley, whom they thought was going to be deployed to Germany when the play opens, readies a video for the stage. His taped monologue, combined with a phone call later in the play, represents the absence of so many friends and colleagues — including those who have graduated or who have been redeployed.
Silence fills the room as one by one, the actors run downstage and ask their questions. They’re serious now, no screwing around; they’re focused. Patrice Baker slaps hands with Josh Coombs as he finishes a sequence about boot camp. A Navy vet makes the audience laugh with his line delivery. And Jeremy’s wife Christina delivers a poem about planting seedlings while Jeremy sees combat. The poem adds weight to the perspectives of those at home worried about the ones they love.
Home isn’t the location most of us identify with the military. “That’s not a place we call the front,” Schmor says, but he knows the U.S. military affects every one of us: Everyone who pays taxes, who knows a service member, who has family or friends serving, who takes classes with these students or who drinks with them, attends a panel, comes to a play.
Telling gives these vets a focus, a feeling of community and support. Most of them hang out together anyway, but few of them have acting experience. They don’t know, perhaps, that theater fosters a special kind of community during the process of the play, and maybe they don’t know how hard it will be to return to life without play rehearsals, memorizing lines, learning blocking. They do see some advantages to the end of the process.
“My grades will go up!” Jeremy Coombs predicts. And Charley adds, “I’m going to get straight A’s.”
Even Schmor has big plans. “I bought a new house in September and moved in October.” Now he’ll finally unpack. His UO theater colleagues, he says, think he’s crazy. “But sometimes you say to yourself, if it’s a learning opportunity, you do it, and you’ll pay for it later.”
Beyond the play, the veterans do have a community, a constant web of phone calls, texts, emails, hanging out at the Coombs residence. Christina Coombs explains, “When vets tell their stories, there are so many and so wide-ranging, but this play is an hour and a half of concentrated, amazing stories.”
Shane Addis adds, “People have a lot to gain from hearing our stories. Normally, they’re for us, the privileged few. But they’re some of the greatest stories you’ve ever heard.”
Hear those stories at one of three free performances: 8 pm Friday, Feb. 8, and Saturday, Feb. 9, and 2 pm Sunday, Feb. 10, at the Veterans’ Memorial Hall, 1626 Willamette. For more information, visit www.uoregon.edu/~vfsa/telling/project.htm or email firstname.lastname@example.org