Friday, August 08, 2008

Local Artist Shares War Veterans' Stories

Sound Off: Combat Stories Revealed, a new creative performance and documentary theater work developed by Flynn Center New Art Space Assistance (N.A.S.A.) Grant recipient Jen Berger, explores the stories of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Berger, who runs a campaign at Burlington’s Peace & Justice Center that provides truth in military recruitment/enlistment education to high school students and community members statewide, incorporates her experiences working with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in this work-in-progress showing. “Their powerful stories have angered, saddened, and inspired me in my work and life,” remarks Berger. “I have carried these stories with me and share them in my work to highlight the differences in what the media portrays what is going on overseas and what is happening from a soldier’s perspective.”

During the emotional process of producing this work, Berger kept a journal of her experiences collaborating with actors and war veterans, which she was kind enough to share here on the Flynn Center blog.

It’s getting a little easier and the intensity is releasing. The first few meetings we had were so emotionally intense. We started with a really difficult story about issues surrounding suicide in the military. Everyone had a strong reaction to the story. How can you not? This isn’t an easy subject matter to work with, and there is no way to lighten it up. I don’t think we should either—it’s about as real as life gets. I kept thinking about ways to keep everyone motivated—not despairing—and wanted everyone to experience the stories fully. Motivation comes in different ways. One of my motivations for this piece, and to share these stories, is to bring the info to a larger audience. The information is catalytic, I believe, and it was for the actors as well. We all share the belief that this occupation is wrong on so many levels, and we want to make an impact. This performance will provide the info to whomever comes to see it and will have some impact. I love this work. I love seeing people’s minds at work, and their thought processes. I love the dialogue that happens within the group, whether about the exercises, the material, the script, or the politics and history. Everyone is so engaged.

I received an email today with a headline that read: “Suicide hot line got calls from 22,000 soldiers.” I couldn’t read it. I printed it out, but I haven’t read it yet. I scanned it, but I already knew what it said. I couldn’t wait for rehearsal.

Tonight’s dialogue was interesting. We are planning on doing a story that touches on issues that women face in the military. There are four actors in the group, two male and two female. We wondered about the men playing women, especially on a topic so sensitive and central to women’s lives. Both the men in the group were willing to play another gender, but we wondered if it would be confusing for the audience, or diminish its impact. We did some improv exercises with the characters that will be portrayed. Once the jokes subsided, everyone understood and connected with their character on a human level. At one point, Jeremy’s improv about “not being able to tell” moved me so deeply that I got goose bumps and almost teary. It helped me decide that if the characters are introduced early as women, then, while it might be slightly distracting at first to identify the men as females, once the dialogue begins, the stories speak for themselves. Robert said it’s a good exercise for people to connect with each other without the lens of gender. I agree.

Last night, Drew and Jon (my veteran friends) came to teach us drill and ceremony/roll call/formation. It looks a lot easier than it is. The guys were serious, and they knew the drill like it was part of them. Jon did an excellent job walking us through it. Drew’s creative streak helped block the pieces to use in the performance. They went through each piece individually, and then had us "fall out." We mingled amongst ourselves, anticipating what came next. Knowing that something was going to happen kept me on my toes. All of a sudden, a strong, deep and very loud “Fall in!” was heard. We all literally ran into our places with a strong fear of not getting it right. We all felt it. Over the last few years I have mentally, and sometimes emotionally, tried to put myself in the position of the vets. I have tried to imagine their experience as my own. Last night, I felt it more deeply. I can’t imagine living in that state for four or more years. When we were “at attention” we had to clench our fists and keep our arms tight. They said that sometimes they stayed like that for half an hour. I felt my body’s muscles tense and my anxiety rise. Without all of the other trauma these guys have encountered, just the physiological response to the formation can create harm to the mind. We went through a few drills many times. It got easier as we went.

Jen Berger will share a work-in-progress performance of Sound Off: Combat Stories Revealed on Sunday, August 24 at 7 pm in FlynnSpace.

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