The Relationship Between Theater and Veterans

When I was a child, I would go to peace vigils with my grandparents. I remember boasting signs that ranged from “Support Our Troops: Bring Them Home” to “No Blood for Oil.” Some of the people who would demonstrate were family members of veterans or veterans themselves. 

Many years later, when I was working in the office of Congresswoman Barbara Lee, my time was spent focusing on veteran services.

Other than that, I had very little interaction with veterans—that is before I started working with Poetic Theater Productions.

Some time ago, Takeo Rivera wrote his play, Goliath, while he was an undergrad at Stanford. The play is a choreo-poem about going to war, PTS, and sexual violence as told from the perspective of a veteran and his friends and family. Alex Mallory directed this play at Stanford, and then several times after in New York City, one of the productions of which toured back to the Bay in 2014 and I saw in Berkeley.

One of the things they did with this show was invite Veterans to read their writings, often poetry, before the performance. I remember the women who read works before the performace that I saw—it made the entire show more visceral, and then even more so when they affirmed the show’s truth in the talk back.

Everett Cox is one of the poet/veterans who performed before a Goliath presentation in New York. He wrote “An Open Letter to Afghanistan and Iraq War Vets” that became popular online, and I saw him perform at the VAP Home Show I volunteered with in November.

I recently had a rehearsal with Everett for a piece we’re working on for next week, Love Redefined. In his piece, he tells the story of his two trips to Vietnam and a poem he wrote inspired by an inscription on a marble Buddha statue in Vietnam.

Everett is one of my favorite people I’ve met in New York. He is incredibly humble and contentious, and I love working with him. One of the stories he shared today was when he first came back to the US after his tour to Vietnam. He said when he came back, he had this illusion that he hadn't killed anyone while he was there. And then, during one of his first days back, he went to a lake with his brother, and two water birds unexpectedly flew into the air, rising out of the water. He said that without thinking, he shot one dead. To him, this was the moment that he realized the falsity of his imagination that he did not kill anyone. That even if he didn’t shoot a person, he was a part of a giant killing machine that was operating as the US military. And this is what he had to digest, in his words, as he was celebrated as a hero, but knew he was not.

Working in the theater with veterans, I’ve heard several times the ample history of theater with veterans. Namely, Native American traditions of warriors performing in order to integrate them back to society, and Greek and Roman plays written by and about veterans.

One place I learned about this history was through the Bedlam Outreach program that offers free Shakespeare classes to veterans. Stephan Wolfert who directs the program is a professional actor and veteran himself. When I observed his class, he shared that theater is an opportunity for camaraderie—something vets often find themselves missing when they return from war— and that theater allows veterans to communalize trauma and "aid in the post-traumatic recovery process and the reintegration of our Veterans back into civilian life."

Theater is a community gathering, an act of personal and creative exchange, and a mind-body practice that allows us to ask and answer questions in creative and unimaginable ways. When I think about theater done with veterans, the relationship is not, what can we do with theater? But instead, what need must we fulfill? And then finding that theater is the answer.

We’re announcing our Poetic License 2016: A Kind of Now lineup soon, and I’m excited for the vast diversity of the work we are presenting—including work by veterans. 

Danielle Puretz is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, receiving her BA in both Theater and Performance Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies. She is currently a John Gardner Fellow, working at Poetic Theater Productions.