Soldiers on Stage
First of all, who knew that there were theatre companies on US Army bases? Who knew they had annual one-act play and full-length play competitions? Who knew that working as a mentor to the directors of those plays existed as a job?
My supervisor, Jim Sohre, recently retired as Chief, Entertainment (Music and Theatre) Program, U.S. Army Europe, created the Mentoring Program in 1995: “I started the concept when we got actor, director (and personality!) Charles Nelson Reilly here to judge our Army Europe One Act Play Festival in Heidelberg. He not only critiqued, he got right up on stage and re-worked scenes with the groups. So it was more a working Masters Class.”
I began working as a Mentor Director for the same Festival. This involved traveling from base-to-base throughout Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey and Northern Italy. There are about 20 bases that participate in the annual competition; I visited 14 of them. As Jim explains, “Well, first, by bringing in mentors/judges from the US we are able to get top notch industry professionals who can provide contemporary input and training that is not available here in the English language.”
Each base I visited has a theatre company that regularly presents plays and musicals for the residents of the base. These companies include not only soldiers, but their families, other military personnel, non-military base workers, etc. Since the funding for the theatre companies and their facilities is at the discretion of the base commander, they operate under wildly different conditions. In Stuttgart, you have an entire performing arts complex with theatres, rehearsal spaces, everything state-of-the-art; in Grafenwoehr, plays are presented in a corner of a former basketball court using only clip lights and a boom box for tech. Still, it is remarkable what they are able to produce.
Each afternoon, I would arrive at a base and get settled in Army housing. In the evening, I attended rehearsals of the play that group was planning to present during the Competition coming up in a few weeks in Heidelberg. It is there that representatives from all of the bases come together to share their work and compete for prizes. As an Adjudicator of the Competition, I would see about 20 different productions over 2 days. The collegiality of the “competitors” was inspiring; they cheered for each other’s productions.
Some of the directors had never directed a play before; others had some small experience; an occasional few had directed professionally in the States or elsewhere. I watched rehearsals and tried to help the directors in the very specific way they desired. In some cases I met with the actors and ran some scenes offering suggestions on staging, character development, design elements, etc. Sometimes, I just met privately with the director to discuss what I had seen. I was not trying to impose my aesthetic on their vastly different working methods or tell them how I would do it. I asked them what they wanted to know about what I had seen and we took it from there.
I was incredibly moved by the desire of these individuals to commit to doing theatre in such a strange and fraught atmosphere. We were in the midst of two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, and soldiers were being deployed to both places regularly. When they were not in training or preparing to depart, some of them found the theatre; those who did were fiercely committed to it and determined to be the best actors (or directors or designers or technicians) they could. Jim Sohre had the right idea: if you bring them a taste of professional quality, they will take themselves more seriously, express themselves more openly and create a more cohesive community.
What kinds of plays do they perform on Army bases? Is there censorship? I was pleased to experience a wide range of styles and subjects being covered in the various pieces I saw. For one-acts, it ranged from Christopher Durang to David Ives to Williams and Chekhov to original plays, and some short musicals. Full length plays in a different competition in the Spring had much bigger musical productions, kids shows, serious American dramas and Shakespeare. Since shows are presented for a family audience, you didn’t see too much Mamet or Ravenhill, and you didn’t see anything overtly anti-American or anti-military (although one group did attempt A Few Good Men.)
My conversations with soldiers involved in the theatre companies were illuminating. I learned from one soldier who acted in plays with his 8-year-old son, that he found the experience an excellent way to stay in communication with his children when he couldn’t explain where he had just come from and what had happened during his deployment. They could “play” together which many families found therapeutic. One soldier told me how he could channel his emotions into a play he was working on so he wouldn’t have to take the intense feelings home.
I met one extraordinary man who had been deployed several times to Iraq. He had been blown up by roadside bombs three times, and survived. Each time he came back to Germany, to the US Army base where he lived, he returned to the theatre company on base. He wasn’t an actor; he enjoyed working on the sets, building things, doing everything backstage. But he said, it was like coming back to a family, and he felt useful.
The friendships I made with the directors, the soldiers, base commanders and others gave me a fresh perspective on what it means to be in the US Army and also how important the arts are for allowing us to express ourselves in a creative way. So much of the fighting of wars is about destruction, not creation. It was illuminating to see how essential it is for us to explore creative expression and how it can lift a community constantly faced with family members coming back debilitated physically or emotionally or both.