Theatre of War: Who is it For?

Photo Credit: Eliza Lambert

The Theatre of War Series is a collection of three plays that was performed at the Gallatin Arts Festival on Thursday April 14th in front of an audience of mostly Gallatin students and faculty. Just under an hour long, with a cast of five, the performance was a mid-process showcase of the dramatic material we have come up with since we began this project. For Gwen, the urge originated from an in depth exploration of the ambiguity of Bertolt Brecht’s war play, Mother Courage and Her Children, through experimental workshops with actors. For Henry, it began with a close study of war and the body in German literature from World War I and the Thirty Year’s War. Sitting down late one night in January, while reviewing a barrage of emails from professors we had reached out to as potential mentors in creating a tutorial analysing theatre of war, we thought: why not question the strange urge to study this topic--why not write our own pieces? So we did.

Of course, we are 20-odd year old non-military students at NYU, of all places. What grounds do we have to represent a soldier’s experience? From this question our research began, developed, and expanded to include studies of war films, war plays, and, most significantly, veteran interviews.

“War movies, they suck! ...After I saw Fury, I broke down, you know--it’s the brotherhood.”
-Mike, one of our interviewees--an Iraq veteran who had been on over 300 missions--in an answer to our question about artistic representations of war.

Dealing with this response became a particularly important part of our process in creating the Theatre of War Series. What does it mean that they “suck”? Are they too emotionally powerful? Most would say, after crying at a movie, that the film was ‘moving’ or ‘touching.’ Does this power cause damage when the person experiencing the film has been in a similar situation to what is being depicted? One way to begin to break through these (opaque) questions is to think about a similar situation with a different subject. Say someone has just gone through a divorce, and they see a movie with a moving story of divorce in it. Perhaps, like Mike, they burst into tears. Perhaps they would say movies about divorce ‘suck.’ For you, the reader, this seems now like the same situation with a different subject. Had you seen the look on Mike’s face when he said this, however, you would understand it is not the same situation. The experience of war does not operate under the same rules as a ‘normal’ civil experience. The space between these two situations is part of what the Series is looking to explore.

Credit: Eliza Lambert

Two of the veterans we interviewed were members of Gwen’s family. We thought it best to begin our process close to home, with people we knew. It was through interviewing familiar people that we learned not only about the questions we were interested in asking but how we needed to ask them. We made it clear from the start of each interview that our intent was not to create documentary theatre. The stories each individual told us would serve as varying entry points into this massive topic--personalized insight into a world we have never seen. The points of view that each interviewee brought to the table--whether specific to their stance on the war they were involved in, the military as a whole, or their political views on America’s international engagement--challenged us to expand the scope of the questions we were already asking. For example, ‘why does one choose to serve?’ quickly became ‘what collection of internal and external motivators influence one to enlist?’

Our plays transformed into an amalgamation of our personal voices and the attempted integration of the points of view of others--views that both supported our initial stances on war and that greatly differed.  Although we grappled with points of view that we did not (and are still struggling to) understand, we felt a responsibility on the part of the veterans we interviewed to work these opposing stances into our plays. A play, however, is not just a collection of opposing viewpoints. It has to tell a story. A story that is set in a place.

Credit: Eliza Lambert

The battlefield is a brilliant place to set a play. The stakes are at their highest, every action has an inherent reaction, and people are at their most urgent states. When you set a play (or a movie) in war, it is already exciting. But we want to open up the concept of ‘exciting’ -- exciting for whom? A child? A man? A woman? A veteran? One of our original goals for the Series was to make sure not to use war as a prop or device. We had to find out how we could make this interesting while maintaining our responsibility to people like Mike. We wanted to bring people in and give them an exciting experience, as long as it was not at the expense of the character of “soldier” or “veteran.” If we were to either use these characters for excitement or to caricaturize them, it would disguise the real tragedy of war which is the humanity of every person involved in it. Whether we achieved this at our performance at the Gallatin Arts Festival is up for discussion--especially since no veterans saw it to give us feedback.

A point of contention that is central to our work on the Series is this idea of ‘use.’ Theatre is based on use: a group of people use their abilities to tell a story on a stage. It comes, however, with the potential for misuse or abuse. All too often we see someone with a disability used to tell another character’s story without regards to their own, or the pain of a minority character used to build the strength of a white character. War itself is built on the use of bodies to achieve a political goal--the last thing we want to do is use actor’s bodies to tell a story of war. We want the bodies to be the story. Perhaps it is there that we will find a war play that does not use, but rather lets the story come through the bodies and minds of its portrayers.

Credit: Eliza Lambert

Despite our attempts to give equal voice to polarized points of view, we felt as though this first installment of the Series was an incredibly raw and transparent showcase of our challenges as artists--challenges that made our piece potentially insensitive to those we interviewed. For this reason, we decided it was best to limit our audience to professors, peers, and immediate family, and chose not invite the veterans we interviewed.

Deciding to withhold the veterans’ invitations was a hard decision to make. We are incredibly grateful to those who were willing to speak so openly to us about their experiences. On one hand, we would have loved the opportunity to share our performance last week with them -- not only as a gesture of appreciation but more importantly as an opportunity to receive their feedback and honest reactions.  On the other hand, we felt as though we were still struggling to shape our dramatic work as a truthful and balanced mediation of their words and ours. Ultimately, our goal with the Theatre of War Series is to write plays that entertain and respectfully engage audiences of civilians and veterans alike. We strive to develop characters that are real human beings. Human beings who are grounded in their point of view. And this is an invitation. We want our audiences to develop their own line of questioning and challenge their assumptions--just as we did ours--about the lives we lead in a world haunted by war, whether it’s happening here or a thousand miles away.