Voice of the Warrior: A Scholarly Approach

By Mattia Roveri

This post captures the analysis and observations of a combined military and Greek scholar on the activities of Warrior Chorus during the creative phases of the project. These scholars worked with the groups to assist in textual interpretation and associations. Thoughts are shared with the teams to add perspective. These are some of those thoughts:

On our third meeting the focus started to shift slowly from the classical texts (Euripides, Aristophanes, Shakespeare) to our own text – the play that is starting to emerge as a result of the meetings and discussions. What should and could we take from these influences, and how? Where to break free from authors, who have dominated our minds for so long (both literally as we’ve been thinking about them for the majority of the project thus far, but also through cultural history where all three loom large and provide crucial background for understanding theater as it develops through history). How to bring innovative and new insights into this convoluted theatrical world (a question with which Euripides and Aristophanes struggled too!)? From reading and thinking about this history, we now move to writing and performing. These are the two themes that this session was organized around. I noticed that the biggest challenges revolved around the question of language and the question about structure or plotline of the play. In the remainder of this post, I’d like to focus on these two in more detail.

The question of language is really essential to the project. There is the obvious fact that we’re reading plays in translation, a fact which already in itself contains layers and layers of meanings. For names like Sphinx or even Phaedra and Hippolytus do not come naturally from our (primarily English-speaking) mouths and have an air of foreignness to them, which would have been absent for the Greeks. On stage, played to contemporary audiences, this foreignness probably cuts two ways. On the one hand, there is a sense of suspicion about foreigners (Who are they exactly? Why are they here? For how long? What are their true motives?), and on the other, there is a sense of privilege and elitism that is associated with some foreign speech. The latter is what we could imagine the effect of foreign Greek names will have when put on stage. The audience is invited to think about the intertexts when they hear these names; it is undeniable that they will get more out of the play if they’re familiar with the original stories. And they’ll be familiar with the original stories if they’ve had access to these stories through good education or leisure, both of which remain the privileges of the elite. But perhaps things are less clear-cut in New York City, a cultural melting pot where any name and every imaginable cultural group is somehow represented?

And then there are technical, and in some sense, deeper issues related to the question of language that overlap with the second theme, the question of structure. How do we write this play and aim at a sort of homogenous outcome if we have polyphony of voices? What kind of style, register, verse, prose to use? Include all and have a mixture? That might be fun to do and read, but would it be performable? Make it all uniform? That might prove detrimental to the creative powers at work. There is no formula for this and the group proceeds in, what I think is, the best possible way – by postponing though not ignoring the question. It remains in the background throughout all our conversations, but the idea is that all material will have to come together first and through various rehearsal and practice sessions the play will emerge. This sounds very exciting. The idea that everything, including the basics of language, will be up for debate and change based on its ‘performability’ (is that a word?) is invigorating. In fact, the very session itself proved that this will be a successful path to take. The performance of a section in Euripides’ Hippolytus (note that the title is Hippolytus and not Phaedra as in Racine) by two group members (and the performance was truly mesmerizing – I wonder if it would be good to have part of that conversation as a voice-over without seeing the actresses, so captivating were their voices alone) had an immediate effect on the group and their writing. Some said the performance confirmed their sense of characters, some said they’d need to make revisions based on this performance. We don’t think about this often enough, but texts really come to life when performed and assume a life quite different from the one imagined in one’s head when read. I wonder if the group would agree with drawing a comparison here with the military experience: civilians think and imagine, assume and argue, but the reality of a lived experience – that is something different altogether.

The second theme that was often talked about concerns the structure of the play with all its individual parts and details. Members of the group were drawing on their own experiences, thoughts and ideas, but often wondered how their musings and creations might relate to the play as it all comes together. Is Phaedra already dead when we’re developing a dialogue including her? And what do we need to know about the specifics of the plot in order to create a character. Much as in the Greek originals, every character that will appear on stage in this play will have a carefully constructed identity. But, unlike in the Greek original, characters might be composed by different writers. Now it might be because of all the Pirandello I’ve been reading recently, but it’s fascinating to think about a character who is not uniform throughout the play, who is not quite as she appears to be from the previous scene. A character who acts in certain ways in a dialogue but seems to have a completely (or somewhat) different way about life when on her own. I guess we’re all like that a little bit and so perhaps there is really something to the idea of involving multiple people in sketching out the details of the plot and character? Or think about Luis Bunuel’s ‘That obscure object of desire’ (1977 film, now a cult classic among cinephiles), where two completely different actresses (different in looks but also in temperament) play Conchita.

The spring 2018 iteration of Warrior Chorus concluded on 11 April 2018. Follow Aquila on FacebookTwitter, and this blog for more information. Help this critical program grow and develop: if you attended a reading, please review your experience here. If you are a NYC Warrior Chorus fellow past or present, share your experience here.

Voice of the Warrior: Excerpts, Endings, and The Way Forward

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This final episode is the conclusion of the project, in a packed house at Federal Hall in NYC, where the four groups share excerpts of their Veteran-written interpretations of the ancient Greek works…

Federal Hall in New York City is an impressive space. Originally built and still harboring the influences of Greek architecture, the rotunda echoes impressively as one might expect in a place of such historical significance. It was on this site where the proclamation of revolution against the British Stamp Act was given, and the site of the first US Capitol and Congress. George Washington stands on the steps facing the New York Stock Exchange as a reminder of the independence the country sought in not only taxation, but art and expression.

The Veterans and Families stand in the rotunda for last minute lessons on how to project in a two story, stone ampitheater. It is a different type of lesson from their usual talks of confidence, but the technical aspects now being learned on the fly during the short rehearsal time does not faze the cast. Veterans do what they do from service: adapt and overcome, and now they are taking the families with them. As a team, they coach and direct each other and make sense of the echoes.

The audience arrives early, and takes nearly every seat well before show time. Friends and supporters, theater students, random passers-by, the mix is eclectic and isn’t sure what to expect. To help provide clarity and context, each piece in this showcase will entail a brief snippet of the Greek text that inspired the new work and then a ten minute excerpt of the Veteran-written piece.

First to perform is Team Dan (US Marine Corps), adapting Aeschylus’ Persians into their collectively written Bring Us a Goat, a Lamb, Any Damn Thing. Highlighting the aspects in the Greek play of wartime decisions, relationships, survivor’s guilt, and the feeling of loss and having done enough, the adaptation puts those who felt the same losses lamented in Persians into a modern bar attempting to deal with the pain of recovering a friend from a war they aren’t sure they are winning.

Next, Team Neath (US Navy) tells a story of military sexual trauma in Discredited, adapted in part and developed from Aeschylus’ Suppliants which highlights – or perhaps lowlights – the plight of a group of women conquered in battle. The group took the topic into the future, to a projection of integrated Marine combat unit deployments. The story is one of pride and duty, pressure and leadership, and of protecting the mission while protecting the self and weighing whether we can always make the best decisions for the whole.

Team Johnny (US Army) follows with an excerpt of Euripides’ Hippolytus, which his team has combined with influences of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and their imaginations to transform into a modern sequel: Autumn Ever After. Set in a combined world of Gods and humans, the piece retains some of the politics of Hippolytus while attacking the challenging concept of preventing conflict in the face of questionable leadership and where such a sense of duty and obligation might lead.

To close the evening of readings, Team Jenny (US Army) modernizes and adapts Euipides’ Bacchae. Two powers about to go to war, each believing they are in the moral right because of a perceived (or real) moral wrong, the adaptation pulls the Greek Gods and families out of Athens and into the current wars. Jenny and her team saw something missing from the original work, a sense of completion with the lack of the war lament. Her chosen excerpt is the painful feeling of the mother realizing her son will not return from a battle he waged, for better or worse.

The room is beyond capacity, with supportive Warrior Chorus members and additional audience standing around the perimeter since the seats are full. The acoustics and numbers in the rotunda make the talk-back more challenging than the theater, but the audience is immediately eager to ask questions of the four team leaders. How does theater help? What was the experience like? What lessons are you using off-stage?

Team responses are united in positive experiences. Johnny stresses that the theater experience doesn’t have to necessarily heal, but provides a resource and outlet which helps. It’s not treatment, but it’s lessons and a release, and can be different for everyone. Neath and Dan are able to compare the cohesion and respect of their theater fellows to that of the military life, expressing a sense of familiarity and unity which drew them into this process and keep them going, and Jenny emphasizes how the stage has become a big part of her life and how much she learns about herself.

But the main theme is the group and the team, and the strong desire to see the Warrior Chorus continue. Each of the productions has some plans to further develop their work and showcase it down the road, which seems to perk up the audience and indicates the talent and potential they saw in the excerpts. But the teams, as well as Desiree and Peter, also encourage new faces to get involved – both Veterans and Families – and keep building the Warrior Chorus community.

This concludes the spring 2018 iteration of Warrior Chorus. Thank you so much to all the donors and grantors who make Warrior Chorus possible. Follow Aquila on FacebookTwitter, and this blog for more information. Help this critical program grow and develop: if you attended a reading, please review your experience here. If you are a NYC Warrior Chorus fellow past or present, share your experience here.

Voice of the Warrior: Sharing Voices

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This episode covers the first week of Phase III, where the four groups share the Veteran-written interpretations of the ancient Greek works through staged readings…

It’s finally show time. Two teams take the black box stage each night so it’s finally time to put all of the lessons together. Use the stage, use your voice, rely on your teammates, have confidence and remember to be real: each participant is enough.

There’s a little bit of stage nerves ahead of the performance on the part of not just those on stage but the writers. It’s not an easy night, having your work on display for a packed house including your fellow program participants. The feeling in the audience is one of support, a calming counterbalance to the nervous anticipation, as they begin to file in shortly before the notional curtain rises.

There is first a quick introduction from Desiree, clearly proud of her 42 Fellows made up of Veterans and Family Members. She is excited to see these productions for the first time in full, too, and displays confidence they will each be unique and important. The purpose of the Warrior Chorus – a way to assist Veterans and Families in learning to understand, adapt, and present Greek theater with a focus on war and reintegration – is discussed with passion, as is the explanation that the writers and groups were encouraged to work with theater mentors and learn from the experience. The focus is clear: these are not career actors or writers, these are individuals connected to the Veteran Community with a passion for learning theater and applying tools and techniques to the real world.

And with that, the presentations of full-length works begin. The support on stage for each other is reminiscent of how a platoon starts to build in the service. Actors, which now describes everyone in the cast, have their parts within the whole and they are ready to back each other up. A line missed? No worries, someone has your back. Forgot where you were supposed to stand? We will work around it together. It feels natural, because they have by now built into functional teams ready to support one another in the mission.

Each play is vastly different in tone, setting, and topic, and fits the dynamic of each group perfectly. The Veteran writers clearly took personalities, abilities, and experiences into account during the composition, and most of the plays have considerable group effort in scripting and editing. But far from being a hodge-podge of works based on Greek plays (some more loosely than others), the variety keeps the audience involved and even draws attendees back for both nights. This audience is intent and intense. They remain rapt during the performances not out of the politeness of being in attendance at a reading of a new script, but without scenery and costumes the cast and new writing has defined new perceptions.

The talk-back – a key part of the Aquila Warrior Chorus mission in relating the works to the Veteran and Family experience – is a great insight into the fellowship and the process. The audience questions are mostly posed from the other groups, even though they are a minority in the nearly standing room house, as they ask how ideas came about or what the experience was like in the other groups. The casts are welcomed into answering some of the questions, drawn in from the primary writers/directors and making the feeling of team more powerful in “This was not just my work, but all of ours.” And through it all the audience remains deeply involved, cheering on not only the process but the stories of the Veterans and Families that inspired the writing.

“I would love more time,” says Jenny during her talk-back and with sentiments echoed in comments from fellow writers and cast members. “We don’t want the community to disband.” What are the next steps is on the mind of much of the audience, how to continue forward this platoon of actors and writers. How to reinforce and continue to develop the lessons learned, and keep building the community. There is one reading still to go, but the minds of the Fellows and the audience is clearly on the future well beyond.

The final reading (excerpts of all four plays) and ceremony for Warrior Chorus is on 11 April 2018 at the Federal Hall Rotunda at 7pm, and is open and welcome to the public. Follow Aquila on FacebookTwitter, and this blog for updates. Help Warrior Chorus develop: if you attended a reading, please review your experience here. If you are a NYC Warrior Chorus fellow past or present, share your experience with classes to come here.

Voice of the Warrior: We are Enough

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This episode covers the last class of Phase II, where the four groups review the Veteran-written interpretations of the ancient Greek works. They are putting the final touches on their performance pieces ahead of the public readings on 28 and 29 March, 2018…

Trusting that “you are enough” is difficult for anyone sometimes, but that is the theme for this last day of edits and reading before the public showcases of the new works are set to begin. The concept of being “enough” is on the minds of many as the warm-up begins, and the Veterans and Family Members are reminded to stay focused on what the real actions and reactions might be and understanding they are more than capable of playing real people; after all, these are real people acting, are they not? Emotions, expressions, distractions, are all real things to be incorporated and bring a sense of natural movement to the stage. Being real is not only okay, it’s what the audience wants, and each person has decades of experience with this realism they can bring to the table: it is enough.

Seldom has there been a more poignant statement on the therapeutic potential of theater than this concept of enough. While it is meant to instill the confidence needed to establish points for the audience but not to emote, it also helps instill the feeling of being enough elsewhere in life. There is value in everyone, and that means there is a place for each person where they can feel useful, where they are enough. This confidence, self-worth, and positivity from being enough can last well beyond the performance.

Given this is the last day of rehearsal, the participants of Warrior Chorus can use this boost as they transfer to their final small group meetings. Today is focused on direction and blocking in Johnny’s group. The group is well aware this play is dynamic, and would normally have an intricate set. The ability to convey the scenes to the audience is critical, so they will use any space given with movement text in hand. They are confident in their reading and in the direction given; they are enough, and now it is up to their director Karen to use their talents in sharing the message.

Jenny’s group focused on a timing run through, for once not jumping up and down for their parts. The tone is business-like but still relatively relaxed, even with a few missing members. But without the usual movement in the room, the expressiveness of the fellows is enough to convey relationships and activity. They rely heavily on the friendship built over the recent weeks to help each other perfect understanding and increase the confidence in the room, which will no doubt reflect well on stage the following week.

Bookending the new writing with excerpts of the complex Greek play, Persians, the lines which caused them to ask the questions inspiring the writing, Dan’s group is blocking tonight as well and refining the ideas to get the audience to ask the same questions they did. They need to put forward the similarities in the stories of the war and the death and defeat and it is not an easy task but one they are tackling head on. The group which did not consider themselves a group of actors three weeks prior has taken on the discomfort of performance, all in order to support each other and remind the audience of a never-ending war.

Neath’s group is honing the script, adding the final touches of direction and linguistics to make sure the audience is clear. Less concerned with blocking and always concerned with character voice and tone, they are happy to continue perfecting the script. The group feeling is they are enough, they can convey what is written, and what message is coming across in their modern perspective is the most important issue.

After two phases it is clear each group has developed friendships and support networks to understand, if not articulate before tonight, that each of them is enough. As rehearsal winds down, each participant seems focused and confident in each other and in themselves. The coming week of brand new readings is less nerve-wracking than it was at the beginning of the night, and is definitely something each is proud of and excited to present to the community.

To see the new works read in NYC, come to the ART 502 W 53rd Street, New York, NY 10019 on March 28th and 29th with an approximate start time of 6:30pm for public readings (Each play is very different: Jenny and Dan show their pieces on 28 March, Johnny and Neath the 29th, so come for both!). The final reading (excerpts of all four plays) and ceremony for Warrior Chorus is on 11 April at Federal Hall at 6pm. Follow Aquila on FacebookTwitter, and this blog for updates.

Voice of the Warrior: Theater Lessons for Life

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

We are almost complete with Phase II, where the four groups review the Veteran-written interpretations of the ancient Greek works, and deep into editing and rehearsal.

There is always something to learn, and a different way to learn it. When it comes to regaining focus and grounding your senses, there is nothing quite like breathing. So when a Warrior Chorus warm-up links the minds of the participants to scenes and lines to practice breathing exercises, yet another therapeutic practice translates to the world outside the theater. Meanwhile, they continue with character development and conception as a piece of new confidence.

The breathing devolves into chaos as the theme for the warm-up becomes “embracing the awkward.”  Converting the awkwardness of a close stare into scene dynamics, finding ways to incorporate your character from your play into the dynamic of another character from a different play, all break down into lessons. Can we do this with our real lives? The chaos of lines shouted into nothingness, as the group moves at random. Lines walk by, each character engaging and disengaging quickly. “I come to bury him” “Bullshit!” “Why are you dressed like that?” “Beyond my paygrade” all merge together from four different plays (plus some original Shakespeare and some Greek originals thrown in, because why not). Interactions don’t make sense, but the unexpected awkwardness and the tension is desired. It is a part of not only creating tension that makes interesting theater, but being comfortable with it and accepting it as something positive that translates into life.

The break into small groups is calming, but there are only two more rehearsals to get the scripts finished and ready for the readings so the pressure is on. Jenny’s group, with direction from Stephan, discusses owning the stage and making the point, again a concept to learn from. “No one tells my story better than me” is their theme to remember, so they can learn to take command of their lines and be heard no matter how strange it might feel.  The embracing of awkward and adoption of characters learned in the last two sessions is effective: Veterans and Families are making their presence known now.

Dan’s writing cohort is focused on word choice, using tone and emotion to convey true meaning, for their lesson this evening. With a shorter script, they are making sure each point is conveyed in multiple ways. Their goal is to make the audience consider sacrifice, war, and respect of the dead versus respect of the living. They don’t want to embrace the awkward alone: they are bringing the audience in for these difficult conversations and asking them to embrace it as well. It is no easy task and each word holds significant value, even when phrased as friendly banter between Veterans.

The dynamic in Neath’s room is serious, as their conversation is about power and humanity and empowerment but also weakness and logic and reality. The editing process through group suggestion and input has allowed them to surmount a huge stumbling block of character development in the last week, one that changes aspects of the play for the emotional. Like Dan’s group, this team is not shying away from some very tough conversations and the harsh world that for too many is a sad reality.

Johnny’s group then deviates from this reality, a stark contrast to some of the other plays (which is a key part of what makes the Warrior Chorus so interesting). His team is deep in character thoughts, what their dreams might be and what the fates tell them, and how devastating something might be for the fates to turn them away from a path. The participants have become so in tune with the characters and the story they can write scenes that flow together even when they are not in the same room, allowing Johnny to send them “assignments” for contributions. This method of contribution and character cohesion has led to a tight-knit group that only a month ago were largely strangers.

So many lessons to embrace in three short hours and only one rehearsal to go, but it’s all coming together. There is a feeling of pride in every room, in every line, about what is being created and conveyed.

To see the new works read in NYC, come to the ART 502 W 53rd Street, New York, NY 10019 on March 28th and 29th with an approximate start time of 6:30pm for public readings (two plays will be read each night). The final reading (excerpts of all four plays) and ceremony for Warrior Chorus is on 11 April at Federal Hall at 6pm. Follow Aquila on FacebookTwitter, and this blog for updates.

Voice of the Warrior: New Life

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This is the third session of Phase II, where the four groups review and edit the Veteran-written interpretations of the ancient Greek works.

Theater warm-up is different depending on who leads it, of course. There are days focused on internal settling and being present, and there are days focused on mostly movement exercises, being silly and adopting characters. As the weeks have passed, the movement days seem to become easier for most of the people in the room. More are gradually to be comfortable around each other and around themselves. There are still a few who would clearly rather get to work rather than warm-up, particularly on the movement and improve days, but the adjustment is starting to take shape in the majority of the room.

This is a positive change: after all, adopting a character can be a helpful practice not just in theater. From smiling through job interviews to staying calm on a crowded subway, characters can give everyone a way to think or react in a stronger or more positive way. Improv and characters can establish confidence and reinforce attributes, overall improving interactions and the quality of life for many. This is one of the primary concepts behind reintegrating Veterans learning theater, and as one watches the connections and laughter in the room among near strangers walking around “leading from the knees,” the air of acceptance and confidence is reassuring that the theory is working. No embarrassment, try something new, it’s the character trying it instead of the person so there is no risk.

The groups move into their small rooms for readings, but the character element stays within the participants. Stephan and Jenny are still offering ways to capitalize on character with their mixed group. Though the upcoming production of the work is a reading, readers are encouraged to use the space and create relationships between the characters, to understand the personality and the manner of speaking and adopt the persona. Even the chorus, telling the story of the gods and their transgressions, adopts the tone and the confidence and nature of their assignment to convey the narrative. Becoming engrossed in the reading and in the characters, the techniques are becoming more ingrained with each interaction.

Neath’s group is back together, after the week of rough weather limited connections. But they edited and reviewed in the interim, making progress with the script and with developing characters. The focus is more about the power of words and using language to empower and convince others of right and wrong, conflicts which arose during the reading of the Greek work and translated into the modernized characters. The group speaks of each character and each interaction as though they exist, concerned not only with realism and audience understanding but the overall justifications of how actions would make the character feel and appropriate reactions. The characters are taking on a life of their own.

Meanwhile, Dan’s writing collective now has something to edit both for story and for the characters. They still conceive of the script as a script to be read by someone else instead of within the group, but this majority room of Veterans is clearly putting themselves into the heads of the characters. They see themselves in a piece of each, and use that piece to ask questions about the costs of war, the sacrifices and risks taken, and deeper questions without the fear of offending another. After all, it’s the character asking the question and debating the answer, not so much the Veterans in the room. It empowers the conversation and the individuals.

Johnny and his team is conducting a read-through of their script as well, with the advantage of familiar characters from Greek and Shakespearean theater. But to continue from the millennia old works, each actor has to take on a character and understand where they might go and how a situation might affect the story. Writing contributions will continue, through writing prompts and asking questions and discussion, for one more week.

The power of the character is strong in the Warrior Chorus. Even in groups with characters only a few days or weeks old, they each have life now and also have their own defenders and detractors within the group. The writing is collective as the characters are analyzed, and perhaps more importantly the confidence bred in creating and developing the lives on the pages is transferring to the creators.

To see the new works read in NYC, come to the ART 502 W 53rd Street, New York, NY 10019 on March 28th and 29th with an approximate start time of 6:30pm for public readings. The final reading and ceremony for Warrior Chorus is on 11 April at Federal Hall at 6pm. Follow Aquila on FacebookTwitter, and this blog for updates.

Voice of the Warrior: Enough of the Committee Already

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This is the second session of Phase II, where the four groups review and edit the Veteran-written interpretations of the ancient Greek works.

Warm-up today is led courtesy of Stephan and his Shitty Committee™ (not really trademarked, though probably should be). What is the Shitty Committee? Being both a Veteran and an actor, Stephan frequently talks about his Committee during his classes and his work. The Committee is the little (or sometimes not so little) voice in all of our heads critiquing the things we do, the way we talk or walk or think or act. They judge everything we do and tell us others are as well. We all know this Committee, whatever we call it, and Stephan’s goal in most of his work is to be sure we acknowledge its existence so we can tell it exactly where it can shove its opinion.

It’s a good reminder for the room as they walk around the room in their efforts to get in tune with the present for the coming few hours of readings. The movement is a little different than lying down on the floor as it was during the week before, and some of the actions are designed to make the participants a bit uncomfortable. But the reminder is to adapt, to tune out the Committee, and to remember that the theater is different from the military in that it is safe: “Usually nobody dies, even on the worst day of theater.” Hesitant laughs from about half of the room at that one, and slowly they begin to adjust.

It’s a much smaller group tonight, probably because of the lousy and howling weather. They are trickling in gradually, joining the movement and catching up to the concepts of becoming uncomfortable in order to gain comfort. The Veterans in the room, even the latecomers, seem to make the switch a little slower than those with a strong theater background but once the mental switch is made the difference is more noticeable in the Veterans. A careful observer can identify when the Veteran releases the Committee’s voice, and the tension disappears from the shoulders or a step turns from military stiffness to confidence in action.

As the groups break out to their individual rooms, adapt and overcome is the name of the game. How different the plays are, too, born in isolation from each other with different origins, different opinions and ideas, different creative perspective, and now different processes to write and edit. Today there are still more challenges, with missing members from the weather, steadily adjusting scripts with regular input. The confidence built during the first hour strengthens the members to be open during the exhausting edits.

Jenny adapts to the icy roads with a call-in to her group, but openly admits she wouldn’t miss the feedback on her script for the world. She also admits her Committee has been rather loud on her interpretation, and the group will help in gaining perspective. Her mixed group of Veterans and civilians has formed cohesively, allowing for openness and opinions to be shared.

Meanwhile, Dan’s group of writers is in edit mode but yet also still collectively pooling ideas. A few wrote contributing sections, which are now put together as scenes of the same act. They took advantage of the fact that each of them are writers and have thoughts and impressions. Adapting to the group persona, they eschewed a single writer concept and opted to capitalize on strengths even if it meant lengthier debates about characters and scene development.

Johnny’s modernization is yet another concept, combining Shakespeare and the Greeks. There is a lot of note-taking, edits and prep and thought with a professional air, one of concentration, filling the room instead of the debate in Dan’s or the laughter and occasional hopping on chairs in Jenny’s. The debate focuses on the play finding a a real idea of what is right, even though that isn’t always what happens in the Greek myths. Edits are humanizing of the characters, the plot, and even of the concept of war.

The process is beginning to fall into place. The leaders want the feedback and the participant noise and the input. It is a case of these observations that drives some of the writing. Most importantly, the noise silences the internal Committees for something much more real: the cohesion of group creativity and the constructive nature of development.

To see the new works read in NYC, stay tuned! March 28th and 29th, as well as April 11th, offer opportunities for public readings. Follow Aquila on Facebook, Twitter, and this blog for updates.

Voice of the Warrior: Capturing the Battle

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

We now enter Phase II, where the four groups begin reviewing the Veteran-written interpretations of the ancient Greek works.

The room is huge, but seems small with this many Veterans, Family members, and actors of varying experience crowded inside. Today is the first day the four classes are in the same room, even for just an hour, and the full scope and impact of the Warrior Chorus is suddenly felt. No more is it a small room reading scenes of ancient works: it’s a population being changed for the better through the creation of influenced writing. There is something meaningful happening, and it’s felt around the room.

The warm-up is a much more standard set for a theater company. In the bigger space, it’s body first with relax and stretch, though everyone is back to being a little self conscious, not as “goofy” or comfortable as they’d grown in their families of the small groups. Some with more acting experience seem more willing to mess around than others, and this gradually draws out the shier folks in the room as the different classes interact. They don’t know names, nor is there opportunity to learn, and there isn’t a need for them to bond as this portion of the Chorus is the only time when the classes will interact. Oddly, however, individuals seem to want to connect with new faces anyway. Is this a habit of the Veteran mentality, or theater? Is it some combination of the two drawing the lines of interaction?

Once warmed up, the groups break into their smaller families and relax to discuss their interpreted writings. Dan’s group, focused on the telling of Persians, is still in the writing stages. They are convinced none in the group is an “actor”, that this is “a group of writers” trying to piece it all together. As they talk, the wonders of the Warrior Chorus stand out: no group is the same. Not only is this group concentrating on writing and interpretation and translation unlike Johnny and Jenny’s groups with an acting focus, but this group seems Veteran-heavy. This focuses the conversation much more on the actual war, the reasonableness of war, the humanization and the dehumanization and the re-humanization and the costs of combat. Conversation is personal and passionate, with each understanding of the Persians in Greece and the defeat told in Athens as told by the victor clearly strikes a deep chord in the room when compared to the protracted wars in the Middle East.

Neath’s group is also Veteran-heavy but smaller than the others. They have a lot more written, able to get through a scene reading with more debate on direction and how to compare it back to the Greek play with possession of women through rape and aggression and the prospect of paternal instinct in war. The topics of influences of man-splaining and paternalization, protection and how it will fit with the recent integration of women into combat units, are all modernized, along with power and position, and women attempting to push through as a trend breaker, as a glass breaker. The group being small, discussion seems limited but still animated. The advantage of understanding the rules and regulations in a Veteran-focused group is evident, as time spent in explanation is minimal, and more time can be spent fine-tuning the writing.

Because this is Phase II, everything is now more technical. How do we create tension when we don’t feel it? These are Veterans who understand the tension of battle. But where is the tension, where is the argument, where is the feeling? These are questions often felt and never articulated in battle but always in writing theater. What is winning and how do you know when you’ve won? What do you know between the audience, the world outside of the theater, and what is on the stage? How valuable is the win? Why did we go in the first place for such a small prize?

And now, of course, how do we capture this in a half an hour scene as the Greeks might have done millennia ago?

Voice of the Warrior: From Strangers to Confidantes

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This blog takes place the third of Jenny's classes, in a mixed performance space in NYC:

How can a room full of strangers one week become a room full of friends a week later, and a room of trusted confidantes a week following? Something about throwing the Veterans and Family Members of Warrior Chorus into a pantheon of strange names, choral narration, and graphic life and death relationships erases not only the lines between Veteran and Civilian, but individual differences, even if for only a few hours. Such lines not easily blurred; this is no easy feat.

In Jenny’s class, a group formed in a line-by-line Greek chorus on the first day, early chatter is of nothing but everything. How is that new fitness class, did you make it out on a run this morning? But it quickly turns in the check-in to something much more real, an exercise of trust and of how each person really feels not just in mood but physically and as a whole person.

With varying experience in acting scattered between the individuals, the emotional connection is somewhat surprising much less the willingness to share it with what amounts to a room of near strangers. What makes it more peculiar is to see it in a room of at least half Veterans. Veterans are not exactly known for sharing emotions, with each other or with those outside their inner circle.

But it is happening; something is blurring the lines.

As the scholar observed, that “something” might be the need for release, and the role it plays in connecting not only the story but also the room. The Greeks had a passion for this release, through war and celebration and theater, food and drink and everything else. There was a great deal of pent-up energy and obligation among the Greeks, and thus they placed a heavy obligation upon finding methods to release that energy for the betterment of their health and society.

As Jenny’s class checks in, encouraged to let go of everything outside the room to be present, the influence of Greek release in theater is evident. Feeling the floor through stocking feet, lying down, standing up, sharing what is happening outside gives the impression that once you take your turn and check in with the others, you don’t have to deal with whatever it was that was weighing you down for the next two hours. Gone is the idle chatter from before class began. The energy level picks up with each stretch and each story, energy that the participants carry into the circle of chairs. Lines of anger are shouted, tears of battle and regret are shed. Each person, Veteran and civilian, has left the world outside for the world of the Greeks and only brought with them the reality of emotion. Past blends with present, lines are blurred.

When the reading ends and the discussion can begin, the connection is even clearer and closer than before. The relationships of the characters and symbolism of the story are broken down and analyzed, but there are also legitimate feelings of frustration or anger with characters acting in self-interest and sympathy for the women caught up and used in the vengeance and retribution of a god. But discussion is relaxed, somehow, even more so than the idle chatter of early in the day. In reading and in discussion, the tragedy has brought them closer to understanding not only the Greek need to release energy but a bit of their own need to do the same. Listening to the rage or sorrow or even joy as another reader hopped up or down from their seat to play a role had a cathartic effect on the room.

And as they each relaxed, the lines further blurred, bringing a shared closeness between the readers. Three weeks from strangers to confidantes: accomplished.

This is the end of Phase I, and the end of the reading for the ancient Greeks. Next our groups will link up with each other, and the other two Veteran-led groups, and begin reading original works inspired from the readings, merging them with their Veteran experiences. Comment below on what you see in the process!

Voice of the Warrior: Starting the Conversation

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This blog takes place the second of Johnny's classes, in an apartment in NYC:

The themes are beginning to emerge in Johnny’s Friday night group. Do we accept death, or do we fear it? Do we accept war, even embrace or value it and celebrate it in society at home and in our art, or do we shun it?

The discussion, something less prevalent in the first session, is louder this time. It isn’t just because the Korean War Veteran has moved from the corner, having recovered from his cold and grabbed a more prevalent part. It isn’t because the scholars are chiming in more, and it isn’t because the text of Frogs reads like a tossed out scene from sketch comedy set at the gates of Hell. Though the group missed a week of interaction the week before, they’d connected in the interim. They sent messages, suggestions, thoughts, and it carried over and into the room on Friday night.

Dispersed into the reading was discussion, understanding of the text and better understanding of the themes and of war. Alcestis tells of moral ambivalence and yet also of self sacrifice. How to rectify, in a room of Veterans and Families, the consideration that, as the group’s scholar Mattia notes: “Admetus’ father describes it as an act of a moron (line 771). Who wouldn’t want to live? Why would you give away your precious life for someone else? And – most importantly – how can anyone actually ask for somebody to die for them?” Death was, as Mattia points out, permanent and Hades was undesirable and the absence of light. Therefore, it was the ultimate sacrifice.

The discussion around this concept, of course, turned to the worthiness of the cause. Athens was constantly at war and so are (at present) current Americans. Is it worth the sacrifice? The Korean Veteran, seeing a family of service from World War II and then beyond into Vietnam and through the spectrum of public opinion, had some thoughts. It is easier to fight when you know who the bad guys are, after all, and when the world can agree the cause is just.  

But this is not a classroom, but developing theater! The purpose here is to create adaptations, to learn and to grow, and that is what is happening. Conversation turns now to the role of the poet, and to is the one composing the play responsible for restoring that sense of nostalgia, the sense of right and the sense of value in war in the public, or are they simply there to record and replay what the sense is out in the world? Do they change opinion, or do they reflect? Should their words be used to justify military action, and is such an idea proper when the idea of right and wrong are murky, as they are in cases beyond WWII, or in regimes other than those considered more authoritarian than the foundations upon which the United States was built. But it seems, at least in the works these Veterans and Families read, there was no consensus for the role of the poet and theater in Athens nor could there be consensus found in the room.

Conversation is passionate and heartfelt, and full of memories. There is no writing this time, shared or otherwise. Topics wander to the new production, but the focus still remains on the role each character plays, both within and outside productions. What is the role of the poet and the playwright, the combatant and the supporter back at home? What does each need, and what dreams are expressed and what is put on hold and what dies and ends up at the gates of Hades?

If they could, they’d talk all night. Discussing characters and attributes, theories and concepts and what should be in the new production. The fact that most of the people in the room had only met two weeks before went unnoticed; everyone had something to contribute, everyone was engrossed in the moment. As the night drew to a close and individuals began to drift towards the door, one would think they’d left a thoughtful salon instead of a discussion of war and death. Far from a feeling of weight and sadness, there was palpable anticipation towards what the next week of Greek theater might bring.

Full analysis (referenced above) by Mattia Roveri

In our second session we read and discussed passages from Euripides’ Alcestis, Hippolytus and Aristophanes’ Frogs. In the following I will discuss briefly what I took to be the major themes of the session: 1. death and coping with loss, 2. Sense of duty and values in war, and 3. the role of poets (widely construed) in society.

Alcestis was an interesting choice to kick off for this session. Essentially, she decides to do (what she considers to be) her duty and to die instead of her husband Admetus. The latter is a morally ambivalent character: while deeply loved by Apollo, to whom he had done previous services (and thus must be a respectable and just man), he is willing to have her young wife and mother of their children die instead of him. Not only that, at the end of the play he is actually ready to break the oath he gave to Alcestis not to marry again and agrees to accept Heracles’ gift of a young woman who – to his great surprise – turns out to be Alcestis herself. So the play ends in a positive note, even though one does wonder what the ‘ever after’ will look like. There is undoubtedly tension in the air, Heracles runs off in rush and Alcestis won’t be able to communicate for three days while she recovers from the transition.

I would like to look at Alcestis’ decision to die in more detail. It could be described as a heroic act, to die for our beloved ones. Alcestis herself makes sure that she will be acknowledged for this and makes demands for the husband about the way in which he should continue his life without her (e.g. not to marry again). However, Admetus’ father describes it as an act of a moron (line 771). Who wouldn’t want to live? Why would you give away your precious life for someone else? And – most importantly – how can anyone actually ask for somebody to die for them?

Even though Greeks seem to have had a sense of some sort of continuing existence in Hades, it is slightly unclear what kind of existence that will be. Alcestis says that she will be ‘nothing’ and that by dying she will cease to exist. An important point to emphasize in this context is the concept of ‘light’ and ‘sunlight’ in particular. From this play, we get the sense that death is primarily associated with the lack of ‘light’. See Apollo: ‘No one except his wife would die for him / and see the light no more’ (lines 21-22), or Alcestis when she says to Admetus: ‘I put you before myself / and gave up my own life so you could live / and look upon this daylight’ (also Alcestis emphasizing darkness in line 412, etc. the play is literally full with references to sunlight). Hades is essentially a place without sunlight and thus, without the circles of day, without change of time or warmth or color. It is monotonous, it is bleak and can be therefore hardly considered worthy of human existence.* Death is to be avoided at all cost. So did Alcestis do a heroic and noble act by dying young for her husband and by voluntarily leaving behind sunlight that the Greeks so valued? There is a sense of honor to die young, Death says (line 59). But I suppose this is true when one dies for a truly important cause (e.g. Achilles for the Greeks in Troy). Is Admetus, based on what we know from the play, worthy of such a sacrifice? Would Admetus be able to justify and glorify Alcestis’ death? Well, it doesn’t look like that at all. Euripides seems instead to be pointing out the problematic aspects of such ‘heroic’ death. And perhaps even to problematize the sense of duty to a husband that Alcestis seems to follow so closely. That’s very fascinating and I think as relevant today as it probably was revolutionary then. From the military perspective, Euripides’ criticism would press us hard to make sure that we do our duty for a worthy cause. That’s a difficult task. Especially in a messy world like ours or like that of the Athenians, constantly in war.

I will now jump to Frogs and look at a few things that stood out to me from our discussion of that play in particular. So one of the major questions is, what role does a poet (or those with access to the public more broadly) have in society? Aristophanes seems to be suggesting, regardless of whether we bring back Euripides or Aeschylus from the dead, that a poet should consider the role they have in, and the impact their work exercises on, society. This in itself is a powerful message and I wonder whether there is a remotely similar sense among authors and artists today when they embark on their work. Is there a sense of moral responsibility quite the same way that Aristophanes seems to demand?

An interesting reading was offered in the session for trying to understand why Dionysus decides to bring back Aeschylus rather than Euripides. With Athens in the last painful stretch of the Peloponnesian War, it just might have been felt that Aeschylus with its force and powerful performances (and let’s not forget that chorus preparation was similar to military exercising, so more forceful dance would perhaps lead to more rigorous training?) might help Athenians keep their spirits high and win the war. Indeed, at difficult times, should we not prefer works of art that help us to victory and eschew those that might undermine our goals? And yet, as a rule this sounds terribly similar to an authoritarian regime, which promotes military might and feels no necessity to justify its goals, subjecting the arts to the promotion and advocacy of those goals. Aristophanes is of course not suggesting that entirely, but our discussion did make me think about the way in which arts support or justify military missions or other political decisions, the way in which arts can subtly work together with the government to manipulate the citizenry. Lastly, an interesting point was made about the sense of nobility of the Second World War, which I think connects somewhat to the previous. Unlike with many other wars in history (including current ones), WWII stands out as a war where it was clear to everyone (at least to the vast majority of Americans) who the good ones were. It was a war relatively easy to justify, it was also easy to mobilize the military, there was a sense of fighting for the right thing. In this sense, it seems that there is nostalgia for WWII and that kind of nobility of purpose that we don’t really see in today’s war.

* The idea of sunlight could be used also for staging the play? A good reading about the importance of sunlight is Edith Hall’s introduction to Greek tragedy: Greek tragedy: suffering under the sun. Oxford, 2010.

Mattia Roveri (in consultation with Laura Viidebaum)

Voice of the Warrior: Building a Community

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This blog takes place the first day in Jenny's class, around a table in a yoga and mindfulness space in NYC:

Each Warrior Chorus class is different this time: different attendees, different instructors, different interpretations of different selections. But there is one common thread that binds them tightly, even beyond the military connection: community.

As Jenny’s class introduced their way around the table, each shared a sentence of what brought them into the room and what drew them towards Aquila Theater’s Warrior Chorus. Whether the speaker was a Veteran or Family Member, an actor or a scholar, each admitted to the comfort and joy in the family of theater.

To everyone in the room, the theater is more than a series of lines (in this case, lines written millennia before) telling someone else’s story; it was a way to share their story or the story about someone they loved. It was a way to build and share with the community, and in particular with this group a way to share the stories of Veterans and a way to give a voice to those who might be voiceless. They see in these plays the stories of their own wars, hear the stories they or their family members might not be able to put proper words to, and now as they introduce themselves to each other they each confess they are in this room to share those stories.

It’s humbling, and it’s genuine.

The community builds quickly, with the warm-up exercises comfortable and full of laughter. Movement, loud, heads shaking, stocking feet (it’s in a yoga studio, after all) bouncing up and down, there is already a feeling that each member has shared something close and can trust the others so there will be no judgment. It’s been nearly an hour, mostly of conversation and laughing and usually getting Jenny to laugh, and by the time the warm-up is complete what we see around the table is a chorus.

The laughter continues, even when it is down to business. Notebooks are colorful, and screens start lighting up with scripts (and with the scholar, attending virtually to prevent spreading a cold). While some parts are assigned, the bulk of the scene is a coincidental Greek chorus. Since the table is also a chorus the lines are divided to go around and around the small group and they immediately circulate quickly, flowing rapidly from person to person building up steam into one voice and one community.

The only interruptions come from the scholar, the metallic reverberations from the phone being mounted on a music stand, but when the voice speaks the chorus hushes except to ask more questions and scribble notes in their bright notebooks. The group becomes deeply engrossed in the questions, asking notes of lineage, of why the warriors value so much the relationship to the mother when born of the father and what is the proper battle cry and what is the real tale behind this war and the battles to come. There are stories shared here, both of the combat in the story and the combat in the lives around the table, even the combat in day-to-day life. No one is excluded, even those who before this class might not have considered themselves directly a “warrior.”

Now this is a chorus of warriors, and it is only the first day of the first phase.

Voice of the Warrior: A New Perspective

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This blog covers the first day in Johnny's class, set in the apartment of one of the participants...

It was the first night, so there was some expectation of nervousness. Walking into someone’s home, maybe someone you didn’t know, after a few faceless emails and reminders. They file in ones and twos, and it becomes clear many in the room knew at least one face, Johnny's if no other. Sit in groups near people you know, hope that next buzzer is a friend.

No time like the present to begin. What is interesting is Johnny skips the usual introductions, the warm-ups with the names and the personal histories to which everyone seems to have grown accustomed since coming into a new room (and leaving behind the military days where we wore our last names on our shirts). He established some were scholars, some Veterans, some family members, but no distinguishing characteristics made at the outset. Was this to bring the room together, to break down some barrier? 

No breathing exercises, no stretching, no noise. Write down your thoughts, free flowing. Now some of the Veterans might start to peek through, being a little less trusting of unstructured activity, and indeed they pause a little more often. Sharing thoughts, only not being asked to share them with each other but with the page, told to put them into a rhythm, NOW being told to share and make it rhyme no less.

Meter and rhyme and the room brightens, starts to have fun. Breathing becomes a little easier. They aren't a team yet; they are still working within their little groups, identifying with those they know. The Korea Veteran sits skeptically in the corner away from the Rutgers kids. The scholar sits quietly observing in the corner. But each gradually begins to share a little more, volunteer a rhyme, laugh or clap at a rhythm, so something is beginning to happen, though they still don't know names or even, really, why they are here.

Midsummer Night's Dream, the final scenes. In other groups, we might delve into why the character doesn't want to see his personal history in battle depicted. Is it PTSD? Is it protecting someone from learning embellishments of his war story? We don't know, and we aren't going to discuss, not now. Here, it is just a mention, an informational call-out from Johnny, and a few interested sighs from the participants who had not put these pieces together until this moment. But despite the interest, we drive on. Would this be brought up again later? We are integrating a new work, a new play, fighting a new battle, so is it likely at least one will take in the concept that the warrior doesn’t always want to talk about the worst days of the old fights? That remains to be seen, since it wasn't overheard in conversation afterwards, but who knows. Everyone needs to digest a moment, and here that’s done with more writing about the loved ones left behind during combat. No one promised a relaxed Friday night of the theater!

Nevertheless, the social atmosphere afterwards is friendly, improved substantially on the nervousness from before we began. Great strides were taken over two hours. Two free-writing assignments, even with very little sharing, and some shared Shakespeare can do that, I suppose. Much can be learned in the observation of putting your thought to paper, then convincing The King to watch your woodland play.

Comments? We invite you to participate in the discussion, share your thoughts and memories, and what you think of what happened in the room!

Return of the Warrior

We noticed that Ajax was an extraordinary warrior, who at the same was inflexible and unable to cope with the new image of himself that was developing in the army. His military strength, value and reputation seem to have been both his success and failure.

Return of the Warrior

Probably the most important question posed during the session was two-fold: Should we consider Ajax a wounded soldier? And if so, how do we heal him? This led to a discussion over what society can reasonably expect of men at war. Can a semblance of normalcy be maintained? Is normalcy even beneficial in this theater?

Return of the Warrior

Our first session was primarily dedicated to introducing the participants to the character of Ajax. The participants this week included Phil, our Warrior Chorus facilitator, as well as Dan, Laura, Vic and Joseph. After reading the opening 130-or so lines together as a group, we discussed the separate perspectives that are immediately apparent at the opening.

Dialogues: Athens to Afghanistan

The Society of Artistic Veterans, in partnership with The Aquila Theater Company, funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and sponsored by Marymount Manhattan College Theater Department, is hosting a reading & discussion group over the course of 6 sessions.