“Telling” Travels to DC for Veterans Day
Imagine returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, thrilled to be home but uncertain about how you’ll be received by the country for which you fought, a country increasingly ambivalent about these wars. Or imagine going back to college, trying to contribute in class, but being told you can’t speak about your military experiences.
Imagine the isolation.
If you were Jonathan Wei, you would turn these imaginings into The Telling Project. The Project provides vets — student and non-student alike — with a theatrical stage where they can tell their stories about military service and about returning to their home soil.
Two successful productions have introduced The Telling Project to Oregon audiences, and now the Project has taken the show on the road — to the nation’s capital for a special Veteran’s Day performance. UO theater professor John Schmor directed the D.C. production and three UO student veterans were among the performers. The event also featured First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden as well as other important figures from the worlds of politics, service and the military.
Watch a clip from "Telling: Eugene" — directed by John Schmor.
A Time to Listen
The idea for The Telling Project came out of Wei’s work as Nontraditional Student Programs Coordinator at the UO. He discovered while working with student vets that many wanted to talk about their experiences, but were frustrated by a culture seemingly intent on their silencing. It was their time to speak, Wei realized, and ours to listen.
“What vets at the UO (and elsewhere) experience when they return from military service is, among other things, profound isolation,” said Wei, founder and Executive Director of the Project. “There’s a need for veterans to connect in a personal way—with themselves, each other and their communities.”
So Wei drew upon his background in narrative writing and teamed up with Max Rayneard, a UO graduate student of comparative literature with experience in playwriting, to begin a series of extensive interviews with vets. After interviewing more than two dozen vets in the Eugene area, they sifted the interviews down into script form. They also connected with theater professor John Schmor, who began teaching the vets acting techniques.
The result? A play, “Telling: Eugene,” which Schmor directed and 11 veterans, family members and military recruits performed in 2008 at the Eugene Veterans’ Memorial Hall, receiving a standing ovation.
“When they took their final bow that evening, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Rayneard. “There was a heartbeat of dead-silence. Then the audience all stood up and applauded the veterans for the courage it took to tell those stories.”
Next, the Project produced “Telling: Portland.” The Portland play included student vets from Portland State University. As in Eugene, the Portland performance was enthusiastically received.
Much of the power comes from the personal connection the actors make with the audience, says Wei. “When each performance ends, the veterans introduce themselves by name to their audience, and step off the stage to rejoin their communities.”
A Invitation to Perform in the Nation’s Capital
In celebration of Veteran’s Day and recently passed national service legislation, Service Nation, a non-profit, non-governmental organization, has invited the Project to Washington, D.C. to perform a 25-minute excerpt of the Eugene and Portland plays, titled “Telling,” at George Washington University. Representatives of government, the military, entertainment and national service will be present.
Five vets from different branches of the military, most of whom served in Iraq and Afghanistan, will perform in D.C. Three of the five are UO students. In addition, a former UO poetry graduate and wife of a veteran, will present her poignant poem, “Planting, Hayhurst Farm,” as part of the performance.
“The invitation to D.C. is a testament to the work that every single person who has been a part of the Project has put in, but most of all to the generosity of the veterans who tell their stories,” said Rayneard.
The plays, and The Telling Project itself, are part of an international movement called “verbatim theatre,” a form of documentary theater in which scripts are based upon the language used by interviewees. In both the Eugene and Portland performances, “the individual talking on stage was telling about his or her own experience,” said Wei. “We needed to let that material be in the possession of, and delivered by, the person to whom it happened.” The same will be true of the D.C. production.
As Schmor explains, the stories vets tell reflect their varied military experiences. Assumptions that veterans are all the same, and that what they experience is all the same, are simply a fallacy. “The range of political positions among vets is as diverse as the rest of the population. They don’t all share the same political stripes.”
The Telling Project is working on a fifty-state initiative that will create opportunities for other veterans and their family members to tell their stories through performance art. Already they’ve been contacted by veterans in more than 10 states interested in bringing the Project to their communities. To support these efforts, the Project is engaging in fundraising efforts through a variety of sources—from major sponsors and grant-writing to raising funds locally, the model used to support “Telling: Eugene.”
– Anne Conaway