A local theater group uses Shakespeare to help war veterans find an outlet for emotional wounds.
Jan Masalewicz didn’t think he would enjoy acting. He loved music, especially the blues, but he had never acted before. At that point, 44 years after he’d returned from Vietnam, Jan realized he had isolated himself from those around him.
Jan served as a Marine courier and radio telephone operator from 1966 until 1968, returning to the United States just before the Tet Offensive got underway. He had to get a driver’s license in Vietnam for the courier gig, and received training on Okinawa as to how to lay wires for the communication system. Back then, the Marines weren’t deployed as a unit, so he found himself bonding with the soldiers he met on the plane ride to Vietnam. “It’s kind of a weird time to get to know someone,” he says, “when you’re about to land and never see them again.”
Beyond that, and the occasional jargon about weapons or uniforms, Jan doesn’t speak much about the war. But occasionally, a moment flickers by and lodges behind his eyes until he manages to bat it away – or find a release. And since 2013, his main outlet has been a local acting group called Feast of Crispian.
That he and veterans of wars from Korea to Iraq find relief in Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter may seem unlikely. But the Bard’s subject matter, including the purpose of battle, wrestling with alcoholism and contemplating suicide, is as relevant to contemporary vets as it was to Londoners 400 years ago.
“They get to speak the emotion of what’s going on out loud,” says Nancy Smith-Watson, one of the three Feast of Crispian organizers and a former actor. “They’ve got somebody else’s words, and they’re not even contemporary language words; but these words allow them to go as far as they can with their emotions. They can get really mad. They can get really sad. They can get really whatever is there.”
Many of the veterans who participate in Feast of Crispian have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, substance abuse issues or legal troubles, and they work through all of them with the help of FOC’s acting techniques, which are borrowed from Massachusetts’ Shakespeare & Company, one of the largest Shakespeare performance groups in the country, and known for its acting training. For vets with PTSD, “all stress is life-threatening,” says Nancy. But providing a safe atmosphere in which to release conquerable bursts of it is one part of the FOC’s mission. Through FOC, the vets “get to have this experience of going through this stress,” Nancy says, “and coming out the other side of it.” This month, the vets will find out what that feels like when they appear in a production consisting of Shakespeare scenes and their own stories called And Safe Comes Home at UWM’s Fine Arts Theater.
On a muggy day in June, roughly 10 veterans congregate for a weekend intensive session in a Lutheran church on Greenfield Avenue. All the vets in attendance are men, but there are a couple female veterans who join the group when they can. The church is situated on a hill with The Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center blocks to the east, and a military recruitment office just a few streets west toward West Allis. The group meets in the church’s basement, where mid-century pendant lights cast the room in a drab greenish-beige. The air smells like old milk, and soldier-themed quilts hang on the walls. The organizers are still a few weeks from firming up a cast list and writing the scenes for the September performance.
Mike, a young veteran who appeared in a 2015 FOC production of Julius Caesar, turns up with a newbie named Patrick. Patrick doesn’t make much eye contact in the beginning, but dispenses handshakes to everyone. After a group check-in, where the vets and organizers take turns talking about how they’re feeling that particular day, Patrick and Mike stand to read lines from Henry VI. It’s a foreboding scene in which a Lord Talbot, read by Patrick, and his son John Talbot, read by Mike, discuss which of them should go into battle against the French the following day. It begins with Lord Talbot sending for John and imploring him to flee to avoid the “feast of death.” John, aghast, refuses and says fleeing would “make a bastard and a slave of me!” After this, Nancy prompts Mike, a person of color, “What does the word slave mean to you?”
And on the scene goes, with Nancy feeding and dropping with Mike, and Jim, a professional actor, director and FOC organizer, feeding and dropping with Patrick. Both Shakespeare & Company techniques, actors “feed” the lines of text for the veterans to perform, and occasionally “drop” in context and provocative questions meant to stir emotion. Both vets’ voices rise in volume little by little. John Talbot tells his father to flee, saying that he will fight in his name. “Have you ever thought about what would happen if your daughters died?” Jim quickly asks Patrick, who is pacing as he repeats his lines. But Talbot and his son decide they should both stay and fight. “Have you thought about your own death?” Jim asks him again.
By this point in the scene, without any choreography instruction, Patrick and Mike are holding onto each other’s shoulders and emphatically shouting their lines to each other. The scene ends when Talbot tells his son that they will “together live and die,” and fight the battle as a team. As he says this, Patrick throws Mike’s hand off of his shoulder and dramatically turns away.
At this, the rest of the group, plus Jim, Bill Watson, Nancy’s husband, a UWM theater professor and the third FOC organizer, clap and commend Patrick on his unprompted movements. Mike and Patrick take a few steps to cool down, but return, seeming pleased. Patrick now looks directly at the faces watching him, appearing invigorated by the release, or maybe the adrenaline.
They sit down in chairs facing the rest of the group.
“What was that like?” Jim asks.
“Felt like therapy,” Mike says.
Between 2007 and 2011, 680 Wisconsin veterans committed suicide, and death by suicide has increased 40 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs. That data, coupled with the highly publicized 2012 statistic that 22 veterans commit suicide each day, fuels the work of the FOC organizers. They believe that simply telling and discussing their stories can be therapeutic for veterans. Especially for veterans with poly-trauma, who’ve been hurt over and over again, the damaging events are “very entrenched,” Nancy says. “They’re in this endless loop of story on the inside. And once they can start to put it outside of them somehow, then it can start to change a little bit.”
“It’s how we heal,” she says. “We change our stories.”
For Feast of Crispian, which takes its name from a scene about honor in battle from Henry V, civilians hearing veterans’ stories is just as important as releasing the veterans from the burden they carry. “Your story is our story,” Bill tells a group of veterans in June, “because we as a culture decided you should go do that.”
The structure of the September performance will loosely follow the arc of deployment, showing who soldiers are before, during and after war. Interspersed with Shakespeare’s scenes are the veterans’ own stories, anonymized so that the vets can retain at least some of what Nancy calls the “mask of character.”
Last fall, Feast of Crispian, a nonprofit that gets funding from Bader Philanthropies and the Kubly Foundation, debuted its first full production: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which is not so much about the emperor as it’s about integrity and patriotism. About 16 veterans were in the show – some in their own military uniforms – that saw full houses each night of its run. Starting in 2013, the group hosted acting intensives for vets who wanted to try it. Many veterans who are in residential programs at the nearby VA attended simply for something to do. But a few, like Jan, have stuck around ever since.
To gather the stories for the coming production, the group held listening sessions. “No one can understand that internal landscape [of combat],” Nancy tells the vets at one such session. But the more civilians know about the realities of war, the organizers reason, the easier it is for them to make decisions about whom to vote for, and how to offer help.
These sessions resembled the weekend intensives with check-ins and line readings, but there was also a lot of tangential talk, peppered with the alphabet soup that is military jargon. Sometimes Jim purposely interjects with jargon because that’s the language the vets are familiar with, he says. “It’s efficient, but it separates you.”
During these listening sessions, Bill writes general themes on a white board, themes that ultimately would become sections of the play he and the rest of the organizers pen: Who were you before you joined, what are some of the “absurd and surprising” things that happened while you served, and who were you when you came home?
The listening sessions yield discussion on the mundane yet meaningful experiences of serving overseas: landing in an Iraqi airport and hearing no English, or learning of former Packers quarterback Brett Favre’s retirement while in Afghanistan. The veterans discuss what it’s like to experience Fourth of July fireworks now. The booms and blasts are tolerable for some but not for others. “You can feel the percussion against your chest,” one says.
They talk about luck and its hand in deciding which soldiers step on the IEDs and which don’t. One vet shows his prayer card of St. Michael the Archangel; another talks about his military “Smart” card that he carried with him through two tours of duty. They talk about the generational differences in how vets are perceived when they come back to American soil. Vietnam vets remember being called baby killers in the airport, while contemporary soldiers can skip to the head of the line. One vet talks about being abused by a military recruiter. And they talk about fear, and how they were forced to tame the kind of fear that makes you freeze when you should run. One vet, a Muslim man who served two tours of duty in Iraq, recites the mantra he deployed: “Fear gets you stuck and stuck gets you dead.”
The Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans offer up more details than their older counterparts. It’s a generational divide, Jan thinks. “I know that my grandfather came back from World War I and didn’t talk to my father about it,” he says. “My father came back from World War II; he didn’t talk very much. I guess I just followed suit.”
Dark humor can be a universal lubricant that eases the telling of their battle stories, though bursts of anger, frustration, and despair seep out, too. Sometimes humor simply helps the translation of the Elizabethan diction. “Thou art an asshole!” is a lot easier to deliver with enthusiasm than some of Shakespeare’s more ephemeral insults.
At the end of one storytelling session at UWM, Bill leads the vets to the auditorium where they will perform And Comes Safe Home, a phrase lifted from Henry V. The performance will feature music by Jason Moon, a local veteran who used songwriting to help soothe his PTSD. The UWM Fine Arts Theater’s black platform stage and blue chairs become a playground for the kids of one of the younger vets, while Bill leads the rest up to the stage. The vets scatter about the stage; one punts an invisible football as another breaks out in a tap dance. Bill gestures to where the curtain will be on opening night. “Do you guys want some practice getting booed?” one vet shouts from the blue seats. Chuckles and eye-rolls ensue. “Will you join us in September?” Bill asks a vet, his hand resting on the man’s shoulder.
Shep Crumrine, a VA music therapist, has been a strong link for Feast of Crispian inside the VA. “Usually every weekend intensive, there’s one or two [veterans] that has a fairly dramatic change,” he says. “That’s why we support it.”
Back in UWM’s theater on the official weekend of tryouts in mid-July, a handful of mostly Korean War and Vietnam War veterans shows up for the audition. None of the younger vets show up that Saturday, despite promises to do so. The Iraq and Afghanistan vets’ mental wounds are often fresher, and they’re likelier to be in the midst of personal chaos. Some of the veterans that do attend that day acted in last year’s performance, but one is new. Jan is there, too, dressed in his bowling shirt and fedora.
The organizers make introductions, then two veterans mount the black stage to perform a scene, with Nancy and Jim feeding them lines. One of the vets performed in Julius Caesar, and his scene partner also has previous acting experience. It shows. They deliver their scene full of anger and tender emotion, and then climb back down to the seats to polite applause. Jan and another veteran go up next. For this performance, Jan brings the full force of his lungs, and just a bit of swagger. The other vet, who acted in last year’s performance, puts his own attitude into Shakespeare’s insults to hilarious effect. They point their fingers, the other vet shoves Jan, and they both perform their lines at a volume a full house would appreciate.
That day, Jan the actor is quite different from the man who’d almost totally isolated himself from others before joining Feast of Crispian. His performances reveal a confidence that was perhaps lost when he returned stateside in 1968. He’s since become the most dedicated veteran member, showing up for Wednesday sessions, weekend intensives and rehearsal. For him, FOC isn’t just the chance to process the events of a 50-year-old war. “I don’t have a lot of friends,” he says. Instead, he has found a group of people who can relate to what he’s been through, a group united by their experiences in various wars. No longer alone, he has found a group of acting friends who understand.