Catharsis is a word with ancient Greek roots, meaning a purging of strong emotions, often through art. In today’s post-draft, all-volunteer era, where fewer than 1% of Americans serve in the military, it’s interesting that the expressive arts have become an important arena for veterans to connect with civilians.
“The Telling Project,” opening Wednesday night at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, and featuring 10 San Antonio-area veterans and family members, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, is one such opportunity. When the play first opened in the nation’s capital, the Washington Post reviewed it saying, “If you see nothing else this weekend, see this.”
Accolades like that have been piling up for the Telling Project. Now in its sixth year, the project has received support from the Bob Woodruff Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian. KLRN-TV is bringing it to San Antonio, and the Tobin Theater has donated its facility for the performances.
Local author and playwright Gregg Barrios, a Vietnam veteran and a cast member, said he was expecting “a lot of gung-ho guys” in the cast, but was surprised to find that half the cast was women veterans, and “strikingly intelligent women” at that.
“It’s a true work of true stories,” Barrios said. “Of veterans who are in some way connected to San Antonio — ‘Military City, U.S.A.’ — and how we navigate and live our lives after military service.”
The cast members represent a cross-section of local veterans and family members, each of them telling their particular story, in a series of interconnected, compelling monologues that together tell the collective story of men and women at war.
“Veterans serve, and then they ‘disappear’ back into the community,” said KLRN’s Senior Vice President and COO Julie Coan, whose enthusiasm brought the play to San Antonio. “We have a responsibility to hear their stories, and there is something just so pure and honest about having someone share their truth in their own words. I want them to know how brave I think they are. What Jonathan Wei is doing with the Telling Project is nothing short of profound.”
(The Telling Project is just one element in a veritable slate of KLRN’s series of opportunities to hear “veterans voices.” If you miss the show at the Tobin, it will be broadcast on Veterans Day.)
Local director Stacey Shade-Ware, herself a military spouse, said cast members typically “don’t understand the strength that they really have, they think it’s just their lives. And they take themselves and that strength for granted.” She directed the performance last year in Austin, and worked with the first-ever performances at the Library of Congress when the project started.
The goal of the nightly performances, she said, “is for the audience to experience gratitude for their bravery and their sharing their stories, opening our eyes to how it really happens.”
Executive Director Jonathan Wei said that before he got involved in the project, he was “the stereotypical ignorant civilian, well read, but with no real idea about the military and who veterans were.
“My wife says that anytime you attempt to fit a person into an idea, you’re going to end up with trouble," he said.
“War is the paradigmatic historical event that touches everyone,” said Wei, “but in a post-draft America, it hasn’t touched most of us. We’re losing contact with those who served and their stories.
“Our understanding is that war is inhuman, but war is perhaps the most human of our endeavors," he added. "And what veterans show us is that it can be funny, mundane, tender and intimate — and also traumatic, hurtful and violent. We need to understand why as humans we go to war, not just put it somewhere over in the corner.”
The cast members bring the experience of war front and center.
“Nobody in the cast has an easy story,” said Shade-Ware, the director, who also sings soprano in the American Military Spouses Choir.
The individual monologues are thoughtful, probing, at times laugh-out-loud humorous, courageous, contentious — but never one-dimensional or even grim. It’s the full human experience, as seen through the lens of service men and women. There are stories of love and loss, some feeling like they’ve ripped from today’s headlines: A Gold Star wife whose husband was killed in combat. A woman soldier who fought off a sexual assault, and then suffered retaliation from higher-ups. Her service dog works by her side during the performances, offering comfort.
The stories are so touching that “you want to reach out and hold” the other cast members, said Barrios. “I’ve felt that pain,” he said. "(It) is really satisfying, humbling and emotional. In the military, you’re thrown together, and you learn to depend on one another. That is an element that is so lacking in America today."
What the veterans in the cast model through their military service, said Wei, “is a fundamental generosity of spirit that we are looking for as a society, a collective notion of ourselves.”
Two things happen in the “sacred space” of the theater, according to Wei and others who have seen the performances. The audience is touched, moved, and enlightened, and cast members often experience a catharsis of their own as they work through difficult material of their own. In last year’s performance in Austin, a female former Marine talked about her sexual assault, and the daughter of a World War II concentration camp liberator wrote about the cathartic effect of the performances on the cast members.
“As humans,” said Wei, “we navigate by our narratives. We tell the story of ourselves to ourselves. But occasionally there’s a break in the narrative, because of trauma. It becomes too difficult, too nonsensical to process an experience. But what the stories can do is help to repair the break. If you can stay with your story and fully inhabit it, the story itself can pull you to the other side.”
“I’ve been in public television for 18 years,” said KLRN’s Coan. “The Telling Project is, by far, the most profound and meaningful project I’ve ever been honored to work on.”
*featured/top image: Director Stacey Shade-Ware leads the cast of the Telling Project through a warmup exercise at the KLRN studio Tuesday. Photo by Lily Casura.