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Aggie theatre professor helps veterans share their stories

Performance seeks to close gap between soldiers and civilians

Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Updated: Thursday, January 16, 2014 00:01

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Jenna Rabel

To the average American, war is distant. It shoots from TV screens and claims millions in cash in a blockbuster movie weekend, but the fact that America has had a military presence in two countries for more than a decade points to an unprecedented disconnect — the gulf between the American warrior and the U.S. citizen has rarely been wider, said Jonathan Wei, national program founder of “The Telling Project” and “Telling Aggieland.”

A Difficult Story
It was 2008 and the U.S. was embroiled in conflict across Afghanistan and Iraq, yet the day-to-day lives of American citizens reflected little of the overseas strife.

“I was at the University of Oregon at the time, and what we saw was basically there was a significant understanding gap between military service and military families and their civilian community counterparts,” Wei said. “It wasn’t necessarily because there was any kind of hostility, it was just because no one really knew how to get the conversation started.”

The apparent gap that Wei noticed prompted him to found “The Telling Project” in 2008, a nonprofit organization that gives veterans and those closely affected by conflict a chance to tell their story to the community in a professional production setting. Fifteen projects have taken place across the U.S., and “Telling Aggieland” will take place on campus at the end of the semester to give students and residents a chance to glimpse at war through firsthand accounts of
its effects.

“[‘Telling Aggieland’] is an approach toward getting military veterans and families in the same room with their civilian community members for basically a meaningful exchange of information and experiences person to person, as opposed to through the media, or Hollywood or second- or third-hand sources,” Wei said.

Opening Up
Michael Greenwald, Texas A&M theatre arts professor, will spend the next four months teaching almost 20 veterans and family members how to convey their stories on stage. The end product will be a full theatrical production of monologues and other group performances, accompanied by photography and media stills. But helping individuals left with the effects of war to convey these experiences poses challenges of its own.

“[‘Telling Aggieland’] will run the full experience,” Greenwald said. “They’ve had everything from very funny moments to very heavy stuff. We have counselors, psychologists on call. It’s not that we won’t deal with some darker subjects. This isn’t a patriotic thing — this is what’s happened, these are the problems we’ve faced, and some of the most interesting parts are about coming back home and having to deal with issues.”

Greenwald said the stories will span experiences outside of recent conflicts and are not restricted to veterans. A Vietnam veteran plans to convey his story as well as the wife of a veteran who worked for the government cataloguing casualties while her husband fought in Vietnam.

Every participant at “Telling Aggieland” will have something in common, however.

“Each show that’s done around the country is absolutely unique to that community, to those people, since the actors change,” Greenwald said. “This one [will present] people who have some connection to A&M. It’s a chance for our community in Aggieland to hear a first-hand perspective from people who’ve been there, many cases under fire, and who’ve had to deal with issues beyond the battlefield.”

Through a Different Lens
“Right now in America, less than one percent of our population has served in the military in recent conflicts,” said retired Col. Jerry Smith, director of the Veteran Resource and Support Center at Texas A&M. “Back in World War II and Korea and previous decades, that percentage was much, much higher.”

Smith shares many of Wei’s sentiments about the experience gap between veterans and civilians. Wei’s group put on a production called “Operation College Promise” in San Antonio several months ago, after which Smith reached out to Wei. Their collaboration has been the driving force that led to “Telling Aggieland.”

“Telling Aggieland” has finalized its cast of veterans and family members this week and they will begin practicing performance techniques while Wei and his team go over recorded testimonials to write a script. The production will be free and will take place in Rudder Theatre April 29 through May 1.

Army Capt. Rebecca Lesemann is a graduate student at the Bush School and one of the veterans who will be telling their story.

“Some of our stories are funny, some are sad and some are us doing whatever we can to make it through that moment in time,” Lesemann said. “‘Telling Aggieland’ is a wonderful way to share these experiences with the community, providing a small glimpse into the life of a soldier.”

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