Thursday, February 9, 2012

SBU Theater brings veterans’ personal experiences to the stage in ‘Coming Home’

With just a two-word prompt, Welcome Home, a group of SBU Theater students pooled their creativity to develop a one-act play that dramatizes the return of overseas members of the Armed Forces.

Their production, titled “Coming Home,” will be performed at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12, in The Garret Theater on campus. Admission is free and doors open at 2:30 p.m. A reception and talkback session with the cast and crew will follow the performance.

Members of the company include St. Bonaventure University students Mary Best, Mike Dlugosz, Will Foust, Becky Hahn, Tori Lanzillo, Makeda Loney, Brooke Perkins and Emily West. Monica Edwards is the production stage manager.

To develop the script, the students interviewed a number of veterans; some were family members, others were St. Bonaventure alumni and friends.

Rebecca Misenheimer, assistant professor of visual and performing arts, said the students were eager to participate in the devised theater project.

“We wanted to talk about the experience of what coming home is; not the experience of war, which many people ask soldiers about. People don’t often ask what it’s like to come home,” Misenheimer said.

The show, which runs approximately 20 minutes, stemmed from a new initiative proposed by The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival last fall in advance of the organization’s regional festivals.

St. Bonaventure and the other schools in its seven-state region were invited to craft a brand new piece of theater to bring to the January festival at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. From script to stage, the students were responsible for the entire production. Other than using the prompt “Welcome Home,” there were few parameters for the sources of the script’s text: the poetry of Walt Whitman, interviews that the company themselves conducted, and original material written by the company.

Hahn couldn’t pass up the opportunity to participate in the project.

“I always appreciate any new theater, anything that hasn’t been done before,” Hahn said.

The military theme also called to her. She can trace service in the Army on her father’s side of the family back to the Civil War. Her father was drafted in 1960 as a combat engineer, and her mother’s family has Navy backgrounds.

Even as Hahn saw the characters emerging from the different branches of service, she felt “the oneness of the experience. Even ones who hadn’t seen combat, they had similar experiences coming home… The unity of that experience I see developed on stage.”

A technical theater major at Ashland University in Ohio, Hahn is earning credits at St. Bonaventure as a non-matriculating student.

“I think we’ve presented a very balanced view of combat, and are careful to give gratitude to the men who shared their stories. It’s a balanced look at it,” she said.

“We were always striving to do the most respectful thing,” added West, a junior from Binghamton who is a double major in journalism and theater.

Initially, West was worried that a pro-war, patriotic agenda could overshadow the project. But the group was driven to be respectful to their sources.

“It was interesting for me to think differently about a soldier’s experience. That was magnified by the fact that these are people we know,” West said.

Whereas the student troupe was used to starting with an existing script, this project “was a little more challenging,” Misenheimer said. “You start, but you’re not sure where it’s going to go.”

The easy part was deciding on their topic.

The group had just three months — amid two holiday breaks, finals and another SBU Theater production — to have their play written and ready for the stage.

At one point the group sat in a classroom with the entire script as a Word document that they had posted transcripts of their interviews into. Gradually, the characters became people, given a voice by an actor.

Misenheimer said the veterans welcomed the conversations with the students.
“Invariably, their response was, ‘thank you for asking the question.’ It was a great experience for our students,” she said.

Many of the servicemen and women served in Afghanistan or Iraq as members of the Army, Air Force and Marines. A Korean War veteran also aided the students with their research.

The theater program also had a hand from the campus ROTC program. Cadet Colin O’Donnell assisted his fellow students with a mini boot camp, teaching them how to salute properly, fold a flag and march.

“One of the things theater does is give us an opportunity to tell a story, often by people who felt their voice hasn’t been heard. Every one of these veterans expressed gratitude someone has asked them the question,” Misenheimer said.

The students are continuing to interview veterans about their experiences. Misenheimer said they also hope to talk with people “who were at home, waiting for their soldiers to come home. We’re still working with the piece. We’re going to continue to adapt it.”

There is no admission charge to attend the production, but donations will be accepted to support a veterans organization.

The theater project was supported by a grant from Leo Keenan Faculty Development Endowment for the Improvement of Teaching and Learning at St. Bonaventure.

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