Voice of the Warrior: New Life

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This is the third session of Phase II, where the four groups review and edit the Veteran-written interpretations of the ancient Greek works.

Theater warm-up is different depending on who leads it, of course. There are days focused on internal settling and being present, and there are days focused on mostly movement exercises, being silly and adopting characters. As the weeks have passed, the movement days seem to become easier for most of the people in the room. More are gradually to be comfortable around each other and around themselves. There are still a few who would clearly rather get to work rather than warm-up, particularly on the movement and improve days, but the adjustment is starting to take shape in the majority of the room.

This is a positive change: after all, adopting a character can be a helpful practice not just in theater. From smiling through job interviews to staying calm on a crowded subway, characters can give everyone a way to think or react in a stronger or more positive way. Improv and characters can establish confidence and reinforce attributes, overall improving interactions and the quality of life for many. This is one of the primary concepts behind reintegrating Veterans learning theater, and as one watches the connections and laughter in the room among near strangers walking around “leading from the knees,” the air of acceptance and confidence is reassuring that the theory is working. No embarrassment, try something new, it’s the character trying it instead of the person so there is no risk.

The groups move into their small rooms for readings, but the character element stays within the participants. Stephan and Jenny are still offering ways to capitalize on character with their mixed group. Though the upcoming production of the work is a reading, readers are encouraged to use the space and create relationships between the characters, to understand the personality and the manner of speaking and adopt the persona. Even the chorus, telling the story of the gods and their transgressions, adopts the tone and the confidence and nature of their assignment to convey the narrative. Becoming engrossed in the reading and in the characters, the techniques are becoming more ingrained with each interaction.

Neath’s group is back together, after the week of rough weather limited connections. But they edited and reviewed in the interim, making progress with the script and with developing characters. The focus is more about the power of words and using language to empower and convince others of right and wrong, conflicts which arose during the reading of the Greek work and translated into the modernized characters. The group speaks of each character and each interaction as though they exist, concerned not only with realism and audience understanding but the overall justifications of how actions would make the character feel and appropriate reactions. The characters are taking on a life of their own.

Meanwhile, Dan’s writing collective now has something to edit both for story and for the characters. They still conceive of the script as a script to be read by someone else instead of within the group, but this majority room of Veterans is clearly putting themselves into the heads of the characters. They see themselves in a piece of each, and use that piece to ask questions about the costs of war, the sacrifices and risks taken, and deeper questions without the fear of offending another. After all, it’s the character asking the question and debating the answer, not so much the Veterans in the room. It empowers the conversation and the individuals.

Johnny and his team is conducting a read-through of their script as well, with the advantage of familiar characters from Greek and Shakespearean theater. But to continue from the millennia old works, each actor has to take on a character and understand where they might go and how a situation might affect the story. Writing contributions will continue, through writing prompts and asking questions and discussion, for one more week.

The power of the character is strong in the Warrior Chorus. Even in groups with characters only a few days or weeks old, they each have life now and also have their own defenders and detractors within the group. The writing is collective as the characters are analyzed, and perhaps more importantly the confidence bred in creating and developing the lives on the pages is transferring to the creators.

To see the new works read in NYC, come to the ART 502 W 53rd Street, New York, NY 10019 on March 28th and 29th with an approximate start time of 6:30pm for public readings. The final reading and ceremony for Warrior Chorus is on 11 April at Federal Hall at 6pm. Follow Aquila on FacebookTwitter, and this blog for updates.

Voice of the Warrior: Enough of the Committee Already

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This is the second session of Phase II, where the four groups review and edit the Veteran-written interpretations of the ancient Greek works.

Warm-up today is led courtesy of Stephan and his Shitty Committee™ (not really trademarked, though probably should be). What is the Shitty Committee? Being both a Veteran and an actor, Stephan frequently talks about his Committee during his classes and his work. The Committee is the little (or sometimes not so little) voice in all of our heads critiquing the things we do, the way we talk or walk or think or act. They judge everything we do and tell us others are as well. We all know this Committee, whatever we call it, and Stephan’s goal in most of his work is to be sure we acknowledge its existence so we can tell it exactly where it can shove its opinion.

It’s a good reminder for the room as they walk around the room in their efforts to get in tune with the present for the coming few hours of readings. The movement is a little different than lying down on the floor as it was during the week before, and some of the actions are designed to make the participants a bit uncomfortable. But the reminder is to adapt, to tune out the Committee, and to remember that the theater is different from the military in that it is safe: “Usually nobody dies, even on the worst day of theater.” Hesitant laughs from about half of the room at that one, and slowly they begin to adjust.

It’s a much smaller group tonight, probably because of the lousy and howling weather. They are trickling in gradually, joining the movement and catching up to the concepts of becoming uncomfortable in order to gain comfort. The Veterans in the room, even the latecomers, seem to make the switch a little slower than those with a strong theater background but once the mental switch is made the difference is more noticeable in the Veterans. A careful observer can identify when the Veteran releases the Committee’s voice, and the tension disappears from the shoulders or a step turns from military stiffness to confidence in action.

As the groups break out to their individual rooms, adapt and overcome is the name of the game. How different the plays are, too, born in isolation from each other with different origins, different opinions and ideas, different creative perspective, and now different processes to write and edit. Today there are still more challenges, with missing members from the weather, steadily adjusting scripts with regular input. The confidence built during the first hour strengthens the members to be open during the exhausting edits.

Jenny adapts to the icy roads with a call-in to her group, but openly admits she wouldn’t miss the feedback on her script for the world. She also admits her Committee has been rather loud on her interpretation, and the group will help in gaining perspective. Her mixed group of Veterans and civilians has formed cohesively, allowing for openness and opinions to be shared.

Meanwhile, Dan’s group of writers is in edit mode but yet also still collectively pooling ideas. A few wrote contributing sections, which are now put together as scenes of the same act. They took advantage of the fact that each of them are writers and have thoughts and impressions. Adapting to the group persona, they eschewed a single writer concept and opted to capitalize on strengths even if it meant lengthier debates about characters and scene development.

Johnny’s modernization is yet another concept, combining Shakespeare and the Greeks. There is a lot of note-taking, edits and prep and thought with a professional air, one of concentration, filling the room instead of the debate in Dan’s or the laughter and occasional hopping on chairs in Jenny’s. The debate focuses on the play finding a a real idea of what is right, even though that isn’t always what happens in the Greek myths. Edits are humanizing of the characters, the plot, and even of the concept of war.

The process is beginning to fall into place. The leaders want the feedback and the participant noise and the input. It is a case of these observations that drives some of the writing. Most importantly, the noise silences the internal Committees for something much more real: the cohesion of group creativity and the constructive nature of development.

To see the new works read in NYC, stay tuned! March 28th and 29th, as well as April 11th, offer opportunities for public readings. Follow Aquila on Facebook, Twitter, and this blog for updates.

Voice of the Warrior: Capturing the Battle

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

We now enter Phase II, where the four groups begin reviewing the Veteran-written interpretations of the ancient Greek works.

The room is huge, but seems small with this many Veterans, Family members, and actors of varying experience crowded inside. Today is the first day the four classes are in the same room, even for just an hour, and the full scope and impact of the Warrior Chorus is suddenly felt. No more is it a small room reading scenes of ancient works: it’s a population being changed for the better through the creation of influenced writing. There is something meaningful happening, and it’s felt around the room.

The warm-up is a much more standard set for a theater company. In the bigger space, it’s body first with relax and stretch, though everyone is back to being a little self conscious, not as “goofy” or comfortable as they’d grown in their families of the small groups. Some with more acting experience seem more willing to mess around than others, and this gradually draws out the shier folks in the room as the different classes interact. They don’t know names, nor is there opportunity to learn, and there isn’t a need for them to bond as this portion of the Chorus is the only time when the classes will interact. Oddly, however, individuals seem to want to connect with new faces anyway. Is this a habit of the Veteran mentality, or theater? Is it some combination of the two drawing the lines of interaction?

Once warmed up, the groups break into their smaller families and relax to discuss their interpreted writings. Dan’s group, focused on the telling of Persians, is still in the writing stages. They are convinced none in the group is an “actor”, that this is “a group of writers” trying to piece it all together. As they talk, the wonders of the Warrior Chorus stand out: no group is the same. Not only is this group concentrating on writing and interpretation and translation unlike Johnny and Jenny’s groups with an acting focus, but this group seems Veteran-heavy. This focuses the conversation much more on the actual war, the reasonableness of war, the humanization and the dehumanization and the re-humanization and the costs of combat. Conversation is personal and passionate, with each understanding of the Persians in Greece and the defeat told in Athens as told by the victor clearly strikes a deep chord in the room when compared to the protracted wars in the Middle East.

Neath’s group is also Veteran-heavy but smaller than the others. They have a lot more written, able to get through a scene reading with more debate on direction and how to compare it back to the Greek play with possession of women through rape and aggression and the prospect of paternal instinct in war. The topics of influences of man-splaining and paternalization, protection and how it will fit with the recent integration of women into combat units, are all modernized, along with power and position, and women attempting to push through as a trend breaker, as a glass breaker. The group being small, discussion seems limited but still animated. The advantage of understanding the rules and regulations in a Veteran-focused group is evident, as time spent in explanation is minimal, and more time can be spent fine-tuning the writing.

Because this is Phase II, everything is now more technical. How do we create tension when we don’t feel it? These are Veterans who understand the tension of battle. But where is the tension, where is the argument, where is the feeling? These are questions often felt and never articulated in battle but always in writing theater. What is winning and how do you know when you’ve won? What do you know between the audience, the world outside of the theater, and what is on the stage? How valuable is the win? Why did we go in the first place for such a small prize?

And now, of course, how do we capture this in a half an hour scene as the Greeks might have done millennia ago?

Voice of the Warrior: From Strangers to Confidantes

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This blog takes place the third of Jenny's classes, in a mixed performance space in NYC:

How can a room full of strangers one week become a room full of friends a week later, and a room of trusted confidantes a week following? Something about throwing the Veterans and Family Members of Warrior Chorus into a pantheon of strange names, choral narration, and graphic life and death relationships erases not only the lines between Veteran and Civilian, but individual differences, even if for only a few hours. Such lines not easily blurred; this is no easy feat.

In Jenny’s class, a group formed in a line-by-line Greek chorus on the first day, early chatter is of nothing but everything. How is that new fitness class, did you make it out on a run this morning? But it quickly turns in the check-in to something much more real, an exercise of trust and of how each person really feels not just in mood but physically and as a whole person.

With varying experience in acting scattered between the individuals, the emotional connection is somewhat surprising much less the willingness to share it with what amounts to a room of near strangers. What makes it more peculiar is to see it in a room of at least half Veterans. Veterans are not exactly known for sharing emotions, with each other or with those outside their inner circle.

But it is happening; something is blurring the lines.

As the scholar observed, that “something” might be the need for release, and the role it plays in connecting not only the story but also the room. The Greeks had a passion for this release, through war and celebration and theater, food and drink and everything else. There was a great deal of pent-up energy and obligation among the Greeks, and thus they placed a heavy obligation upon finding methods to release that energy for the betterment of their health and society.

As Jenny’s class checks in, encouraged to let go of everything outside the room to be present, the influence of Greek release in theater is evident. Feeling the floor through stocking feet, lying down, standing up, sharing what is happening outside gives the impression that once you take your turn and check in with the others, you don’t have to deal with whatever it was that was weighing you down for the next two hours. Gone is the idle chatter from before class began. The energy level picks up with each stretch and each story, energy that the participants carry into the circle of chairs. Lines of anger are shouted, tears of battle and regret are shed. Each person, Veteran and civilian, has left the world outside for the world of the Greeks and only brought with them the reality of emotion. Past blends with present, lines are blurred.

When the reading ends and the discussion can begin, the connection is even clearer and closer than before. The relationships of the characters and symbolism of the story are broken down and analyzed, but there are also legitimate feelings of frustration or anger with characters acting in self-interest and sympathy for the women caught up and used in the vengeance and retribution of a god. But discussion is relaxed, somehow, even more so than the idle chatter of early in the day. In reading and in discussion, the tragedy has brought them closer to understanding not only the Greek need to release energy but a bit of their own need to do the same. Listening to the rage or sorrow or even joy as another reader hopped up or down from their seat to play a role had a cathartic effect on the room.

And as they each relaxed, the lines further blurred, bringing a shared closeness between the readers. Three weeks from strangers to confidantes: accomplished.

This is the end of Phase I, and the end of the reading for the ancient Greeks. Next our groups will link up with each other, and the other two Veteran-led groups, and begin reading original works inspired from the readings, merging them with their Veteran experiences. Comment below on what you see in the process!

Voice of the Warrior: Starting the Conversation

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This blog takes place the second of Johnny's classes, in an apartment in NYC:

The themes are beginning to emerge in Johnny’s Friday night group. Do we accept death, or do we fear it? Do we accept war, even embrace or value it and celebrate it in society at home and in our art, or do we shun it?

The discussion, something less prevalent in the first session, is louder this time. It isn’t just because the Korean War Veteran has moved from the corner, having recovered from his cold and grabbed a more prevalent part. It isn’t because the scholars are chiming in more, and it isn’t because the text of Frogs reads like a tossed out scene from sketch comedy set at the gates of Hell. Though the group missed a week of interaction the week before, they’d connected in the interim. They sent messages, suggestions, thoughts, and it carried over and into the room on Friday night.

Dispersed into the reading was discussion, understanding of the text and better understanding of the themes and of war. Alcestis tells of moral ambivalence and yet also of self sacrifice. How to rectify, in a room of Veterans and Families, the consideration that, as the group’s scholar Mattia notes: “Admetus’ father describes it as an act of a moron (line 771). Who wouldn’t want to live? Why would you give away your precious life for someone else? And – most importantly – how can anyone actually ask for somebody to die for them?” Death was, as Mattia points out, permanent and Hades was undesirable and the absence of light. Therefore, it was the ultimate sacrifice.

The discussion around this concept, of course, turned to the worthiness of the cause. Athens was constantly at war and so are (at present) current Americans. Is it worth the sacrifice? The Korean Veteran, seeing a family of service from World War II and then beyond into Vietnam and through the spectrum of public opinion, had some thoughts. It is easier to fight when you know who the bad guys are, after all, and when the world can agree the cause is just.  

But this is not a classroom, but developing theater! The purpose here is to create adaptations, to learn and to grow, and that is what is happening. Conversation turns now to the role of the poet, and to is the one composing the play responsible for restoring that sense of nostalgia, the sense of right and the sense of value in war in the public, or are they simply there to record and replay what the sense is out in the world? Do they change opinion, or do they reflect? Should their words be used to justify military action, and is such an idea proper when the idea of right and wrong are murky, as they are in cases beyond WWII, or in regimes other than those considered more authoritarian than the foundations upon which the United States was built. But it seems, at least in the works these Veterans and Families read, there was no consensus for the role of the poet and theater in Athens nor could there be consensus found in the room.

Conversation is passionate and heartfelt, and full of memories. There is no writing this time, shared or otherwise. Topics wander to the new production, but the focus still remains on the role each character plays, both within and outside productions. What is the role of the poet and the playwright, the combatant and the supporter back at home? What does each need, and what dreams are expressed and what is put on hold and what dies and ends up at the gates of Hades?

If they could, they’d talk all night. Discussing characters and attributes, theories and concepts and what should be in the new production. The fact that most of the people in the room had only met two weeks before went unnoticed; everyone had something to contribute, everyone was engrossed in the moment. As the night drew to a close and individuals began to drift towards the door, one would think they’d left a thoughtful salon instead of a discussion of war and death. Far from a feeling of weight and sadness, there was palpable anticipation towards what the next week of Greek theater might bring.

Voice of the Warrior: Building a Community

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This blog takes place the first day in Jenny's class, around a table in a yoga and mindfulness space in NYC:

Each Warrior Chorus class is different this time: different attendees, different instructors, different interpretations of different selections. But there is one common thread that binds them tightly, even beyond the military connection: community.

As Jenny’s class introduced their way around the table, each shared a sentence of what brought them into the room and what drew them towards Aquila Theater’s Warrior Chorus. Whether the speaker was a Veteran or Family Member, an actor or a scholar, each admitted to the comfort and joy in the family of theater.

To everyone in the room, the theater is more than a series of lines (in this case, lines written millennia before) telling someone else’s story; it was a way to share their story or the story about someone they loved. It was a way to build and share with the community, and in particular with this group a way to share the stories of Veterans and a way to give a voice to those who might be voiceless. They see in these plays the stories of their own wars, hear the stories they or their family members might not be able to put proper words to, and now as they introduce themselves to each other they each confess they are in this room to share those stories.

It’s humbling, and it’s genuine.

The community builds quickly, with the warm-up exercises comfortable and full of laughter. Movement, loud, heads shaking, stocking feet (it’s in a yoga studio, after all) bouncing up and down, there is already a feeling that each member has shared something close and can trust the others so there will be no judgment. It’s been nearly an hour, mostly of conversation and laughing and usually getting Jenny to laugh, and by the time the warm-up is complete what we see around the table is a chorus.

The laughter continues, even when it is down to business. Notebooks are colorful, and screens start lighting up with scripts (and with the scholar, attending virtually to prevent spreading a cold). While some parts are assigned, the bulk of the scene is a coincidental Greek chorus. Since the table is also a chorus the lines are divided to go around and around the small group and they immediately circulate quickly, flowing rapidly from person to person building up steam into one voice and one community.

The only interruptions come from the scholar, the metallic reverberations from the phone being mounted on a music stand, but when the voice speaks the chorus hushes except to ask more questions and scribble notes in their bright notebooks. The group becomes deeply engrossed in the questions, asking notes of lineage, of why the warriors value so much the relationship to the mother when born of the father and what is the proper battle cry and what is the real tale behind this war and the battles to come. There are stories shared here, both of the combat in the story and the combat in the lives around the table, even the combat in day-to-day life. No one is excluded, even those who before this class might not have considered themselves directly a “warrior.”

Now this is a chorus of warriors, and it is only the first day of the first phase.

Voice of the Warrior: A New Perspective

Voice of the Warrior covers the winter and spring phases of 2018 Warrior Chorus in 2018, where four previous Warrior Chorus Fellows will take new groups through three phases: readings and education of Greek theater, a new interpretation which these Fellows compose, and then performance.

This blog covers the first day in Johnny's class, set in the apartment of one of the participants...

It was the first night, so there was some expectation of nervousness. Walking into someone’s home, maybe someone you didn’t know, after a few faceless emails and reminders. They file in ones and twos, and it becomes clear many in the room knew at least one face, Johnny's if no other. Sit in groups near people you know, hope that next buzzer is a friend.

No time like the present to begin. What is interesting is Johnny skips the usual introductions, the warm-ups with the names and the personal histories to which everyone seems to have grown accustomed since coming into a new room (and leaving behind the military days where we wore our last names on our shirts). He established some were scholars, some Veterans, some family members, but no distinguishing characteristics made at the outset. Was this to bring the room together, to break down some barrier? 

No breathing exercises, no stretching, no noise. Write down your thoughts, free flowing. Now some of the Veterans might start to peek through, being a little less trusting of unstructured activity, and indeed they pause a little more often. Sharing thoughts, only not being asked to share them with each other but with the page, told to put them into a rhythm, NOW being told to share and make it rhyme no less.

Meter and rhyme and the room brightens, starts to have fun. Breathing becomes a little easier. They aren't a team yet; they are still working within their little groups, identifying with those they know. The Korea Veteran sits skeptically in the corner away from the Rutgers kids. The scholar sits quietly observing in the corner. But each gradually begins to share a little more, volunteer a rhyme, laugh or clap at a rhythm, so something is beginning to happen, though they still don't know names or even, really, why they are here.

Midsummer Night's Dream, the final scenes. In other groups, we might delve into why the character doesn't want to see his personal history in battle depicted. Is it PTSD? Is it protecting someone from learning embellishments of his war story? We don't know, and we aren't going to discuss, not now. Here, it is just a mention, an informational call-out from Johnny, and a few interested sighs from the participants who had not put these pieces together until this moment. But despite the interest, we drive on. Would this be brought up again later? We are integrating a new work, a new play, fighting a new battle, so is it likely at least one will take in the concept that the warrior doesn’t always want to talk about the worst days of the old fights? That remains to be seen, since it wasn't overheard in conversation afterwards, but who knows. Everyone needs to digest a moment, and here that’s done with more writing about the loved ones left behind during combat. No one promised a relaxed Friday night of the theater!

Nevertheless, the social atmosphere afterwards is friendly, improved substantially on the nervousness from before we began. Great strides were taken over two hours. Two free-writing assignments, even with very little sharing, and some shared Shakespeare can do that, I suppose. Much can be learned in the observation of putting your thought to paper, then convincing The King to watch your woodland play.

Comments? We invite you to participate in the discussion, share your thoughts and memories, and what you think of what happened in the room!

Return of the Warrior

Probably the most important question posed during the session was two-fold: Should we consider Ajax a wounded soldier? And if so, how do we heal him? This led to a discussion over what society can reasonably expect of men at war. Can a semblance of normalcy be maintained? Is normalcy even beneficial in this theater?

Return of the Warrior

Our first session was primarily dedicated to introducing the participants to the character of Ajax. The participants this week included Phil, our Warrior Chorus facilitator, as well as Dan, Laura, Vic and Joseph. After reading the opening 130-or so lines together as a group, we discussed the separate perspectives that are immediately apparent at the opening.