I recently traveled to SUNY New Paltz campus with my friend Fay Simpson and some of her Impact Theatre actors for a performance of The Veterans Project: Leaving Theatre. This event brings together civilians and veterans on stage to explore the challenges of the returning soldier. Using the behavior change process methodology — think Augusto Boal, Paulo Freire, Theatre of the Oppressed, etc. — the actors enter into dialogue with the audience-community to discover things about one another and seek solutions for the issues that emerge.

My mission was primarily recon: I’m a grant writer, not an actor. By observing and participating in the event and reflecting on it afterwards, my task was to learn to tell the story to potential funders so that The Veterans Project can continue to reach people.

I recently came across a remarkably incisive description of the power of actors that illustrates precisely why outlets such as theater, dance, art, etc are such useful, healing tools:

“Grief and rage — you need to contain that, to put a frame around it, where it can play itself out without you or your kin having to die. There is a theory that watching unbearable stories about other people lost in grief and rage is good for you — may cleanse you of your darkness. Do you want to go down to the pits of yourself all alone? Not much. What if an actor could do it for you? Isn’t that why they are called actors? They act for you. You sacrifice them to action. And this sacrifice is a mode of deepest intimacy of you with your own life. Within it you watch [yourself] act out the present or possible organization of your nature. You can be aware of your own awareness of this nature as you are never at the moment of experience. The actor, by reiterating you, sacrifices a moment of his own life in order to give you a story of yours.”
Tragedy: A Curious Art Form
By Anne Carson
(Preface to Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides)

20150310-2_Veterans Project Theatre_0026One of the chief characteristics of theater for social change is the conviction that the people most capable of identifying and dealing with a community’s problems are the members of that community. That’s why today’s Impact Theatre event at the SUNY New Paltz campus was not simply a performance.

At two strategically chosen spots, the play was stopped and the audience became participants, some even stepping up on stage to interact with the play’s characters. Then the last bit of the play was performed again — but with a new ending that took into account the feelings, thoughts, and insights of the audience-participants. Afterwards a fair number of students, faculty, staff, and veterans chose to stay for an extra half hour debriefing session to talk about what they saw and experienced and to share their ideas about how to meet the challenges that returning soldiers face.

The Veterans Project: Leaving Theatre is a compelling work that reminds us of the awesome power of the stage. Fay Simpson and her Impact Theatre actors embody the sacred action of theater in a way that most of us rarely have the chance to experience.