There may very well be an unwritten code of conduct – be it institutionalized machismo, mission security, or the tacit understanding that, yeah, brother, we’ve all been there, so why waste your breath? – that as a military veteran, you simply don’t talk about the things that keep you awake at night. Memories of combat, visions of comrades maimed and killed, sights, sounds and smells remind a soldier of a time when the difference between life and death might be a hair trigger or a split-second decision. These are what a combat veteran refers to as the “invisible wounds.” And once a soldier has re-entered civilian life, oftentimes with not much more than a salute, a paycheck and a thank you from Uncle Sam, an entirely different story begins to unfold – What must it be like to find yourself silently fuming in traffic on the 405 when two weeks ago you were riding in a convoy in Iraq with the knowledge that at any moment an improvised explosive device could claim the lives of you and a dozen of your friends? It is these stories that Stephan Wolfert, founding director of the Veterans Center for the Performing Arts, has set out to tell and to help other veterans like himself tell.
The company’s performance space is a cramped (but extraordinarily tastefully-decorated) upper floor of the Mortise and Tenon Furniture store on south La Brea. Wolfert is a high-energy, “What’s next?” kind of guy. After he recovered from a paralyzing high school wrestling mishap in his hometown of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, he was determined to challenge himself mentally and physically in whatever arenas he found, and his first choice was the United States Army. They turned him down due to his medical history, but Wolfert’s response was to camp out in the recruiting office for a week until the Army finally broke down and admitted him. His superiors saw certain aptitudes in him, and over the next nine years he trained as a Special Forces medic and saw combat operations in Grenada, Mogadishu, and Operation Desert Storm.
Out of the Army and traveling the country on a rail pass, his life took its next sharp turn when he found himself transfixed and transformed by a production of Richard III in Montana. He traveled to New York, earned an MFA from Trinity Rep Conservatory, taught theatre at Cornell, and was the military advisor to Twyla Tharpe’s production of “Movin’ Out.” The musical, based on Billy Joel’s songs, was loosely structured on a story of a group of friends who grew up in Long Island and served in the armed forces during the Vietnam era. It was a series of talkbacks with Vietnam veterans after performances of “Movin’ Out” that gave the VCPA its genesis, but the galvanizing moment for Wolfert occurred when he met fellow Cornell alum Randy Reinhold, who had begun a theatre project for Native Americans. Wolfert realized that his military experience could be combined with his theatrical experience, and more importantly, he knew that veterans like himself had personal stories of their time in the military and their transition back to civilian life that desperately needed to be told. He arrived in Los Angeles in 2003, and found the space his theatre currently occupies through a fortuitous combination of timing and connections.
The company’s signature piece, “Fit For Society,” co-written by Wolfert and Brian Monahan, began as a workshop production 2 years ago, but word of mouth among veterans and non-veterans alike spread, and the show is now in its 4th run. It’s simple but effective storytelling, a set of monologues written from the perspective of members of each branch of the service plus a military spouse. The show epitomizes the VCPA’s mission. “It’s therapeutic,” says Wolfert, “but it’s not therapy,” A young Marine, old enough to fight and kill but not allowed to drink, faces a new life without legs. A female Air Force officer faces down the sexism that she encounters every day in the course of performing her duties. An Army veteran, once entrusted with the lives of a company of soldiers and responsible for millions of dollars in military hardware, but who now survives doing catering gigs in the civilian world, must confront the fact that he has permanently separated himself from his own humanity.
Sometimes when I sit in a theatre, just as the house lights go down and the play is moments away from beginning, I am still amazed that in an age awash in multi-media entertainment choices, this ancient form of ours continues to thrive. What makes live theatre so unique and continuously vital even into the 21st century, though, is the simple proximity of living, breathing actors providing the connection, unavailable through other media, that is vital to our shared experience as human beings. Actors and audience breathe the same air. Their stories become our stories. Their quirks and foibles make us laugh, and their pain, like any burden spread amongst many hands, becomes lighter.
As the audience member, we sit in the theatre, listen to these stories being told, and absorb the depths of feeling behind them. Taking these visions out of a veteran’s nightmares and exposing them to the bright lights of a theatre may not be enough to slay the demons entirely, but it might very well render their presence bearable.