by SOPHIE KERMAN
At the beginning of The Veterans Play Project, two would-be filmmakers and a community chorus are all asking the same question: “Where are all the vets?” In the fictional town of Smedley, MN – just like the Twin Cities – veterans are everywhere, but for a variety of personal and political reasons, their struggles often remain invisible to the civilian population.
The Veterans Play Project, written over the course of a year and a half in collaboration with over 120 vets, is a step towards remedying that invisibility. Director Leah Cooper created the town of Smedley as a backdrop for veterans with a wide array of experiences to share their stories, in varying forms and amounts of detail. The project is ambitious – how could one two-hour play possibly cover the vast scope of veterans’ experiences? – but it manages to weave in actual veterans’ stories from several decades’-worth of wars, as well as perspectives from different genders, races, and sexual orientations.
As a piece of dramatic literature, the play has its shortcomings. The pace is uneven, and the plot sacrifices deep exploration for a broader range of characterizations. However, the power in a play like this comes from both its writing process and from the fact that most of the actors are real-life veterans, many of whom have never had formal theatrical training. From the traditional perspective of strong acting and tight direction, there are a few stand-out scenes, including a fairytale-like plunge into PTSD and a look into the sexual power dynamics that many women have to negotiate as new recruits. But, although less polished, it is equally important to see some of these untrained actors telling stories that clearly hold so much personal meaning both to themselves and to the veterans in the audience.
For civilian audience members, The Veterans Play Project has a lot to offer in terms of education and consciousness-raising about the experience of being in the military, as well as the experience of coming home to a country that often doesn’t provide as much support as it should. For the veterans in the audience, the play will likely resonate much more personally, with references to things like the “yellow footprints” that your civilian neighbors wouldn’t understand.
The most effective viewing experience may be to go with a friend or family member who has served in the military, and let the play open up a dialogue that many of us (civilians and veterans alike) don’t know how to have on our own. This is not the definitive play about military service (as if such a thing could exist), but for an issue surrounded by so much misunderstanding, The Veterans Play Project does an excellent job at breaking the ice.