This weekend and next, veterans are taking to the stage to share stories of life in the military and at war.
Called “The Veterans Play Project,” the work is the brainchild of director Leah Cooper, who is also known for heading up the Minnesota Theater Alliance and for being a former director of the Minnesota Fringe Festival.
“This isn’t about ‘doing good’ for me – it’s about wanting to be fulfilled in my work,” reflected Cooper as she sipped a hot cider at Black Dog Coffeehouse in St. Paul.
“When I worked in the Fringe I missed making art but I loved the community building. Then I left to go back to directing, and I loved making art, but I missed the community building,” she said. “This allows me to do both – and to have the payback of real community impact.”
Cooper trained at Cornerstone Theater Company in community-based collaborative theater. Using what she learned, Cooper partnered with the Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs, Veterans in the Arts and others to reach out to veterans across the state and listen to their stories. Their experiences formed the basis of the play, which recounts life in a small, fictional Midwestern town.
From the more than 120 veterans interviewed, 15 were selected to perform alongside seven professional actors.
Cooper doesn’t come from a military background. Her earliest memories are of her parents protesting in peace marches in the late 1960s. But as she looked around her, working with veterans seemed like the right choice.
“This kind of theater creates ritual and understanding where a group of people have been isolated by their experiences,” Cooper said. “Here we are in this politically polarized environment and we’re talking about war in very stark terms, while our military is experiencing it in ways that we can’t understand. There’s just so much room for healing on both sides.”
But does it make for good theater? Can a military vet with no theater experience give a compelling performance?
“Military vets have had ‘larger-than-life’ experiences,” explained Cooper, “but they’re also super disciplined and team oriented – which is exactly what’s called for in making theater. In this show they’re always performing someone else’s story, so there’s a respect for the story, and the lines.
“They’re bearing witness to someone else’s experience – and that’s sacred,” she said. “There’s something really powerful about the audience knowing that these people actually experienced war. Time and again in rehearsal I’ve seen that thing I wanted – human catharsis and transformation in front of my eyes.”