A Veteran's Voice
Playwright Johnny Meyer returned from war to learn that theatre is essential to life
Dragging a body onstage. That's when Johnny Meyer knew he had to write plays.
He was playing Richard III's henchman at Winedale, and, without thinking about it, did something he'd done as an Army Airborne Ranger along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. "You go on these raids, you pick up people, you drag them back," Meyer says. "I remember dragging this old man who had fought against the Russians into one of our trucks. When I dragged this guy onstage, I used the exact same technique."
But onstage, Meyer had an audience, which he found exhilarating. "I wanted the incredible empathy exercise we were experiencing with Richard III to go into my work," he says. So the veteran with zero theatre experience reworked a novel that he'd written about his Afghanistan experiences, American Volunteers, into a play, and he hasn't stopped writing for the stage since.
Meyer, 30, is a government Ph.D. student at the University of Texas, but he looks like he belongs on a motorcycle. He's muscular and handsome, with rumpled brown hair and a serious face – until he breaks into his goofy Wallace & Gromit smile. (Really, it looks exactly like Wallace's in those movies.) He doesn't fit the playwright profile, says Gary Jaffe, who's directing a workshop production of Meyer's play, The Priceless Slave, for the UT Department of Theatre & Dance's Cohen New Works Festival (see "The 2013 Cohen New Works Festival," p.32). "It's like, where did you come from? A veteran, scholar, and Shakespeare enthusiast ... in theatre? Usually, you just have gay Jews like me." However, Jaffe emphasizes that Meyer's playwriting is much more than the writer's unconventional narrative. "We can trust the script. This is a guy who has studied his theatre and knows his Shakespeare. He is definitely a strong, budding playwright."
But Meyer's narrative is key to understanding his plays. He wasn't interested in drama before his second deployment in 2007, an involuntary one that interrupted his undergraduate studies at UT . "I thought theatre was cute," he smirks, "but not essential." While stationed in Baghdad on teams that facilitated Iraqi self-government, Meyer met a fellow Austinite who'd acted with Austin Shakespeare. He encouraged Meyer to check out the Shakespeare at Winedale program if he ever returned to UT. Meyer wasn't planning on it; Columbia University was calling his name. But verse piqued his curiosity – he'd just written a draft of American Volunteers – so he picked up Hamlet. "I didn't quite get Hamlet," he says. "And then I read Macbeth, and that fucked me up. That was a soldier's story. Macbeth's soliloquies are about being able to envision violence, knowing it's going to have a cost, and doing it anyway. In Iraq, that's what a lot of us felt: We were involved in violence, and we weren't sure what the outcome was going to be. I thought I saw Macbeth in the mirror."
Shakespeare's verse accomplished something important, Meyer sensed, but he was unsuccessful at mimicking that technique. It wasn't clear how meter would fit into his novel, but this Shakespeare program, he thought, was the only way to find out if he needed to understand it. So he returned to Austin, declared majors in English and government at UT, and was accepted into the Shakespeare at Winedale summer class.
Meyer didn't expect his "grand experiment" to work. He thought he'd be an outsider, like he was everywhere else, "but that broke down really quickly. I didn't feel like an outsider for the first time as a civilian." Classmate Alli Hammond Zadrozny thinks this is a reflection of the program and its students: "It's easy to come to Winedale and stow away anything else you have. Our class was very kind and very open. Maybe Johnny saw the better half of human nature and reconciled his two experiences." Ania Upstill, another student, agrees. "Winedale is a very accepting community that respects hard work. The army is hard work."
After that summer, Meyer rewrote American Volunteers as a play and, with fellow Winedalers, mounted a full production for the 2010 FronteraFest Long Fringe. The play, which follows fictional infantrymen on the Afghanistan border who often speak in the blank verse Meyer learned at Winedale, piled on honors: the $20,000 Mitchell Award for Academic Excellence, the long list for the University of Wales' Dylan Thomas Prize, and a nomination from the Austin Critics Table for its David Mark Cohen New Play Award. Perhaps more importantly, Meyer's peers convinced him of theatre's powerful role in society. "Actors are great at empathizing with other people. For the first time in my civilian life, these were people who were trying. That means a lot. Maybe it can never be achieved completely – of course, it shouldn't be; we wouldn't want the experience of being in a war play to be the same as that of war – but it's as close as you can get." Zadrozny, who directed American Volunteers, adds, "It was eye-opening and difficult. We all understood that we would never understand."
Determined to continue writing plays and deepen his knowledge of verse, Meyer enrolled in a second Winedale summer in 2010. (Full disclosure: This writer was also a student at Winedale then.) He'd begun a draft of The Priceless Slave but couldn't finish it that summer; his writing, he says, got "choked up" when he played Macbeth, the soldier he so identified with in Iraq. "Macbeth appeals to me," Meyer explains, "because he loves much of what I love; he enjoys an active, persuasive,x imaginative capacity, coupled with a taste for cruelty and violence. [Shakespeare at Winedale Director] James Loehlin gave me the opportunity to distinguish my tastes from Macbeth's and intimately understand the difference between the two. It changed my life for the better and allowed me to slay a demon in front of a public audience." On working with Meyer, Loehlin said, "The interesting thing about Macbeth is that he is a soldier who has the imagination of a poet, and Johnny certainly fit the bill in both of those categories. I had a lot of reasons for wanting to see him in that role – his interest in verse, his leadership, his experience at Winedale the previous summer, and some of the parts he had taken then – but certainly his military service provided him with one angle of approach to the character that other students wouldn't have had. Johnny could get inside Macbeth's language and motivations and yet be very clear-sighted and uncompromising in his judgment of Macbeth's actions."
Meyer eventually dusted off The Priceless Slave, exchanging the Middle East for antebellum Louisiana. Inspired by a strange portrait of a slave-owning ancestor that Meyer's family inherited from a great uncle, the play is a darkly comedic confrontation of the family's past. "You always think of slave-owning as 'them,'" Meyer says. "They all died in the Civil War or something. You don't envision it as: Here I am." The play is also an attempt to hone his craft by writing characters who are distinctly not him: "As much as it matters to me to get soldiers' voices out there, if I'm a real artist, I have to be able to do that with other subject matter." In the new play, those subjects are women and slaves. White men are pushed offstage, and three boisterous women and the titular slave drive the verse-laden story about the entanglement of slavery and art.
The cast, Meyer, and Jaffe agree that the New Works Festival is an exciting venue for play development. "Undergrads," Jaffe argues, "have a passion for the work that real professional life can dull." UT theatre student Megan Rabuse says that acting in the play has inspired her empathy. "You see slaves as more than statistics; they were people with goals and dreams. And slave owners go from being hungry capitalists to people who are in a system – it's almost a requirement for them." Katie Folger, who appeared in three South by Southwest films and is also studying theatre at UT, enjoys the challenge: "There's nothing easy about this script. In film, you play characters who are mostly true to who you are. In this play, my character never recognizes the humanity of slaves. Everything is about her dreams. She's kicking my ass."
Though Meyer's attention is trained on The Priceless Slave and his doctorate, he won't stop creating theatre about and for soldiers. Another war play, Westhusing in the House of Atreus, will be workshopped at the Great Plains Theatre Conference in May. And he's collaborating with UT philosophy professor and fellow veteran Paul Woodruff on a project called Veterans' Voices. They'll organize readings of ancient Greek plays to "give voice to the many veterans who cannot find a way to tell their stories to the people they love." Woodruff adds, "I think Johnny and I both have the idea – this is a Winedale idea – that you gain understanding through performance. You learn something from performance."
Theatre has had a very real impact on Johnny Meyer's life; it's allowed him to find his voice and his place in society. And, he says, it's essential. "From the perspective of evolution, we are somewhat, uh, small. But if you view it as fireworks, and if you view theatre's job as presenting those fireworks in the most interesting way possible, then it's a little bit more bearable. But otherwise, it's not bearable at all."
The Priceless Slave runs March 25-29, Monday & Tuesday, 8pm; Wednesday, 8:30pm; Thursday, 8pm; Friday, 6pm, in the Sinclair Suite, Rm. 3.128, Texas Union, UT campus. For more information, visit www.coopnwf.org.