'Telling' the Truth

Austin veterans perform their pasts to bridge the civilian-military divide

Leila Levinson (l) and Laura Muncy rehearse <i>Telling: Austin, TX</i>
Leila Levinson (l) and Laura Muncy rehearse Telling: Austin, TX (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Regina Vasquez saw the haircut as a practical choice. Her fellow Marine recruits saw it as an affront to military womanhood.

Throughout basic training, Vasquez had been stuffing her waist-length hair under her cap, anchoring it with bobby pins and hairspray. But the 19-year-old's beauty ritual was a chore that made training exercises even more difficult. When she cut it short, she thought her fellow Marines would applaud her for her practicality. Instead, they mocked her.

Fifteen years later, on a Saturday morning in an Austin Community College classroom, the mocking continued."Something's different about you," Jenn Hassin sneered, touching Vasquez's cap. "Why'd you have to do a stupid thing like that?" Anisa Moyo asked. "You've betrayed the femininity of the Corps!" Steve Metze shouted.

Vasquez faced the front of the classroom, disgusted. "I thought having boobs was enough." The scene was over.

"Great job," director Stacey Shade-Ware said. "Regina, that's your best delivery so far. Let's move on to Act Two. We're getting into some of the more difficult stuff now, so remember to take care of yourself."

The performers were halfway through a rehearsal for the Austin debut of the Telling Project. Telling: Austin, TX is a theatrical performance based on the real experiences of eight local veterans and military family members, most with no stage experience. It's designed to fill a communication gap between civilians and veterans, who often don't have a forum for talking openly about the experiences service members have endured on behalf of their country. Civilians aren't sure how to ask; veterans are often hesitant to tell.

The show is about "telling," but it's also about sharing. By showing up and listening, the audience agrees to share the burden of military action done in the public's name.

"When we ask [the military] to do something for us, we should absorb that, because it's our experience as well as theirs," project creator Jonathan Wei says. "It allows a community to adapt and to expand its understanding of what we've asked these people to do."

For Wei, the project helps remind the civilians in a community that the veterans in their midst are real people – individuals – and not just the issues and statistics related in news reports about veterans dealing with PTSD, the VA, unemployment, and emotional and psychological trauma.

"These things are all true, to a degree, for a percentage of the military population, but none of these issues are anywhere near 'the story,'" Wei says. "I feel like the story is that we've been at war for 11 years, and as a civilian population we have an unprecedented level of naivete about that."

That may be because only 1% of the U.S. population has ever served in the military. This is one statistic Wei thinks does tell a story: Civilians don't have a way to understand what's really happening in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan.

"We have a situation where we don't have access to what is going on or what the fact that we've been at war 11 years has meant," Wei says. "We're pretty well aware of it unconsciously as a nation – understanding that we don't really understand but not knowing what to do about that. The Telling Project is trying to fill that gap."

And while civilians may be aware of their ignorance, veterans might not, says performer Metze: "I don't think soldiers realize how many people have no idea what they've done or what they go through, except from what they see on TV."

The theatre gives veterans and civilians a chance to meet in a space outside ordinary life. "Theatre can be a ritual space, a sacred space, a place set apart, where performers can tell stories they haven't told otherwise, and audiences can listen in ways they haven't had a chance to," Wei says. "In some ways it's more like the origins of theatre than it is modern theatre. It's community addressing community."

Wei, who moved to Austin six years ago, has produced Telling Projects in 15 cities in 10 states. The idea came to him while working as the nontraditional-student adviser at the University of Oregon in Eugene. One of his responsibilities was advising a veterans' student organization, which held outreach events but wasn't attracting its intended audience: people with opinions about the military and the war but very little exposure to either.

"I basically woke up one morning and thought I should write a play and put vets onstage to perform it and tell stories," Wei remembers. He found a co-writer and a director and recruited performers from the student group. Nine months later, the first Telling Project production was born.

Wei struggles with what to call his work – it's not quite documentary theatre; it's not devised theatre. "The best thing we've come up with so far is 'telling theatre' – it's just what we do. It's teaching a community to tell its stories to itself."

The process always begins with a call for participants, typically through veterans' organizations in the host city. Next, Wei collects the stories of the volunteers through video interviews usually lasting between two and four hours (the longest went for 12). He then extends invitations to perform – anyone can do an interview, and anyone who does an interview can perform – and chooses excerpts from the transcribed interviews to create the script.

The cast works with a local director – for the Austin show, it's Shade-Ware, whose husband is in the Air Force – and gets basic performance training to help everyone feel more comfortable onstage.

In Act One, the veterans introduce themselves and tell why they joined the military. Then they relate mishaps at basic training – a very physical segment full of jostling, marching, and calisthenics. And humor.

Metze, a 1989 West Point graduate, served in Desert Storm with the Army, and Bosnia and Iraq with the National Guard. His "perpetual missteps" before and during basic training are a source of levity. "You've got me trying to get in shape by running around in dress shoes in my neighborhood; me continuing to look at the cadet who was yelling at me not to look at him; me demonstrating ways to screw up at the dinner table at West Point." Metze has a dry and self-deprecating sense of humor honed by a season doing improv at the Scarborough Faire festival. It's easy for him to make people laugh.

Jonathan Wei
Jonathan Wei (Photo by Jana Birchum)

More difficult is talking about subjects like how his deployments affected his relationships or how images are stuck in his mind, such as the dismembered Iraqi insurgent who had blown himself up in a fuel truck in Tikrit. Before Telling Project rehearsals, Metze had never discussed these things, not even with his wife. "To talk about them, you have to remember them," he says. "Those are obviously much easier forgotten than they are repeated – but then again, there's something therapeutic about describing them."

Acts Two and Three are more serious and reflective, covering the veterans' deployments and thoughts about the military. In these often difficult scenarios, the nuances of their experiences and reactions emerge.

Vasquez's haircut was far from her biggest challenge. She joined the Marines to learn to be a paralegal but was assigned to be a truck driver. At motor transport school, she was raped by two Marines and threatened with death if she reported it. The trauma continued when she was deployed to Okinawa, where she endured discrimination and harassment. For more than 11 years, she kept the rapes a secret, finally deciding to face her demons in 2010.

Since then, Vasquez has processed her experiences in art, writing, a documentary, and political advocacy for HR 3435, a bill introduced in Congress in 2011 and meant to prevent and improve response to sexual assault in the military. But she hasn't yet spoken in public, in detail, about what happened to her.

"When I couldn't do anything, I wanted to yell back, get angry," she says. "By telling my story in the Telling Project, I'm able to express my anger and let everybody know."

Her story resonates with Hassin, 26, who was a dental assistant in the Air Force. Hassin was stationed in England for three and a half years, which she enjoyed. But before that, stateside, in basic training, she was molested by her training instructor. He'd call her to his office, have her stand at attention while he ran his hands over her body, and whisper in her ear.

The feeling of violation was familiar to Hassin, who had been abused by a family friend and then a relative during childhood. When she got to the base in England, Hassin reported the instructor, who was court-martialed and sentenced to prison. It was the first person she'd turned in for abusing her, and his punishment became part of her healing process.

Hassin says the initial draft of the Telling: Austin, TX script didn't include her sexual abuse, which she objected to – while they both had been sexually abused, she and Vasquez had had different experiences and responses.

"Everybody takes that kind of abuse or harassment differently, but there's always stages, like the five stages of grief," she says. "I think the duality between Regina and I, and where we are in stages of getting past the abuse that we incurred in our lifetime, is really interesting. It's powerful to see two different stories of military sexual trauma on a stage in one night."

The cast offers civilians a wide range of stories. The group includes veterans of the Marines, Air Force, and Army; an Army spouse; and daughters of World War II and Vietnam veterans. It includes both enlisted and officers, both men and women.

"I really think part of the genius of this thing is that you see such a spectrum of military – and not just military but people next to the military," Metze says. "You realize it's really layered and really diverse."

The only officer in the cast, Metze was hesitant to participate, as he often is in situations where people share their military experiences. "I live in this constant fear that, because I'm an officer, any time I get into a situation where I could be telling about my experiences, there's always going to be someone 'more military than thou' in the room. I'm going to say, 'This explosion happened,' and someone else is going to say, 'Yeah, I was much closer to it than you.'

"But I don't feel any of that in the rehearsals. Everyone is actually more willing to listen than anything else. More than once we've had people get so into the moments they're rehearsing that they break down. And everyone just sits there quietly and waits and listens or reaches out a hand and touches them on the shoulder."

The Telling Project has had lasting effects on both performers and audiences. For Jeremy Johnson, a former military journalist who performed in the 2011 Baltimore shows, the play became part of his transition out of the Navy. Johnson, who is gay, had been discharged in 2007 after coming out to his commanding officer.

"Forcing myself to tell this story to a bunch of complete strangers multiple times was healing because I wasn't scorned or dismissed," he says, adding that the experience helped him embrace the label of "veteran." Audience comments suggested the show had also helped them understand the experiences of LGBT service members.

"It wasn't a miracle cure to a larger problem," Johnson says, "but it's helped me and the others involved be more confident and proactive in telling our stories offstage."

The Austin cast is cautiously optimistic about the local impact of Telling. Hassin says she and other cast members have discussed their frustration with civilians who form their opinions of the military and U.S. involvement overseas from news reports but have no personal connection to service members. "It's important to understand that we were civilians first, and then we joined and made this commitment to our country. I believe that I'm anti-war, but I'm not anti-military, and I'd want civilians to understand there are a lot of service members like that."

Vasquez, who has PTSD, wants to dispel stereotypes about the disorder. She also wants to raise awareness of military sexual trauma. "I was a prisoner the first two years in the Marine Corps," she says. "I couldn't report it, fight back, or stand up for myself because I was afraid. I want to make the audience my 'prisoner' because I want it to impact them so much that they look up HR 3435 and become educated."

For Metze, telling the story reinforces the meaning of his service, which continues today in the National Guard. "It's always good to believe that what you did was important," he says. "And if what we are saying gives people a chance to understand better what goes on overseas, and emotionally, and at home, I think that's an incredibly positive thing."

Wei says there's an energy created by the audience bringing its sincere curiosity to the theatre. "You feel the desire to know in that room – the desire to understand and to connect. The folks who served are our connection to the news, to the world, to history. When we get to know them and have conversations with them, it ceases to be news and events and history, and it becomes us."

Telling: Austin, TX runs April 25-May 4, Thursday-Saturday, 7:30pm, at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 6oo River. For more information, visit www.thetellingproject.org.

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The Telling Project, Austin theatre, Jonathan Wei, Regina Vasquez, Jenn Hassin, Steve Metze, Anisa Moyo, Stacey Shade-Ware

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