Feast of Crispian Helps War Heroes Share their Stories through First-Ever National Veterans Theater Festival
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Veterans performing in Feast of Crispian's 2017 production of "Othello-Deployed." Photo by Sara Stathas.
While serving in the U.S. Army during Operation Desert Storm, Tim Schleis walked in on a fellow tank commander raping a 16-year-old Middle Eastern girl. Schleis stopped the rape, and suffered professional consequences as a result. The commander he had stopped was a friend of the first sergeant.
Schleis had a flashback to the incident during a rehearsal for Feast of Crispian’s 2017 production of Othello – Deployed. Schleis’ character was supposed to break up a knife fight, but almost started a real physical altercation instead.
“For the first time in 25 years, I actually had to talk about what happened,” Schleis says. “If this was regular therapy and you get agitated, they tell you to calm down. Here we stop and talk about it and work through it.”
Schleis will get to share this story as part of Feast of Crispian’s devised play And Comes Safe Home, which will kick off the first-ever National Veterans Theater Festival at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Other personal stories from veterans will be intertwined with classic Shakespearean text, following Feast of Crispian’s mission to help veterans overcome trauma through the work of Shakespeare.
Nancy Smith-Watson, her husband Bill Watson and Jim Tasse co-founded Feast of Crispian in 2012. Smith-Watson explains that starting a National Veterans Theater Festival has been a goal for the group since its inception. Feast of Crispian was able to make this dream a reality after becoming a resident theater company of the Milwaukee Rep this season.
“Theater in particular is uniquely positioned to build empathy,” Smith-Watson says. “It’s a powerful way of helping people get inside another person’s story unlike anything else.”
Bill Watson (center, on platform) gives notes during a rehearsal for "And Comes Safe Home." at UW Milwaukee's Theater building. Photo by Stephanie Harte.
Along with Feast of Crispian, Mitch Capel and Sonny Kelly, based out of Fayetteville, North Carolina, will perform Color of Courage about the 180,000 African-American soldiers who served in the Union Army in the Civil War. The Telling Project, based out of Austin, Texas, will perform She Went to War, an autobiographical performance by four female veterans. Combat Hippies, an ensemble of Puerto Rican veterans from Miami, will present AMAL, which delves into the impact of war on both combatants and noncombatants.
Finally, Stephan Wolfert will perform his one-person show Cry Havoc on the last day of the festival. Cry Havoc interweaves Shakespeare’s most famous speeches with personal experience to help understand the national crises faced when we fail in reintegrating veterans.
“I think it’s going to be an amazing time for all these companies to get together,” Smith-Watson says. “We are all going to be seeing one another’s work and they will all get to talk and meet with one another.”
Another veteran who will have the opportunity to share his story through Feast of Crispian’s And Comes Safe Home is Charlie Walton. Walton’s friend died in his arms after getting both his legs blown off in Vietnam.
“It was an incident I had never really talked about,” Walton says, echoing Schleis’ experience. “Bill (Watson) asked me questions about it and I had to tell him it three or four times before I could get through the whole process. Each time I go back to that moment, I am able to talk about it without getting so emotional. To act it out in the play is a very rewarding healing for me.”
Feast of Crispian's 2017 production of "Othello-Deployed." Photo by Sara Stathas.
When Feast of Crispian hosts weekend acting workshops at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, Smith-Watson shares that veterans are by no means required to share emotional or personal stories. However, for And Comes Safe Home, the veterans were encouraged to share their experiences for the devised piece.
“A lot of veterans are seeking help because they are stuck and they have stories so big they don’t know how to tell them,” Smith-Watson says. “Actors are uniquely asserted to be really comfortable with big stories, so the veterans end up being really comfortable with us.”
The National Veterans Theater Festival, presented by Feast of Crispian and the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, will take place May 23 – 26 at Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Studio. For tickets visit milwaukeerep.com or call the box office at 414-224-9490.