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Female veterans lend acting skills to Renaissance Theaterworks play

It was Suzanne Canney's dream to fly jets in the military, but she ended up working as a weapons expert, spending two decades serving her country.

Becky Rowland retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, traveling around the world as a logistics officer for 21 years.

Both women know the debt they owe to female veterans who came before them. That's why they leapt at the chance to pay their respects in an unusual way.

When a Milwaukee theater group decided to stage a play about female veterans, they didn't cast professional actors. They chose women who served in the military.

That means on Friday, Canney gets her wish, at least for a moment, to portray a pilot.

In a unique collaboration, Renaissance Theaterworks is organizing a staged reading of a play about Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center with female veterans, VA staff members and other volunteers. "Censored on Final Approach" tells the story of four WASPs and the difficulties they faced during and after World War II.

"I empathize with the WASPs because I certainly understand the struggle they had to become pilots. When I wanted to become a weapons expert I went through a lot of those same struggles," said Canney, who lives in Greenfield and served in the Army's 84th Division as well as the Air Force Reserves.

The staged reading, which will feature actors sitting at a table reading the script, will be held at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Friday in the Rec Hall at Milwaukee's VA Hospital. It's free and open to the public.

With the United States embroiled in a two-front war and a shortage of pilots to fly bombers and fighters, women were called on to fill a critical need to ferry planes from aircraft factories, test new aircraft and tow aerial targets so student pilots could practice firing their weapons before heading to Europe or the Pacific.

Military brass balked at making the WASPs members of the Army Air Force, though. They were civilians, which meant when the war ended they had to pay their own way home. They weren't recognized for their service until 1978. And 38 WASPs died in plane crashes including a Wauwatosa woman, Margaret Seip, whose family was forced to pay to transport her body back to Wisconsin for burial. No American flag covered her coffin, and her family could not hang a Gold Star banner in their window.

The play was written by Phylis Ravel, a playwright and artistic director who took over Marquette University's theater program in the late '90s. Ravel died last November.

Jennifer Rupp and Suzan Fete, co-artistic directors at Renaissance Theaterworks, knew Ravel and attended a reading of "Censored on Final Approach" about 15 years ago. They loved the play, but with nine characters it was too big for the small theater company, which often chooses plays focusing on heroic women.

Rupp and Fete continued searching for a play about women in the military to put on the Renaissance Theaterworks calendar, and then the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq broke out.

"We started doing things, what little we could do, like sending packages to women overseas. Yet we kept thinking there's probably more we can do but we didn't know what," Rupp said.

Rupp knew that an acting company called Theater of War had received a federal grant to perform readings of the Greek plays "Ajax" and "Philoctetes" at VA hospitals and military installations. Such readings are well-received by troops and veterans who connect emotionally to the historical warriors.

Last summer, Rupp contacted Jill Feldman, Women Veterans Program Manager at Milwaukee's VA, gave her a few plays about female warriors and "Censored on Final Approach" was chosen. Fete and Rupp hope this will be the first of many projects telling the stories of female veterans.

"The idea of unsung heroes and people who don't get the credit they deserve is something that speaks to me," said Fete, who is directing the 2 p.m. reading.

Once the play was chosen, Feldman sent an email to staff members and female veterans seeking people willing to participate. Rupp, Fete and Feldman didn't know if anyone would volunteer to play the five female and four male roles. However, the response was so enthusiastic there were enough people for two casts to do two full readings.

"The general feeling was this would be an honor to portray a piece of history that is really hidden," Feldman said.

At a rehearsal Tuesday evening the casts sat at separate tables littered with soda cans, coffee cups and highlighters, going through their scripts in white binders line by line, as directors made suggestions and gave encouragement. The actors, which include several VA nurses, wore tags with two names -- theirs and their character's. Portions of the play were cut to keep the staged readings to 1 1/2 hours.

Canney wore a WASP logo pin she purchased after reading the play. Some actors plan to wear their old uniforms or apparel adorned with their military branch.

Rowland, who lives in Milwaukee, fished out her old Air Force battle dress uniform to wear on Friday.

"The WASPs gave us our start," Rowland said. "I should do what I can to honor them."

If you go

Staged readings of "Censored on Final Approach" will be held at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Friday in Room 3536 of the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center, 5000 W. National Ave. Both are free and open to the public.

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