Deployed actors take on huge task of staging musical at Camp Liberty
The outskirts of battle-scarred Baghdad are about as far Off Broadway as you can get. But for a group of performers who just happen to be deployed to Iraq as soldiers and civilians, the need to perform on stage isn’t easily dropped.
Calling themselves the Victory Storytellers, a cast of 23 servicemembers and civilians based at Camp Victory, Iraq, are putting on two nights of the popular musical “Godspell.” It’s an all-singing, all-dancing, all war-zone version of the musical first performed in New York in 1971.
The group got its start when Spc. Joe Rochelle, a chaplain’s assistant, got to Iraq and was encouraged to start a drama program as a morale booster for troops.
“I was an actor before I joined the Army and therefore this was something I was immediately excited about,” Rochelle said. “We met every Wednesday [and] after performing a few short skits and plays, [the sergeant major] suggested that we produce a musical. So here we are.”
It wasn’t quite that simple.
“Producing and directing a show anytime is a challenge — scheduling rehearsal times with non-paid actors as well as logistical needs and sponsorship,” Rochelle said. “In this setting you can multiply that by about 50. Trying to cram a show together in once-a-week rehearsals is virtually impossible. Supplies are beyond limited. Luckily, we were able to obtain sponsorship from AT&T, providing our marketing material to include T-shirts and posters.”
Members of the Roadside Theater in Heidelberg, Germany, for example, provided the script for the show.
Spc. Jared Nelson, of the 72nd Integrated Theater Signal Battalion from Mannheim, Germany, plays Jesus in “Godspell.”
“It sounded almost fictional to prepare and perform such a huge production in the time we had. But the great thing about ‘Godspell’ is that it’s designed to be performed in any creative way as long as the message is put across,” he said.
“I mean, when someone thinks of Baghdad, they think of bombings and how a loved one was deployed for a year over here. Never would they think of a musical that inspired them, or helped break up their deployment. But we are about to change that.”
Sgt. Maj. Eugene A. Zehner refers to himself as “the senior monkey in charge,” but he also uses the more conventional title of “producer.”
“Almost everything here is a major obstacle to doing anything of this magnitude,” he said. “Everything from, ‘Do we have enough people?’ to ‘Where we can put the show on at?’”
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Winston Shearin, of the Multi-National Force-Iraq command chaplain’s staff, is playing John the Baptist and Judas. His background — a degree in theater from Mars Hill College, N.C., and stage productions including “Othello” and “The Music Man” — served him well.
“[Godspell] remains fresh to audiences because it is based on fundamental issues of human struggle: good moving evil, love overcoming hate, friendship facing betrayal, and sacrifice winning all,” he said. “Our production will speak with a voice that uniquely reflects the environment in which we are staging it — a time of war.”
The two performances are scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday at the Camp Liberty Division Chapel. More information on the group can be found at www.victorystorytellers.com.