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Shakespeare helps Kentucky veterans adjust to life after war

Shakespeare With Veterans is a Kentucky-based theater troupe that aims to provide "the opportunity for camaraderie and a higher sense of purpose that represents what veterans loved most during [their] military service."

COURTESY OF SHAKESPEARE WITH VETERANS

By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 22, 2016

Vietnam veteran Dan Minton was reeling from depression, nightmares and flashbacks before finding relief in Shakespeare.

While many think first of his comedy, romance and tragedy, William Shakespeare also delved into the soldier’s psyche, even the challenges of transitioning from war to peace.

So Minton, who struggled with post-traumatic stress and leaned on alcohol to deal with his demons, joined Shakespeare with Veterans, a Kentucky theater troupe that aims to provide “the opportunity for camaraderie and a higher sense of purpose that represents what veterans loved most during military service.”

Minton said performing selections by the Bard is not a miracle cure, but the fellowship, laughter and knowledge have been therapeutic and dramatically improved his life.

“I look forward to a couple of hours each week of having fun and learning things,” Minton said. “It’s more (about) fellowship, another new tribe I have been able to join. … We just have a lot of fun.”

The program, which launched in February, was born after co-founders Matt Wallace and Fred Johnson, a retired Army colonel and veteran of both Iraq wars, Afghanistan and Bosnia, began discussing Shakespeare’s plays and their connection to the military and the warrior ethos.

A seed planted

“Macbeth is a veteran,” said Wallace, who serves as the group’s artistic director. “He’s in this war at the beginning of the play. They’re praising all that he’s done as this brave leader. They say, ‘He unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops,’ and they’re talking about all of the great battle work that he did, and how does he transition when he gets into society and he continues to behave like that? So that kind of planted that seed of that veteran and that military connection.”

The troupe put on one performance in July at the annual Kentucky Shakespeare Festival at Louisville’s Central Park. They performed selections from “Henry V,” “The Merchant of Venice” and “Hamlet.” Two other performances came in early November for the Louisville mayor’s Week of Valor and at the University of Louisville, and they also walked in the Veterans Day parade with a giant Shakespeare puppet. The group plans to perform again in the Shakespeare Festival preshow next summer.

“Henry V” offers some of the greatest battle speeches in literature, said Wallace, who referenced its famous St. Crispin’s Day speech: “But we in it shall be remembered,” Shakespeare wrote. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”

The actors start out every weekly session by talking, said facilitator and mentor Amy Attaway, Kentucky Shakespeare’s associate artistic director.

“I offer an opening question, which is sometimes directly related to military service, sometimes not,” she said. “Sometimes the questions are really simple; sometimes they’re a little harder. We just talk.”

That part of the session can last up to an hour, depending on how people are feeling and how much they want to share, Attaway said. They perform basic acting warmup exercises, which can get silly, before diving into Shakespeare’s text.

The selection usually relates to warfare but not always. Shylock’s speech from “The Merchant of Venice” really resonated with the group, especially the line, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” It led to discussions on what they learned in their military service and how that impacted their transition into civilian life.

In a short time, the program from Kentucky Shakespeare has added offerings, and they want to help more vets. Organizers hope others around the country come up with similarly creative ways to serve veterans.

Kentucky Shakespeare, which hosts the program, is a nonprofit professional theater designated the “Official Shakespeare Company of the Commonwealth,” according to its website. It was founded in 1949 and brings Shakespeare’s works to 80,000 Kentuckians annually.

The seeds for Shakespeare with Veterans were planted about a year before its formation, Wallace said.

In 2015, he was directing a rendition of “Macbeth” when he met Johnson. They began discussing Macbeth and Shakespeare’s connection to the military, then focused on launching a theater program for veterans.

“Fred is the most engaged and motivated individual in the world. It took off running,” Wallace said.

They knew it would take the right type of people to facilitate such a program, Wallace said. They held training workshops and focused on conflict resolution and empathy building.

They approached the Louisville Vet Center and Athena’s Sisters, a women’s veteran service organization, for participation. The Vet Center allowed the group to hold weekly meetings there; Johnson handled the fundraising.

Beyond performance

The program gathered veterans from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, submariners to soldiers, sergeants to brigadier generals, those with physical and mental wounds, as well as those looking to be around fellow veterans and have some fun. It is 100 percent funded through donations and is free to participants.

Donors have included former Army Gen. David Petraeus, Wallace said.

The inaugural group of veterans featured five women and eight men. They expect it to grow to more than 20 through the end of the year.

“It’s therapeutic, you know, the healing power of the arts,” Wallace said. “But it’s not therapy.”

Attaway said the performances are great, but their goals stretch beyond performance. They are becoming a band of brothers — and sisters.

“I just jumped in and went and met some of the closest friends I have right now,” said Cassie Boblitt, a former soldier and Iraq War veteran who has PTSD. “It’s really the kind of people you can lean on or talk to about anything. … It’s been great. I love it.”

Rob Givens, a former brigadier general, said Johnson contacted him to help get the word out. Johnson didn’t realize Givens was going through the same issues as everyone else and wanted to join the group. Givens flew more than 100 combat missions in his career, which began when he was commissioned in 1986, he said.

“I dropped an awful lot of bombs on a lot of people,” he said. “That gets to you after a little bit.”

Givens said he likes being able to relax, be himself and ask and answer questions about his service.

“Everybody that’s in uniform today is going to be out of uniform sometime in the future. Hopefully, they’ll see their brothers and sisters, just like them, that are doing other things out there with their lives today, and they’ll be able to do that someday, too.”

burke.matt@stripes.com
 

Air Force veteran Marcus Murray, front center, performs a selection from a Shakespeare play at Louisville's Central Park in July. He is flanked by fellow veterans Brian Easley, Shakespeare With Veterans co-founder Fred Johnson, back center, and Rob Givens.
COURTESY OF SHAKESPEARE WITH VETERANS

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