I haven’t met Andrew yet. At this point I don’t even know his name, but I’m already hearing a story that has stuck with him for years, and will probably stay even longer. He’s speaking in a dramatic monologue, but nothing about his voice or posture seems affected or rehearsed, probably because everything he’s saying really happened to him.
Andrew is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, and his monologue relates his experience spending Christmas Eve in Afghanistan. His story is part of “Voices from the Long War,” a performance consisting of a series of monologues performed by New Haven military veterans and Iraqi and Afghan refugees, orchestrated by The Telling Project — a national theater group that allows veterans to share their stories. They’ve allowed me to attend their rehearsal. The actual performances will occur on April 28 and 29, at the Yale Cabaret, but that’s about three weeks away. For now, they are just running through their monologues in a basement room at a School of Drama building on Crown Street. The space is large, but instead of partitioning it between stage and audience, the group sits in a circle, facing each other. When I walked into the room, I immediately sat in a chair in the back corner and set up my tape recorder. Quickly, the cast warmly invited me to come sit in the circle with them. Now that I’m included in their stories, being dispassionate is clearly not an option.
As Andrew’s story builds to a powerful conclusion, his fellow performers seem completely enraptured, even though they’ve no doubt heard this tale countless times in other rehearsals. Maher, an Iraqi refugee who will later tell about the struggles of cultural assimilation, comments that he felt totally engaged by Andrew’s section of the performance, and hopes that people will react similarly to his own monologue. Kevin Hourigan DRA ’17, the play’s director, who is currently pursuing his MFA in Directing at the Yale School of Drama, comments, “Stories are really powerful, that’s why we’re here.”
The other two people in the room with us are Thomas Berry GRD ’16, an M.A. candidate with the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and a veteran himself, and Ali, a veteran of the Iraqi military who participated in the effort to stabilize Iraq in the years after the war. The Telling Project had already done performances involving U.S. veterans getting up on stage and telling their stories to civilian audiences. But after getting to know members of the New Haven refugee community via an unrelated research project, Thomas had the idea to combine the stories of those veterans with the stories of refugees into a single cohesive narrative about the costs of war. After 25 hours of interviews, all of which Jonathan Wei, founder of The Telling Project, consolidated into a more structured performance before refining and workshopping them with the storytellers themselves, “Voices from the Long War” began to take shape.
Talking about his reasons for pursuing the project, Thomas explains that there are similarities between the experiences of U.S. veterans and Middle Eastern refugees. He was struck by the idea of “experiencing the search for home. A veteran coming home doesn’t really feel at home, so he or she has to search for it; and then literally, the refugees have to build an entirely new home from scratch.”
Kevin, the director, is grounded in several more traditional projects, including Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” So it isn’t hard to imagine problems posed for such a director by a project like this. How does one direct somebody on how to tell his or her own story? However, Kevin feels that his job as director is to try to help his performers find the hidden emotion and poetry within their own stories. He isn’t necessarily trying to get them to find new meanings and depths, but rather to excavate and explore the emotions that are already there beneath the surface. Considering how naturally and commandingly the monologues are delivered, he definitely seems to have succeeded.
It’s almost time for a break, and Maher is running through his monologue completely dispassionately, focusing on getting the wording exactly perfect. The disparity between the content of what he’s saying and his monotonal reading could not be more stark. It’s a strange distancing effect, reminding one of a reporter on the news reading off a teleprompter. In this moment, it’s easy to see why we can be so dispassionate when we see news reports on a school shooting or a terrorist attack in another country; the impact is less in the words than it is in their delivery.
It’s now time for the dinner break. As the rehearsal space transforms into a dining room, the mood also shifts. There is a total breakdown of any sort of hierarchy within the assembled troupe, and the director, producer and actors all seamlessly blend together. The atmosphere is one of jokes and easy camaraderie. Soon, Thomas returns with two massive tinfoil trays overflowing with Iraqi food, in addition to two (comparatively) smaller plates that hold the side dishes. One tray is filled with chicken and the other with a rice dish. The plates contain bread (to me it resembles naan) and dessert, dates with cinnamon and cream cheese. It’s an almost comically massive amount of food, considering that it’s only meant to feed five people. I reflect on how exorbitantly large the School of Drama’s catering budget must be and ask what restaurant this all came from, before Thomas explains the actual origin of the food. The production has such strong ties to the New Haven refugee community that several families volunteer to cook these meals for the rehearsals.
As the cast and crew line up for a buffet-style meal, the barriers between actors and producers feel even further broken down. While the earlier read-through was already conspicuously casual and relaxed, during this meal, there’s even less of a sense of division among roles, or even among veterans, refugees and those who fall into both categories. Hopes for the show are justifiably high. The production is still three weeks away, yet tickets for both shows are almost completely sold out. Additional seating has been added for the second showing due to excess demand. Still, any nervousness that may exist never seems to come through.
When it’s time to sit down to the meal, the conversation turns increasingly ordinary, especially when viewed in comparison to the almost surreal war stories being told only five minutes earlier. There is a discussion of American breakfast versus Iraqi breakfast (apparently it comes down to scrambled eggs versus boiled eggs). Andrew and Ali, both veterans of different countries and even different military branches, laugh about the different ways that soldiers are passive-aggressively insubordinate. Later, they talk about mutual friends. The discussion turns to an absent cast member and his case manager in such a way that suggests that everyone, from performers to social workers, inhabits the same social circle.
After this welcome break, the meal continues, but the conversation turns to practicalities. Next week, the performers will be expected to know their lines perfectly. This seems almost unnecessary to mention, since during the rehearsal, the performers made no more than one or two missteps and didn’t turn their scripts even once. The more difficult bit of business is next, and has nothing to do with acting.
The day’s most strenuous section comes when it’s time to schedule rehearsals. For next week at least, there should be only two rehearsals, but as it gets down to the wire, ideally all the performers and producers will attend. Several actors have had to miss this particular rehearsal due to prior commitments. That’s when it starts to dawn on me that this entire play is purely something extra to do for all of these performers. Each of them has a full-time job or is a full-time graduate student. In spite of this, they somehow manage to agree on a rehearsal time that at least works for all those present.
Finally, it’s time to get back to rehearsal, just a short run-through of the day’s monologues one more time. We hear a truly heart-wrenching story about Ali’s separation from his family, and Andrew’s thought-provoking views on the “hero” and “victim” statuses given to veterans and refugees, respectively. His section ends with a small joke, which Kevin suggests he should deliver in an even broader manner. The stories can be so affecting that the punch line comes as a noticeable relief. Finally, we hear Maher’s story one more time, the one I had heard earlier in the news-reader voice. Hearing it as it was meant to be recited is an entirely different experience. Its effect truly does lie in the delivery, and the knowledge that the piece is the performer’s own personal experience. It’s hard to know for sure whether there is any acting involved. Dispassion is not an option.
Correction, April 21: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Thomas Berry consolidated interviews into a single narrative; in fact, Jonathan Wei consolidated them to write “Voices from the Long War.”