By the grace of a good friend, I was given the chance to be part of the most extraordinary event. Arts, Military + Healing was a festival held here in DC for one intense week of workshops in various forms of art, exhibitions, talks, and performances, all focused on finding ways to heal the trauma and other wounds of war through art.  Preparing for this week was a massive scramble: for the festival organizers, it was a new form of X Games – extreme fundraising, accompanied by extreme logistical gymnastics and no-sleep-till-Corcoran installations and PR and more. My tiny part in all this was hectic in its own ways – finding actors to bring marvelous roles to brief life with little to no time for rehearsal – and juggling work schedules and other gigs to find that magic window when everyone could be in the same room together, and then making sure the room was free. And miraculously, it all came together and rough rehearsals turned into onstage magic. This was especially true of the Telling Project’s marvelous monologists – six veterans who took one week’s time to craft and learn their own stories and perform them beautifully off-book and with impeccable choreography – astonishing considering they had one week for a process the project typically devotes two to three months to. The play excerpt I was directing, of Kate Wenner’s powerful play Make Sure It’s Me, was meant to precede this in the closing event of the festival – and Kate and I were lucky enough to get to sit in on their Thursday morning rehearsal, before going to meet with the actors for our own rehearsal.  The spaces in which these veterans were preparing were gorgeous reading rooms in the Library of Congress – with massive windows that looked onto the Capitol. We were all in awe of our surroundings.  Each of our journeys to that moment and place would have made a hell of a story.

The performance space was also monumental – a chamber music hall in the ground floor of the Jefferson Building – with beautiful and strange acoustics that would pose some tricky challenges for the actors. I’d get caught up in the logistics and nerves and anxiety of pulling off the mechanics of the play, but then knocked on my ear by the emotional intensity of the stories and experiences being shared. Thursday night’s exhibit and screening at the Corcoran Gallery was narrative, like the plays, but used the art forms of film and illustration and papermaking to show us their veterans’ stories.

I was struck by something said by Kate, the playwright, said in her introductory remarks. She said that the festival shows not only art’s potential to heal those who directly suffer the wounds of war, but also to heal the communities in which they live.  I agree with her when she says that there is an uncomfortable and possibly untenable divide between our military and civilian lives. In the case of those veterans returning from service, there is a need to bridge these divides between everyone’s experiences of war, whether it’s families of soldiers, survivors of combat, soldiers who do not see combat, or those who have no personal connection to veterans or military service.

I have spent much of my adult life protesting the “inevitable” wars waged by this country, and trying to keep that hatred of war and its justifications, its exploitations and consequences, from leading to my demonizing or sanctifying soldiers.  This festival brought home to me how many of those most deeply involved in military service are struggling with similar internal conflicts as well as with others’ perceptions of them.  Last year, I organized a campus visit to Dickinson by a playwright who so movingly and unflinchingly confronts exactly these struggles, and does so through her adaptations of Greek tragedies to contemporary, or more recent historical, contexts.  Ellen McLaughlin’s play Ajax in Iraq houses this internal struggle in the mind of a US soldier in Iraq, a female soldier whose betrayal by her commanding officer triggers the tragedy.  Other plays take up the stories of Helen, Iphigenia, Electra – female characters whose lives are defined in many way by war.  Recently, she was interviewed by David Dower for Howlround, who mentions how her work focuses on veterans (including a recent adaptation of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway that I’ve not read, called Septimus and Clarissa and recently performed in New York):

It’s long, but worth it. It conjured and expanded on some of the compelling readings of her own work that she provided, and all that flowed out of her questions, the students’ questions, her responses, and our conversations.

Oh, and I’m not sure I understand the plus (+) in the festival title. I think it had something to do with the different communities involved in the festival – artists, veterans, and healers/therapists. It wasn’t quite that simple, though, as there were veteran artists, and art therapists, and doctors who were vets – and it all came together so beautifully.