The men and women who flock to the South Providence Library each Wednesday evening for Maurice Decaul’s GS class have fought in wars spanning the past half-century. They have been Army nurses in Vietnam, Navy sailors in the first Gulf War and Marine soldiers during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
But Wednesday evenings, they are all Decaul’s students, learning the intricacies of playwriting through the Theatre Communications Group’s new Veterans and Theatre Institute Program.
The program is the latest in Decaul’s long, winding list of creative endeavors, which began with a bachelor’s in creative writing at Columbia in 2012 and has culminated with his pursuing a master’s in fine arts in playwriting at Brown.
It is the resume of a writing aficionado, peppered with pieces in the New York Times and Newsweek. But during his five years as a Marine, writing occupied a different domain, far removed from the world of combat. Brought up in a family of pragmatists, he deemed prose impractical, a contradiction to his upbringing in a family that only read “things that are factual.”
“My father, he bought the encyclopedia, so we read that,” he said. Writing for writing’s sake felt fruitless.
But in his first year out of the military, writing became a lifeline. After returning to the United States from Iraq, Decaul’s military unit split. “The community really broke down,” he said. Isolated from his fellow soldiers, Decaul’s war experience was left unprocessed and unverbalized.
Despite fearing it was a poor use of time, Decaul enrolled in a creative writing workshop for veterans hosted at New York University. Surrounded by veterans from the Afghanistan, Iraq and Korean wars, Decaul found the words for his wartime experience.
“I had never thought about the war,” Decaul said. But suddenly, “it was all about the war.”
Sensing the power prose could have over veterans, Decaul created a similar workshop at Columbia. Now, as the Theatre Communications Group’s first artist-in-residence, the essays are becoming plays, as he brings a new adaptation of the workshop to Providence, focused exclusively on theater.
Playwriting in Providence
The goal of VTI is simple: create demand for theater in a community that often feels estranged from it. For Decaul, this means getting veterans’ fingerprints on all aspects of the playhouse.
For students interested in playwriting, Decaul assigns readings, which students then reinterpret through pieces of their own. Though the veterans are free to write about anything, many feel the military experience is “the story that feels most urgent to tell,” said Anne Flammang, a Coast Guard retiree who has been with the class since its inception. With modern combat at the forefront of the playwrights’ minds, the classics are revamped, and ancient Greece becomes Afghanistan, Ajax morphs into the commanding officer, and the chorus gets filled with junior marines.
For veterans less interested in reinterpreting the canon, VTI hopes to teach the technical aspects of play production. “I’m of the mind that if the Marine Corps has taught you how to build a bridge, … we can teach you how to build a set,” Decaul said. Down the road, he sees gunnery sergeants molded into stage managers, parsing their motivational skills onto a new target. “That’s the mission: getting the play staged and getting to opening night,” Decaul said. “We’ll teach them not to yell at the actors.”
Decaul’s course is the first in what he hopes will be series of veteran theater initiatives, each taking root in a city densely populated with veteran and active military personnel. In three months, VTI’s North Carolina program will begin in Fayetteville, North Carolina, directly to the east of Fort Bragg, the largest military base in the world by population. Around the same time, VTI will branch into the La Jolla Playhouse on the University of California’s campus in San Diego — a city where veterans constitute one-tenth of the residents.
Compared to cities like Fayetteville and San Diego, Providence’s military population is minuscule. According to the latest census, the entire state of Rhode Island holds a little over 70,000 veterans, only slightly more than the military personnel on Fort Bragg alone. But Decaul said he doesn’t need hundreds of thousands of veterans. He needs 10.
“It’s about social support,” Decaul said. “We’re actually building something in the size of a squad again.”
VTI is not intended to be therapeutic. “I’m not a therapist,” Decaul said, and creating a healing space for veterans “wasn’t the idea or the intent” of the initiative. Yet after monitoring the group for four months, he now believes the program has the potential to address issues involving post-traumatic stress disorder.
When a community of men and women who have seen combat come together week after week, “there’s trust in the room,” he said.
This intimate military community appealed to Jonathan Hagedorn ’19, the program’s only Brown undergraduate. After spending three and a half years in Afghanistan as a Marine, Hagedorn enrolled at Brown and quickly found himself immersed in the arts, performing in productions by Brown Motion Pictures and the Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies. But despite feeling welcomed by Brown’s theater community, Hagedorn said he still found himself monitoring his work when writing for an audience that hadn’t seen combat. Decaul’s course was an opportunity to continue pursuing creative writing sans censorship.
“There’s definitely an aggressive Marine version of myself that I kind of try and reign in when I’m around people that weren’t in the military,” he said. In the room of veterans provided by Decaul, his “Marine voice” finds an audience.
Veterans and thespians
It’s easy to reduce veterans and theater to two different domains, one rigid and regulated, the other free-flowing and expressive. But some veterans see this divide slowly crumbling.
“There’s definitely a movement nationwide for artistic events for veterans,” said Katherine McNeil, the program director for the Office of Student Veterans and Commissioning Programs.
With theater performances popping up at military bases through actor Adam Driver’s Arts in the Armed Forces initiative and the VTI’s new pilot programs, Hagedorn, too, sees the buildup of a “huge form of expression that (veterans) just never had before.”
But at Brown, home to only 12 undergraduate veterans, Hagedorn fears effectively meshing the theater and veteran communities may take longer. They’re “two completely different worlds,” Hagedorn said. “I feel like I’m part of a very large community just in the theater community, … and I’m the only veteran they know here on campus.” Meanwhile, among Brown’s small veteran population, he’s noticed less interest in the arts and more of an emphasis on politics and international relations.
But as Brown’s body of student veterans expands past a dozen members, the collision between the worlds of veterans and the arts should happen naturally, he said.
Until then, Hagedorn is pleased to have the VTI program bridge the gap. “The experience is incredible,” he said. “There’s no other real outlet for this.”