Artists and Otherwise

What Working With Veterans Has Taught Me About What Artists Have to Offer

I was recently invited to talk to a group of students about my work with the Telling Project, which assists veterans and their family members around the country identify and shape their stories of life in and around the military, and then perform them for their communities. The main question posed to me was about how I, as an artist, had managed to build a successful program that worked with non-artists to make substantive art. I knew I had created something with the project that many non-artists find compelling and meaningful, but I had to think hard about why that is.

The main work we do at the Telling Project is scripting. After having identified a group of individuals—veterans and military family members—in a community who are interested in participating in the creation of a theatrical storytelling event, we sit down with them one by one and interview them about their experiences in and around the military. Everything is recorded, and each interview is then transcribed. Once that’s done, we use excerpts from all the interviews to compose a three-act script draft. We then hand this draft back to the participants and ask them to tell us where we got their “parts” wrong and how we can fix whatever needs fixing. A collaborative revision process follows, and eventually we land on a document that is accepted by all.

an actor kneeling onstage before four seated actors

Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 2011

This work involves employing a number of artistic sensibilities. Most obviously, there’s the creation of the narrative, which includes gathering material, identifying moments of significance and the dramatic climax, and structuring all elements in relation to one another so that they are meaningful and powerful. Just as important is listening to, identifying, and representing the language particular to each individual, including cadence, tone, syntax, idiom, and vocabulary. We also pay attention to how the individual positions themselves at any given moment in relation to their experience: is it through images, elision, abstraction, physicality? And, of course, we are valuing the emotion being expressed—when and how it is presented. In all of this, we are examining how the person telling the story is being themselves and thinking about how we can support them doing so on stage.

We are using our decades of training as artists to translate the experiences of veterans and their families into narratives, and then to translate the narratives into performances. Another way to put it is that we are helping these folks with meaning. We listen, echo, and revise their words into a script, and then we watch, sculpt, and support their physical presentation into a performance. We use the sensibilities we have cultivated as artists to assist these people in their search for, and expression of, meaning.

Our job as artists working with the Telling Project is to take a mass of indeterminate data—experience, reflection, emotion, form, movement, sound—and turn it into stories and performance.

This is what artists do. Artists are expected to plumb the depths of their own soul, and, if lucky, offer work that is relevant, or at least relevant enough, to the broader society. Works that involve non-artists in the creative process, and/or have the intent of reaching an nontraditional arts audience—perhaps high school students, a specific cultural community, military families, or even a particular town in New Hampshire—are less taught, less often viewed as art, and often not taken as seriously.

There are a few notable exceptions, such as the work of Augusto Boal, who developed theatre of the oppressed. This form, however, while included widely in syllabi and considered an important movement, holds an anomalous and esoteric status in contemporary theatre, at least in America. While immersive, devised, audience-engaged performance is having an upsurge in the United States in the last decade or so, this has largely been confined to either the academy or to cities with established audiences for experimental theatre. Literary self-publishing, online music accessibility, Youtube and other video hosting sites, all have contributed to a broadening of platforms and, as a result, audiences, but have had little impact on the conception of the artist as creator and audience as consumer.

an actor kneeling in a spotlight

Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, MN, 2014

The centrality of the artist’s charismatic ego to the definition of contemporary art is, and I say this with full conviction, notable. I’m not sure what else it is. It seems that there may be limitations as regards the role and relevance of the artist in society at large in this conception, and that these limitations are a liability both for the artist and their society. It seems that the often-cited isolation of the artist, the degree to which validation and recognition are reserved for a very few celebrated of our ranks, the devaluation of the necessity of the artist, and even the cliché designation of the artist as weird, all are potentially explained by this relegation. It seems that this designation isolates artists from their communities, and communities from their artists, and makes both more vulnerable to the ulteriority of a market as regards the creation and reception of art.

If we at the Telling Project are to believe the vast majority of the people we work with, the skills and sensibilities we as artists bring to the table—the interviews and pulling out story lines, the honing of language and expressive gesture made by the individuals and the collective, the integration of narratives to make several stories part of a single script—are quite powerful. It is rare that people are given the opportunity to speak fully about themselves. It is rarer still that they get to have what they say, what they believe, what they feel, and what they express reflected back to themselves by someone invested in, and trained to, support their efforts to express themselves.

Artists pay attention—this is what makes our work valuable to non-artists. We pay attention to the color of the air, the smell of sleep, the sound of stone, and at our best, we do so precisely and rigorously.

Our job as artists working with the Telling Project is to take a mass of indeterminate data—experience, reflection, emotion, form, movement, sound—and turn it into stories and performance. We help people find meaning in chaos, and then afford them the opportunity to share that meaning. This is nearly universally a tremendously powerful experience for our participants. For some, it is transformative. And for our audiences, if our survey data (and anecdotal observation) is indicative, the same holds true.

Eureka! This is how my work as an artist is valuable to non-artists: by turning it outward, offering it to others. I am pointing out what seems obvious. The problem for us as artists, however, is that it isn’t obvious. We are—or perhaps just I was—so inculcated into the notion of the artist as the pursuer and expressor of their own inner selves that we forget that we actually are trained in specific skills that have broad applications, whether that’s understanding the way in which color or pitch or form conveys meaning, or fine-tuned internal structuring principles that drive our linguistic impulses toward narrative. We are expert at perceiving the human, at distilling it, and presenting it in refined form.

two actors onstage

Portland Center for the Performing Arts, Portland, OR, 2014

This both is and is not commonplace. The attempt to do so is universal, I would argue, and pursued by humans on a moment-to-moment basis. Right after food, shelter, and sleep, humans are trying to understand and express themselves. Specialized skills in this pursuit, however, are the artists’ stock and trade. These are the tools we have cultivated.

I urge all artists to take some time to think in precise terms about what it is that you are doing: the activities, in the pursuit of your work, you are engaging in; what constitutes your creative regimen. In breaking down your process in this way, you might discover you are doing something that has value in addition to the works that are, to date, the end result.    

Artists pay attention—this is what makes our work valuable to non-artists. We pay attention to the color of the air, the smell of sleep, the sound of stone, and at our best, we do so precisely and rigorously. This makes us weird. In the gentle re-conception to which my work with military veterans and military family members has subjected me, I’ve learned that this is also what makes us relevant.

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