Peace, Love, and Post-Traumatic Growth with the Combat Hippies

This week, HowlRound is partnering with New England Foundation for the Arts in advance of our conveningArt in the Service of Understanding: Bridging Artists, Military, Veterans, and Civilian Communities March 10—12. This convening was inspired by artists who created five new performance works with their collaborators in the military, healthcare and presenter communities, funded by NEFA’s National Dance and Theater Projects. This series asks: How can artists most effectively build relationships of trust as they engage in this work? What do military service members and veterans need to know to encourage them to work with artists? What do artists need to know about trauma in working with military and veterans’ communities?

Teo Castellanos introduced us to Anthony Torres and the Combat Hippies and I had the pleasure of spending time with them recently at a veterans’ arts festival in Florida organized by Art2Action.—Jane Preston, NEFA.

screen and actors on stage
Combat Hippies 2016 TEDxCoconutGrove performance at Random Everglades School in Miami, Florida. Photo by Travis Harris photography.

In the fall of 2014 I received an email from Kathryn Garcia, director of Miami Dade College’s MDC Live Arts department. She contacted me with an opportunity to assist MDC Live Arts with starting a creative writing workshop for local veterans. At the time I was working at the Miami VA Medical Center, where I had hosted a veterans open mic earlier that year. Her department was seeking a veteran to help them create, promote, and recruit for the workshop. The four month long project was to culminate with an informal reading at the Betsy Hotel on Ocean Drive in South Beach. I agreed on the spot to participate in the project and began recruitment immediately.

As the start date for the workshop drew near, my list of nearly two dozen veterans dwindled down to four, including myself. Two of the participants, Hipolito Arriaga and Andrew Cuthbert, were Marine Corps veterans who had expressed an interest in poetry. The third participant was my cousin, Allen Minor, an Army veteran, who had been writing since his early teens. I was initially disappointed at the low number of veterans committed to the workshop. How naïve of me to think I could assemble twelve to fifteen veterans willing to meet every Saturday morning to write poetry for an entire spring. There was no precedent for this, at least not in South Florida. Nonetheless, we went forward with the workshop.

He then proposed we use this workshop as an opportunity to create a theatrical performance…For a split second, I felt the same way I did when I arrived in Fort Benning, Georgia for basic training: “I didn’t sign up for this!” But I began to realize that I could use my story to engage the community in discussions about trauma and healing, advocate for mental health issues, and empower others to explore growth through creative expression.

Our facilitator was Fringe First Award-winning actor, director, and playwright Teo Castellanos. We were completely unfamiliar with Teo’s reputation in the theatre community, let alone his world-renowned theatre/dance company, D-Projects. Hell, I didn’t even know what a Fringe First Award was. As we began the workshop, I remember how much time we spent sharing stories. We immediately bonded over discussions about being raised in single-parent households, living in poverty, and growing up surrounded by drugs and violence. We each joined the military for a better life and a way out of our circumstances. As we learned about Teo’s work in examining social issues through theatre performance, we began to have a clearer picture of the stories we wanted to explore. We agreed that our combat experiences in the Iraq War were pivotal and life changing, but our lives were more than war stories. I noticed how much we had in common. We each experienced pain, grief, and loss throughout our lives. We also shared a common interest in community service and volunteer work. We actively pursued ways to find peace through yoga, meditation, and creative writing. We bonded not only in shared suffering and adversity, but also in shared resiliency and growth.

three actors in a war scene
Combat Hippies 2016 TEDxCoconutGrove performance at Random Everglades School in Miami, Florida. Photo by Travis Harris photography.

Teo educated us on the shamans and griots of ancient cultures. He spoke about the vital role storytellers, theatre, and art play in our society: how they raise awareness of cultural issues and are a catalyst for change, and how they help us make sense of the world. He then proposed we use this workshop as an opportunity to create a theatrical performance. He explained that we had the opportunity to involve audiences in a more engaging, visceral experience. For a split second, I felt the same way I did when I arrived in Fort Benning, Georgia for basic training: “I didn’t sign up for this!” But I began to realize that I could use my story to engage the community in discussions about trauma and healing, advocate for mental health issues, and empower others to explore growth through creative expression.

It has been two years since our performance at the Betsy Hotel. We have gone on to perform at several local colleges and universities, and each show is more exciting than the last. Every performance is an opportunity to be my most raw, authentic self. The experiences I once held so close to my heart are released and no longer have the power over me they once had. This work has been a personal exercise in radical self-acceptance. It is my hope that our work informs and inspires others to bridge the gap of understanding that exists between veterans and the general public. We will continue to contribute to the dialogue about suicide and posttraumatic stress, fighting stigma by coming together and openly exploring and discussing these issues. We embrace the positive and negative experiences, the pleasant and unpleasant memories, the good and the bad times. Embracing the totality of our life experiences makes us who are. This is Post-Traumatic Growth.

man giving a speech
Anthony Torres. Photo by Teajay Smith.

I would like to encourage the theatre community to continue to support varying perspectives and culturally-inclusive work. It allows for a deeper understanding of our collective conscience. Theatre is a fundamental component of understanding both the world and ourselves. It ignites conversation and fosters healing. It gives everyone an opportunity to find commonalities. It is our responsibility as change-makers to not only raise awareness through art, but to also to fight stigmas, prejudice, and ignorance. We have the power to break down barriers and contribute positively to the social and cultural narrative of our country, especially at this politically tumultuous time.

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Thoughts from the curator

This series explores the intersection between art and military service.

Art in the Service of Understanding

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Yes to that last paragraph. Too often, especially now, those on the left/liberal side of things as many of us are in the arts...are not bridge builders, but entrenchers...and it is not always helpful, and often misses out on important insights.

Thanks for this article and for this important work.