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Will & War

Shakespeare Through the Lens of a Military Veteran

This series examines Shakespeare from a military veteran's perspective and offers a new angle on Shakespeare's text and characters, while delving deep into the challenges facing American theater and society.

Part One: Cry "Havoc!" And Then Shut Up

I was in a rehearsal room with Twyla Tharp. An epic moment in my creative life, in my career, but it wasn't going well. I had been working with her dancers for days, teaching dancers basic military training. In particular, how to stand at the position of "attention," and to march as a soldier. However, the dancers would constantly default to standing as dancers, a noticeable difference. While the body parts are in roughly the same locations in both the military position of attention and a dancer's first position, the details differ vastly, even to the untrained eye.

Struggling, I resorted to true basic training style tactics. I summoned up my inner drill sergeant and gave them authentic basic training, breaking them down in hopes of building them back up into the military's image. After days of drilling, many would still default back into a dancer's stance instead of a proper military position of attention. And to say that the marching, by most, was less than believable would be a Christ-like act of kindness. Enraged, I wondered, "Why can't they just hit the on-off switch? Why can't they just turn off the dancer and turn on the military guy, and vice-versa?" And that's when it all hit me. There is no "on-off switch"! Something is either in the body, or it's not.

These dancers have been trained for years. Many had been trained since childhood, on how to stand, walk, move and to "be" a dancer. Now here I am, asking them to ignore training which had become more than routine for them, more than just habit, but what had now become their body's autonomic response. I was attempting to replace years of dancer training with a few days of military training. And then I really got it. I realized we are asking over twenty-three million military veterans in this country to hit their "off-switch." As a military veteran who has battled PTSD, addiction, homelessness, violence, and has been suicidal, I know firsthand that there is no "off-switch." 

I joined the Army in the 1980s for many of the same reasons as my comrades: I was too poor and unmotivated for college, I wanted out of my hometown and circumstances, and I craved self-esteem and self-reliance and I love my country. So I enlisted as a medic and later became an officer in the Infantry, and was also Airborne and Air Assault.

But I left the Army after seeing Shakespeare's Richard III to attend graduate school at Trinity Rep in Rhode Island and that's where I began to first realize that I had problems. After nearly seven years of training, I left the army, and inexplicably, I struggled with the transition back into civilian life. Unlike my classmates, loud noises, the sound of helicopters, nightmares, and certain smells set me off into a "berserker" state. I walked around looking for the "threat," and could usually find one... or create one. Insomnia and alcohol consumption were the norm.

For twenty years I have been continually asked: "Were you in combat?" and "Did you kill anyone?" Both questions are irrelevant. The fact is that I, and all of my fellow veterans, were trained for combat, and trained day and night for years to kill people. Whatever "natural human instincts" we had before the military were replaced. "Fight or flight" was transformed into a hardwired, autonomic response of "reacting to a threat with violence." Twenty-three million of us are literally rewired, conditioned for war. But, at the end of our military service, we are not re-rewired for society. Twyla Tharp's dancers showed me that we veterans are not deconditioned from our training. And the results are catastrophic.

Twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day. That's one every hour and nine minutes. One in four of the homeless people in America is a veteran. Fifty percent of Vietnam Veterans committed two to three criminally violent acts within one year of their return from combat.

The catastrophes aren't from one particular sub-group, era, or age-range of Veterans. A friend of mine was a refrigeration repair specialist on a navy ship. He maintained the cooling of the Tomahawk missile tubes during launch throughout Gulf War I. He never pulled the trigger directly at another human being. But the military conditioning of responding to a threat with violence along with the knowledge that the missiles he helped to launch killed people has kept him in a losing battle with PTSD for two decades.

When I entered the military I had a recruiter. My recruiter prepared me for military service. He drove me where I needed to go, helped me with my paperwork, assisted with every aspect of preparing me for military service. But when my military service was over, where was my de-cruiter?

Where was the person who could prepare me for life after the military? Where was the person to help me leave the training behind, to transition my skills to civilian jobs, to help me connect with the resources (such as the VA, VSOs, etc.) that I didn't know I needed or know how to access? Where was any help?

The only reason that I am alive, sober, and surviving is because I have community and the performing arts. The performing arts community offers the perfect setting to share my story without being judged or condemned. The performing arts have kept me from being yet another veteran statistic. By examining and acting Shakespeare through my veteran lens I was able to understand what happened to me. To better understand my experiences. And by applying classical actor training into my everyday life, I have built new habits to replace my military conditioning.

For nearly two decades, Shakespeare has been my de-cruiter.

And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.
(Hamlet 5.2)










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Thoughts from the curator

This series examines Shakespeare from a military veteran's perspective and offers a new angle on Shakespeare's text and characters, while delving deep into the challenges facing American theatre and society.

Shakespeare Through the Lens of a Military Veteran


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Thank you for talking about your experience. My husband and I work in theatre and he is also, currently, deployed as a Army National Guardsman. I very much appreciate you starting this conversation.

One of many drawbacks in maintaining a professional (volunteer) Army, instead of one drafted from EVERY walk of American life.

Your perspective makes your Shakespeare work relevant and compelling. So glad to see this series on HowlRound. Can't wait for next installment!

Terrific article, Stephan, and a great beginning to the series. I can't wait to read the next installments. I've missed those stimulating greenroom bullsessions with you at Trinity.

"Bill Dam"

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