A stage for veterans’ stories

Profile's "Elliot" trilogy tells the tale of a soldier's difficult return. On the same stage Monday, real-life vets' own stories will be told.

By SEAN DAVIS

What do an 82nd Airborne infantry Afghanistan War veteran and an Ivy League educated, Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist have in common? Both have works being featured onstage by Profile Theatre over Veterans’ Day weekend. In fact, multiple veterans and veterans’ family members will have their words read on stage by professional actors on Monday, Nov. 13. And Profile Theatre is producing two award-winning plays by Quiara Alegría Hudes and holding an exclusive speaking event with the playwright herself on Nov. 18. This is the culmination of an eight-month collaboration among Profile, the Writers Guild Initiative, and several veterans’ groups around Portland.

Cast of “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue,” which began Profile’s “Elliot” trilogy in February: Cristi Miles, Anthony Lam, Jimmy Garcia, Anthony Green. Photo: David Kinder

As the focus of its 2017 season, Profile presented Quiara Alegría Hudes’ award-winning “Elliot” Trilogy: Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, the Pulitzer Prize winning Water By The Spoonful, and The Happiest Song Plays Last. The Elliot in the “Elliot Trilogy” is a Marine combat veteran who survived his soul-wrenching experiences at war and tries to integrate back into the society he left. The plays are also about how both physical and mental injuries suffered in combat can echo through the generations, and how families are affected by the trauma.

In February of this year, Profile  performed Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue and the company’s new artistic director, Josh Hecht, reached out to the veteran community in Portland for their involvement. With a deep belief that theater is a place to create and encourage community conversations, Josh made sure veterans had a voice in this conversation. One of the places he called was the American Legion Post 134, where I was the commander at the time. I had helped out with a large opera production a year before and had experience working with stage productions. Josh asked if I would consider being one of their community partners and the military advisor for the play.

Profile Artistic Director Josh Hecht (left) with actor Anthony Green (center) and 82nd Airborne and Afghanistan War veteran Jake Meeks.

I jumped at the chance because I knew from experience that art has the potential to help veterans who may be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress. A car bomb in Taji, Iraq, cut my tour short and sent me home on a stretcher. Wracked with survivor’s guilt, anger issues, recurring nightmares, and broken emotions, I fell into a deep depression. Art is what saved me, and since then, I’ve tried to help other veterans by introducing them to painting, poetry, writing, operas, stage plays, and more.

It was important to Josh that I invited local veterans of all races, ages, genders, and socio-economic backgrounds to come speak before the plays and to take part in the monthly writing program. As an added bonus to veterans, Profile partnered with the Writers Guild Initiative and created a monthly writing program for veterans and their family members, a program that started with an intensive two day writing event in February and will end this Veterans Day weekend with a second weekend writing event as well as the performance of the veterans’ stories on stage.

From left: Purple Heart recipients and Iraq War veterans Sean Davis and Kevin Pannel; veteran Amelia McDanel; five-tour veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan Matthew Lawasco; two-tour Vietnam veteran Joe Cantrell.

In the months between the writing events, Profile hosted a monthly writing group. To help teach and mentor the veterans, many of whom had never attempted to write before, award-winning writers from the local area and across the country were brought in to work with veterans. This service was free for the veterans and their family members, and soon it consisted of people like Iraq War veteran Damon Faust, who won the Soldier’s Medal for bravery by saving Iraqis from a burning building; two-tour Vietnam War veteran Joe Cantrell; Amelia McDanel, who actively protected the Eastern Seaboard during the attacks on September 11, 2001; and other veterans. The group also brought in people like Sally Lehman, who has a daughter serving in the US Army, and Jana Mowreader, who came in hopes to better understand a brother who served in Vietnam.

Duffy Epstein (left), Julana Torres and Akari Anderson in Profile’s “Water by the Spoonful.” Photo: David Kinder

Each month the group members were given the opportunity to participate in craft talks or workshops. Vietnam, Iraq, Cold War, and Afghanistan veterans wrote and shared their stories along with the mothers, brothers, and sisters of veterans who had served in multiple wars. This created a beautiful dialogue that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. As the months passed, some dropped out, new people joined, but always a core group remained. Writing mentors were available in person and remotely over email, and over the months, members worked on telling their stories and bringing out their voices.

One of the voices who will be heard is 82nd Airborne and Afghanistan War combat veteran Jake Meeks. After four years in the military and a tour in Afghanistan, Mr. Meeks went to school and received a bachelor degree in Business: Supply and Logistics and a masters degree in public administration. After graduating from Portland State University, he joined Mercy Corps. Of the seven years he served in aide work, he spent six overseas in South Sudan, Jordan, and Lebanon, with short stints in Guatemala and Libya. Now he’s come back and knows he has a story to tell. He found the perfect outlet in the monthly writing group. “The writing group at Profile Theater was amazing,” Jake says. “It was good to be around people with similar experiences and needs to express. The group moderators were all professional and kept the sessions interesting. I’m very excited to see my work acted out on stage.”

The veterans project, taking time to tell the stories and get them written down. From left: Jake Meeks, Jared Johnson, Amelia McDanel, Sean Davis.

Over Veterans Day weekend the eight-month-long project will reach a peak, including the two Elliot plays in performance; a final two-day writing festival with veterans, the Writers Guild Initiative and mentors; and Monday evening’s performances of the veterans’ tales. On Artists Rep’s Alder Stage – the same stage where Profile’s rotating repertory of Hudes’ Elliot plays is being performed – Aiyana Cunningham will direct professional actors Don Alder, Francisco Garcia, Quigley Provost-Landrum, Joellen Sweeney, and Amy Dreisler in staged-reading performances of the group’s own stories – Meeks’s, mine, and those of David Marshall, Jana Mowreader, Sigrid Casey, and Kat Altair.

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Sean Davis is a Purple Heart recipient and Iraq War veteran. He’s also a published author and teacher.

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  • A staged reading of Profile Theatre’s veterans’ stories project will be at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 13, on the Alder Stage at Artists Repertory Theatre. The event is free but requires online reservations, here.
  • Profile’s rotating-repertory productions of Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last continue on Artists Rep’s Alder Stage through Nov. 19. Ticket and schedule information here.
  • Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes appears in conversation with Profile artistic director Josh Hecht on Saturday, Nov. 18. Ticket information here.
  • Read Profile doubles the impact, DeAnn Welker’s Oregon ArtsWatch review of Profile’s Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last.

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