The War Within Us 

Bringing Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble's play cycle about Iraq and Afghanistan to the stage

Thursday, Aug 26 2010

If anybody told Tom Burmester that some of the biggest bombs to come out of the war in Iraq were the movies and plays about our involvements there, he wasn't listening, or didn't care. Burmester entered the Directing MFA program at UCLA shortly after 9/11 and says the U.S. invasion of Iraq overshadowed his graduate school experience.

"My first year was entirely clouded by emotional reactions to the war," Burmester explains. During his studies, he befriended peers at UCLA — actors, directors and designers — some of whom joined him in forming a theater company after his graduation, in 2004. They named it the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, and Burmester remains its artistic director. Although the company has presented many plays on topics far removed from recent U.S. military engagements, reacting to the wars in a cycle of plays became its raison d'être.

The goal was to do a play about Iraq for every year we had soldiers there. Although the company hasn't maintained that pace, it has over the past five years come up with a trilogy of works about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

click to flip through (4) PHOTO BY MELISSA SNYDER AND JEREMY ROUSH OF VIBBLE - Gospel According to the First Squad makes its debut.
  • Gospel According to the First Squad makes its debut.

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LATE calls this trilogy The War Cycle, and the three plays are now in repertory at the company's home, the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica. On September 11, all three plays will be performed in sequence.

"The paradox of The War Cycle is that people don't really want to spend time and money going to a play about these wars, because they are mostly tired of thinking about them," Burmester says. "Which is exactly why we started the project in the first place. It may not seem like a commercially intelligent thing to do, but we didn't initiate this project to make a huge profit."

Two of the three plays in the Cycle have been performed before. A 60-minute version of Wounded, which concerns soldiers coming home with life-changing physical and psychological trauma, was presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2005, then completely revamped and expanded for a 2007 production at the Powerhouse. Nation of Two, a comparatively domestic drama that studies the grieving processes of families that lose relatives in war, was presented at the Powerhouse last year in slightly different form, under the title Survived. The third and newest piece, Gospel According to the First Squad, set in 2009 in a deadly Afghanistan valley where U.S. troops are subjected to sequences of firefights, is debuting as a workshop production.

"Wounded is like the documentary," says actor Trevor Algatt, who's been with the company almost from the beginning. "Nation of Two is the family drama, and Gospel is like the commercial movie with all the action."

Although the plays are written by Burmester, who's also had a directing hand in all of them, Wounded was heavily shaped by the originating ensemble, whose players are credited as co-creators. As the sequence of plays unfolded, the process became less and less collaborative, as Burmester transitioned from being the editor of interview transcripts and dialogues improvised by the actors to a traditional playwright. He's taken an increasingly strong authorial hand because of the nature of the plays themselves, and the expedience of bringing an ambitious swirl of ideas onto the stage in a cogent form.

In the spring of 2005, shortly after he'd graduated from UCLA, Burmester visited the Fisher House, a care facility on the campus of the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. There he met and interviewed three residents whose stories helped him create the fictionalized characters in Wounded: Ladda Tammy Duckworth, a Black Hawk pilot who lost both her legs, and was a keynote speaker at the 2008 Democratic National Convention (she now serves in the Department of Veterans Affairs); Navy Corpsman Joe Dan Worley; and Marine Sgt. Jason Pepper (who also inspired a Doonesbury character).

Burmester brought audio recordings back to the theater company, stories that inspired the actors to improvise situations and create characters. He emphasizes that the play that emerged is not a simple regurgitation of his recordings.

"The improvisations were based on notes and transcripts," Burmester says. "I also relayed the experience of meeting these people to the ensemble, played back portions of the transcripts — most of it, actually. [Company members] zeroed in on what they found most fascinating, then went off to do their own research on those characters. Their stories emerged; it was not a documentation of the three people I interviewed."

During the development process, Burmester remembers, he and actor AJ Meijer spent hours "playing excessive amounts of [the online role-playing game] World of Warcraft" in order to better understand the mentality of the wounded soldiers who found solace and release in the game.

"We started with a script that would have taken five hours to perform and boiled it down to a one-hour one-act for the [2005] Edinburgh Fringe," where The Scotsman described it as "a powerful drama, grippingly captured."

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