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In the first performance of Wounded in front of an audience, Burmester recalls how Meijer came out onstage with the opening monologue. "And the first thing he noticed was a gentleman with an amputated leg sitting in a wheelchair in the front row. Turns out he served and was wounded in Vietnam. A few weeks later, his daughter got in touch with us to let us know that since seeing Wounded, he had started talking about experiences he had in Vietnam, which he had never spoken to them about before. The play had opened him up. This was the first of several such experiences with veterans over the course of Wounded's runs."
Meijer also has been with the War Cycle project since the beginning. For Wounded, he recalls, compared to the trilogy's second and third plays, the company had more development time with the interviews. The time invested also explains the actors' emotional attachments to the characters they fused and invented. The elimination of characters and subplots, when the play was revamped into a full-length drama in 2006, created serious friction in the young company.
"We always knew that the Edinburgh version was a workshop, that we weren't done," Meijer notes. At the time, it was called The Wounded Project. "After Edinburgh, we completely disassembled that workshop and cut characters, added new characters and turned it into the two-act play it is today. During that process, Tom was doing most of that."
"The actors in the initial production were so invested in their characters," Burmester adds. "Some people whose characters didn't make the final draft weren't very happy with it. That was a tough moment, but it did strengthen the play."
In order to snap the actors' attachment to the roles, Burmester told the company he intended to re-audition all of the roles.
"It was a tough learning experience, which we took into the second project, Nation of Two. We made people understand that this was a two-phase process and that other actors may be cast in the roles they created," he says.
The avoidance of such tensions is among the reasons Burmester made the transition from editor-director to writer-director with each new play in the cycle. Yael Itzkowitz, who joined the ensemble shortly after the first version of Wounded, is assistant director on all three shows and co-director of Wounded. With the exception of Meijer, the play now has an entirely new cast. (Among the new actors is John Brooks, who served as an Army combat medic with the 82nd Airborne for five years, completing two tours of duty — in Iraq and in Afghanistan.)
So in revamping the play, the company is conjuring not only the ghosts of interviews from years earlier but also of the actors who transformed those interviews into a drama.
"Tom will go back and fill in the actor regarding scenes that were cut," Itzkowitz says, "such as a character who had a wife. And the actor says, 'Oh, I didn't realize I had a wife!' "
Also studying at UCLA in 2005 was a literate and thoughtful ROTC cadet from Irvine named Mark Jennings Daily. In a decision heavily influenced by the writings of Christopher Hitchens, who made a moral case for the war, Daily signed up for the war in Iraq, and in 2007 was killed there in a roadside bombing. When Hitchens learned (with considerable dismay) of the influence he'd had on the young man, he contacted Daily's family and attended his funeral, on the Oregon coast. Burmester, after reading Hitchens' moving November 2007 apologia/homage in Vanity Fair, contacted Daily's widow, Janet, through Facebook. The stories that emerged from his interviews with her and other members of Daily's family form the basis of Nation of Two.
The point of intrigue for the company was how to rethink its vision of a war widow, an image lingering from the 1940s and the 1960s.
"The war widow of the late 2000s can be the 22-year-old, hot goth girl from UCLA," Algatt says. "It's interesting to look at how things have changed, and how those changes affect the younger generation."
Burmester emphasizes that, like Wounded, Nation of Two is a work of fiction, not a documentary: "The characters in Nation of Two are very much not the Daily family. Their story is sacred because of what they've suffered. Ours is an invention."
But this was actually the company's second go at Nation of Two. The first attempt at the second installment in the cycle was a play called A Song for My Brother.
"It was about a rock band whose core members met while serving in Iraq," Burmester says. "On the verge of success, the band is torn apart when one of the founding members decides to re-enlist. The play was a reflection of our own struggles and the fallout over some of the hard choices and disagreements surrounding the creation of Wounded. Ultimately, the play seemed too meta — too much like belly gazing — and didn't seem to have a dedication, so we stopped work on it."
For both the second and third play, the ensemble began meeting more than a year before any tangible story elements coalesced. These meetings — sometimes attended by just Burmester and one other person (usually Meijer), sometimes a dozen or more members — "were made up of wide-ranging conversations about the thousands of different ways of looking at the wars and the many ways it impacts lives," Burmester says. "Or sometimes they were just intimate conversations about the world and the things in life that were most important to us."