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"I think the most interesting thing about the rehearsals for The War Cycle have been the interviews," she says. "A group of us interviewed two veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan — one brought his fiancée, and there were two women from the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble participating in the interview, myself included." Sudik recounts how, as the men slowly became more comfortable, their stories became more candid: "hilarious, gut-wrenching, vulgar, embarrassing."
She also speaks with some amazement about how the actors, on their breaks, remove as much of their military gear as possible before buying a snack at the local store, but how they're nonetheless treated with reverence — just on the basis of their boots and khaki trousers.
But the development of Nation of Two included even more intricate interpersonal and family dynamics.
When the company couldn't find older actors to commit to such an epic endeavor, Sudik proposed auditioning her parents, James W. Sudik and Dee Amerio Sudik, both professional actors.
"They did audition, and they were wonderful, and [Tom] cast them," Sudik recalls. "Within this period, my brother [Joseph Sudik] up and joined the Army. We have a strong military background in our family, but we're a liberal branch of that background, and this really shook us quite a bit. My parents were kind of like, 'How did this happen?' It was good for all of us as a family to work through our feelings and fears for his safety, and his decisions to enlist as a private."
Sudik's parents now play the parents of the fallen soldier, roles they created while preparing to send their son to Iraq. Meanwhile, Sudik plays the soldier's widow. This really is a family drama.
"As the story [of the play developed], it was a way for all of us to work through the myriad feelings," says Sudik, who, because of her experiences, was drawn to the character of Sophia, the widow: She herself had a child at the age of 18, and her partner at the time, the child's father, was fatally shot in 1999, when her baby was still an infant.
"I could deeply relate to the family dynamics that ensue after that sort of loss," Sudik says. "The ownership of memory, moving on while trying to do what is 'right' ... not knowing how to move on and feeling judged at every step."
According to Sudik, her brother Joseph enlisted partly from feelings of not having a firm place in the world. He's no longer in the Army, and Sudik says his "journey into the service, his disenchantment and frustration planted seeds for some of the characters in The War Cycle's final installment, Gospel According to the First Squad.
The play, set in 2009, concerns what happens to soldiers in combat, in Afghanistan's deadly Korengal Valley, described by the U.S. military as "the most dangerous place on Earth." (The U.S. has since withdrawn all its forces from there.)
Aside from sheer expedience, another of the reasons Gospel According to the First Squad has been the least-collaborative work in The War Cycle is its Afghanistan setting. Burmester's research into troop deployments there revealed ways of speaking that are idiosyncratic and coded — a different language from ours. This became apparent in the improvisations, where Burmester identified the disconnect of his actors' speech patterns from those of the soldiers they were depicting.
"There's a whole new lexicon to work with," Burmester says, and not all of LATE's busy members have time to do the research necessary for creating plausible, original scenes.
In contrast to the development of Wounded, which involved actors listening to transcripts and using them to improvise scenes, or going away to write and submit scenes for consideration in the play, Gospel is a playwright's play, a workshop still in development even now, as it's being performed. Burmester has been watching rehearsals and returning the next day with new scenes and dialogue.
Gospel, which deals with the tangible effects of being subjected to a firefight every hour or two, includes one incident of a Christian soldier trying to distribute Bibles to the locals — based on a story Burmester saw on Al-Jazeera, which didn't go down well in the Islamic world.
"It's interesting how fundamentalist Christianity has taken root in the U.S. Army, particularly in the officer corps," he muses.
Burmester says he hopes the production has some humor, a touch of M*A*S*H for the war in Afghanistan.
The War Cycle is the epitome of how theater in the city can be a cradle for the rigorous exploration of ideas and the development of new works. In its brief history, only three founding members remain, yet the ensemble now numbers 40. Meijer says the turnover rate has dropped.
What holds them together, Meijer says, is "a strong work ethic. Light attracts light. Focus and a work ethic attract others with focus and a work ethic."