The War Within Us
PHOTO BY MELISSA SNYDER AND JEREMY ROUSH OF VIBBLEGospel According to the First Squad makes its debut.
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.
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  Edinburgh Fringe," where The Scotsman described it as "a powerful drama, grippingly captured."
In Edinburgh, the company walked the Royal Mile, in their military costumes, in order to drum up interest for the show. Burmester remembers how "people would approach the actors playing wounded soldiers Doc and Beth [the latter lost both her legs] and offer support, encouragement and thanks for their sacrifice. They must not have been looking carefully at these actors' legs, because they obviously thought the wounds were real and that the actors were real wounded soldiers on some sort of protest."
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."
Danika Sudik, also a UCLA Theater Department grad, is a comparative newcomer to the company, having joined in 2008. She is associate director of Nation of Two and a performer in Wounded.
"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."
Burmester tells of the night Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks came to see the early version of Wounded: "Afterward, Tom gave feedback to all the actors, and Rita spent a good 45 minutes explaining to me how the play had the potential to be the Coming Home of our generation. In front of the entire cast, she told me that it should be developed into a screenplay, and that this was what happened with [My] Big Fat Greek Wedding. Over the next several months, I had meetings with Rita and others at Playtone [Tom Hanks' production company] as we attempted to convert the play into a screenplay. I think my screenplay was just too dialogue-heavy, and eventually the meetings stopped without any meaningful progress toward production. And by that point I was already devoting my time to the next War Cycle project. It was an interesting journey, but these are meant to be plays."
The Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble presents THE WAR CYCLE: WOUNDED | By TOM BURMESTER and the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble | NATION OF TWO and GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE FIRST SQUAD | By TOM BURMESTER | Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica | Opens Aug. 19; in rep, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. | Through Sept. 11 | (310) 396-3680, latensemble.com
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