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Why Contemporary Theater Has a Role to Play in Theaters of War

Performing contemporary theater pieces for US troops can result in unique connections and conversations — and be just as entertaining as a USO tour.

by Stephen Belber
Jan 15 2016, 7:35pm

Adam Driver with fellow AITAF actors. (Photo via VICE News)

Man at a podium, veins bulging as he spits words: "Foot kicking. Foot kicking harder. Wood splitting. Man's voice. Foot kicking harder through the door. Bottle crashing. Bottle breaking. Fist through the door. Man cursing. Man going insane."

People in uniform listen. Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, National Guard. Reserve and active duty.

The man at the podium isn't a Pentagon morale officer trying a different tack. It's actor Adam Driver performing a Sam Shepard monologue at an American military base in Kuwait. He's here with Arts in the Armed Forces (AITAF), a nonprofit group he founded with actor Joanne Tucker to bring contemporary theater to US troops.

The military has been aggressively entertained since the USO was created in 1941. Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Redd Foxx, Robin Williams, Jessica Simpson, Tobey Keith, Louis C.K. — that's some solid entertainment, with a good dollop of eye candy, and the money has always flowed to make it happen. Even Charlie Sheen gave the USO a million bucks a couple years back.

So why did Driver and Tucker decide to start AITAF while they were still broke Juilliard acting students in 2006?

One answer to that question may sound pretentious, but it also may be true: Because theater is different. It's not just entertainment. When it works, it's a conversation-starter between a bunch of people sitting together in a single room. And one of the inherent goals of contemporary, non-musical theater is to scrape away at life's bullshit and get at something real, even if "real" is just another way of saying "This sucks" or "This hurts" or "You're an asshole" or "Authority has no idea what it's doing" or "Death is sad." That's not to say that USO performers aren't also trying to get at some of that, it's just that theater specializes in it.

Watch VICE News' documentary on AITAF.

The theater AITAF chooses to perform is most often written by people who have similar outlooks as many people in the military. Both theater and military folks are very often funny, skeptical, wary of hyperbole, tired of malfunctioning hierarchy, sick of hypocrisy, and pissed off by lies. But they're not solely cynical — they're also believers in something.

And so the idea behind AITAF is that these two sets of people are put in the same room, the actor-writers and the military — including their families, doctors, civilian administrators, and others — and are able to exchange humanity. They're able to enjoy a performance, but they're also able to talk about stuff that matters, even if it has nothing to do with the military or theater or God or politics. They're aspiring to the idea of a belief system while conversing in a way that is devoid of bullshit. And the less bullshit there is, whether in the military or society in general, the better.

Driver, a former Marine, has lived in both worlds and knows what that conversation did for him. He knows that marines don't always put words to the things they experience, and he knows that most Juilliard students can't truly comprehend the urge to take a bullet for a friend. Bringing these groups together and encouraging no-bullshit dialogue is a good idea that no one else is doing in this particular way.

Related: Adam Driver Tries on a Bomb Suit in Kuwait (Extra Scene from 'Arts in the Armed Forces')

Because the fact is, both groups do know similar and varying things about loyalty, commitment, hard work, suffering, loss, redemption. And what they don't know can begin to be filled in when they're together. I've seen it work in person: Marines accustomed to watching the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders on a USO tour come up to Driver after 90 minutes of no-frills theater and tell him it's the best thing they've seen in years. Some of them cry, some of them punch him in the head in a mostly friendly way, but very few aren't moved.

The United States asks hundreds of thousands of its citizens to go to far-away places for long stretches of time and risk their lives. These people often are hurt badly, whether those injuries are visible or not — yet we often ask them to come home and act like nothing happened. And while it's true that AITAF can't heal those wounds or return them to their families any faster, it can do one thing: Get some actors together and put on a fucking show. Which, if we're lucky, connects with someone. It's the least we can do.

Stephen Belber is a playwright and member of the board of directors of AITAF.

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Sam Shepard
contemporary theater