By Joseph P. Kahn GLOBE STAFF OCTOBER 06, 2012
US Marine Corps Sergeant Samuel Dillon was on patrol in Afghanistan four years ago when he was hit by sniper fire. After undergoing three surgeries, Dillon earned an early discharge and returned home to Boston, where he is pursuing a sociology degree at Suffolk University.
Dillon, 26, is one of 140 military veterans enrolled at Suffolk and is among a select few whose stories form the basis of an unusual theatrical production being staged this weekend at Suffolk’s Modern Theatre. Titled “At Ease,” the play portrays the lives of seven military veterans who, like Dillon, served their country during wartime before returning to civilian life as Suffolk students. In Dillon’s case, he did tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The play touches upon aspects of military life ranging from basic training to postservice depression, as portrayed by seven student actors playing the roles of student-veterans. The product of hours of interviews between the actors and their subjects, it represents an intensely personal collaboration between two groups of students who might otherwise have little to do with one another and whose perspective on wartime service could hardly be more different.
“This is definitely unique, to have so many vets from different backgrounds and experiences having their stories told together,” Dillon said during a prerehearsal meeting this week. “If nothing else, this [play] humanizes people who served in these wars.”
“At Ease” is timely, to be sure. Nearly 414,000 military veterans are out of uniform and back on American campuses this semester, according to the Veterans Benefits Administration. In many instances, these veterans are attending classes with students younger and far less worldly than they are and often more antiwar, as well.
Jillian Couillard, one of the student actors, said that working on the play has made quite an impact on her own life.
“It’s important to understand they’ve been in a whole different world,” she said. “You could be in a firefight at any minute. You sleep with your rifle. You bring it to the bathroom. We don’t have that problem here. We’re in a safe zone.”
Dillon has a small onstage role as a drill instructor, as does another student-veteran, Jim Mihelidakis, who served with the Army infantry in Iraq. Proceeds from the two scheduled performances, on Friday and Saturday, benefit a scholarship fund for students who have served in the military or are descendants of veterans.
“At Ease,” which will be performed Saturday at 8 p.m., was conceived by theater professor Caitlin Langstaff, the production’s director. Concerned about the disconnection between returning veterans and other students, Langstaff saw this project as one way to bridge that gap.
“I had Jim in my acting class, and he’d often sit in the back not saying much,” Langstaff recalled. “For many vets, as I’ve come to learn, they feel safer and more comfortable that way.”
In reading Mihelidakis’s homework assignments, Langstaff realized how much anger and frustration he harbored since coming home. “I wanted to know more,” she said.
Late last spring, Langstaff recruited a group of student actors and began pairing them with veterans, Dillon and Mihelidakis being two of them. The veteran participants are Army Specialist Audra White-Stadnik, 29; Navy boatswain’s mate Katherine Flynn, 32; and three Marine officers, John Mensch, 25, Andrew Wallace, 25, and Ryan Walsh, 25.
Racial and gender lines were deliberately crossed, said Langstaff. Couillard, for example, a 21-year old theater major, was assigned to Walsh, a Marine corporal who was wounded in Afghanistan and has a steel plate in one leg.
“I didn’t know Ryan at first and tried to rid myself of any expectations of what a Marine is like,” Couillard said. “We went to dinner and started talking. I’d ask, Where did you grow up? Any pets? Siblings? From there — ” she paused and laughed, “we went to the rifle range.” Couillard had never held a gun before. Walsh handed her an M4 carbine and told her to fire away.
“You’re usually portraying characters who are made up,” she noted. “These are real people, right here, so you want to do them the right way. With Ryan, I feel like I’ve taken a part of him with me.”
Others in the cast recall similar experiences. Having started out with trust issues, they became friends, notwithstanding differences in their personal backgrounds or political beliefs. Some aspects of their wartime service were too personal or too traumatic to revisit, Dillon and others acknowledge, and others cut from the final script, at the interviewees’ request. (Langstaff granted them final say.)
Hours of transcribed conversation went into the finished script. The play is divided into four broad sections: premilitary life, induction, serving in uniform, and coming home.
Katherine Flynn, who served aboard a ship deployed near the Suez Canal, was wary at first of discussing issues like sexual harassment. She now calls the experience “kind of cathartic.”
Portraying her is Gabrielle Womack, 20, a junior history major, whose brother served in the Navy. Womack said he rarely talked about his military service, but that changed once she began working on the play.
“He opened up to me about being there,” Womack wrote in an e-mail, “and I felt like I got my brother back.”
For White-Stadnik, work on “At Ease” brought up the guilt she felt when her Army platoon was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Nobody died as a result, but because she was operating a security camera focused on the area, she felt she should have been able to warn them. Since coming home, she has battled depression and anxiety, feelings she explored with 22-year old senior theater major Ashley Hevey, who portrays her.
“Caitlin did an excellent job pairing personalities,” said White-Stadnik. “After a while with Ashley, it was like having a friend tell part of my story.”
Paired with Mihelidakis was Adam Santaniello, 21, a senior theater major. Playing a combat soldier was about as far out of character as he could imagine himself, he admits.
“Then Jim started talking about how as a kid he was fascinated by war and war games, and it was very poignant,” said Santaniello. “He gave really strong opinions about the length of deployment, what it does to people, and how he’s dealing with the pace of society now.”
Seated nearby, Mihelidakis admitted he will not fully open up about all he saw and did in uniform unless he is talking to another veteran. Still, he said, this play could help the current student generation and all Americans better understand the war and those who fight it.
“A lot of people would say: ‘Look how bad these [soldiers] are. That’s a murderer, that’s an atrocity,’” he said. “Instead of taking personal responsibility for electing our leaders and causing the war, in a sense.”
Langstaff was motivated in part by dramas portraying returning combat veterans in one of three ways: as heroes, villains, or mentally unstable. “For me, this piece is not about war,” she said. “It’s about soldiers choosing to go in and how that experience affected them, coming home.”
Her hope is to create an environment “where students say, ‘OK, I have a better sense of these [veterans] now. Can I know more?’ It would be healthy to get that conversation rolling, so people aren’t so intimidated by the unknown.”
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.
All the World’s Her Stage
Theater professor Caitlin Langstaff creates an actors’ boot camp from real life.
By Sam Tremont
“Jillian, watch going up on your toes. This guy you’re playing is a very big Marine. Oh, and where does he put his hands: hips or ribs?”
Seven actors have just completed tonight’s run-through of At Ease, an innovative play in which the actors portray real-life military veterans. From the front-row seats in Suffolk’s Modern Theatre, they observe intently as their director and professor, Caitlin Langstaff, shares specific feedback, often visually, with each cast member.
“Ashley, look at the screen and let your eyes move with the imaginary children.”
Like each cast member, Ashley Hevey BA ’13 spent many hours observing and interviewing the veteran she plays, Army Specialist Audra White. Hevey, who has taken two classes with Langstaff, says, “Much like her teaching style, Caitlin’s directing style is very hands-on. If she has a note for you at the end of rehearsal about something she wants you to try, or stop doing, she will quite literally show you what she means. It always amazed me that her notes were so specific to each actor.”
“Adam, for your dog moment, let him sniff your hand, then go pet his head when he snaps at you.”
Adam Santaniello BA ’13, who plays veteran Jim Mihelidakis and claims to have taken every class Langstaff has ever offered, describes the benefits of her courses this way: “If you are a performer, expect to really fine-tune your craft and explore many areas of theater. Also, expect a great deal of unique, memorable moments that you can look back on once you have graduated from Suffolk.” He adds, “There is always an element of surprise in every class.”
Spontaneity has often factored into Langstaff’s career path as well. Originally,“teaching was not part of my plan,” she confesses. “I grew up seeing great plays, adult plays, political plays done well by devoted, hard-working, talented people.” Among them was her father, John Meredith Langstaff, who founded the company that created The Christmas Revels, a holiday tradition at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge; and her mother, Robin Howard Roberts, an actress who co-founded the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan, where Langstaff grew up. “I would fall asleep in the front row watching my mother in Entertaining Mr. Sloane so many times—and beginning to snore—that they asked her to perhaps move me to the back,” she recalls.
One of Langstaff ’s first roles as an actress was in Boston for Jackie: An American Life, a play based on the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Since then, she’s played other real-life characters, such as Lillian Hellman in the one-woman show Lillian and Emma Goldman in Emma. The latter was produced in 2008 at Suffolk when its author, the late Howard Zinn, was a Visiting Distinguished Scholar here. “Howard approached me years earlier,saying he would love me to play Emma someday and that I should hold onto it incase the chance arose,” she recalls. “I did get to read it in front of him, thanks to Suffolk, and later in remembrance of him and his legacy.”
While Langstaff had won some significant roles, she found that, as an actress, she was going from audition to audition, “saying yes to anything just to keep working.” In order to have more control over her career, she co-founded Tidal Theatre Company. Then, for “all the short plays we loved but couldn’t produce,” she and her partner created Tsunami Sound Waves, a venture with a Provincetown,Massachusetts radio station. “We asked if we could co-produce weekly live radio plays with live sound effects,” she explains. “We had a blast cramming eight or nine actors into a small studio space.”
Small stages are a recurring theme in Langstaff ’s work. She also created Car Theater, which took place in three automobiles. “The actors were in the front seat, and the audience was in the back,” she explains. “Each play would run about 20 minutes and then you would exit one car and enter another.”
While visiting a friend at a college in Pennsylvania, Langstaff sat in on an acting class. “That was it,” she recalls. “I loved college-age students.” She put together her CV, threw a dart at a dartboard, and “got very lucky with Suffolk University needing an adjunct as my package landed on [Theatre Department Chair] Marilyn Plotkins’ desk.” After two years, she was offered a full-time position.
It was Plotkins who asked Langstaff to come up with an idea for a production that would eventually become At Ease after Langstaff observed one of her students, an Iraq War veteran, struggle through assignments.
“I started going to veterans’ workshops where students would explain what worked and didn’t work for them in the classroom,”she remembers. “Situations would arise making them want to leave the classroom and never come back.”
Langstaff assembled a group of seven veterans willing to share their stories and seven acting students anxious to tell them. At Ease had its premiere at the Modern in 2012 before its reprise this past July.
“I do love teaching [these] students in this department,” Langstaff says. “Where else can your studio classroom be surrounded by all your professors, making them all the more connected to your work and accessible for richer,deeper discussions than just the classroom alone?”
With whimsy and wit, Langstaff directs new Kevin Rice play in Truro
As a director of live theater, Caitlin Langstaff has faced many challenges. But tackling Kevin Rice’s new play, “Enter Kurt Vonnegut,” proved a unique test for Langstaff. “This,” she says, “was a tricky one because it was being written while I was directing it.” But with characteristic composure, Langstaff carried on with grace and joy in her work to see the world premiere of Rice’s piece open last Thursday under the stars and tent at the Payomet Performing Arts Center in North Truro. The show runs through Aug. 29.
The show’s talented and energetic cast played a big role in Langstaff’s efforts. Fresh off their successful run in Payomet’s “Twelfth Night,” Ben Berry, Jake Ford, Abigail Rose Solomon, Ryan Underbakke and Ruby Wolf share the stage with Jeffry George (a.k.a. executive director at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater).
Rice’s vision also kept the creative juices flowing. His new comedy takes audiences on a journey from the firebombing of Dresden, to the potential nuclear meltdown of a power plant, to a family obsessed by Kurt Vonnegut.
“It’s not about Vonnegut having a one-night stand after eating Chinese food,” Langstaff explains. “It’s more about a worshipper of Vonnegut who thinks why not have him as a father figure,” she says. The play is science fiction, political, comic and site specific. It’s dark and strange and funny. It has music and poetry. Suffice it to say, it’s vision is big.
Rice, also Payomet’s artistic director, is the author of “Oblomov” (staged in a full production at WHAT last summer), “One Night in the Life of Denise Ivanovich” and “Hopper’s Ghosts,” among others. He approached Langstaff, with whom he’d worked before primarily as an actress, to be part of his new show in its early stages. She told him she wanted to direct it.
“Trust me,” she said, to which he replied, “Of course I trust you. My whole theater is based on trust and loyalty.”
In addition to working on the Lower Cape, Langstaff is a trusted member of the theater communities in New York and Boston. Recently, she finished creating and directing a documentary theater piece, “At Ease,” with her students at Suffolk University, where she serves as a full-time professor, teaching acting, clown studies and fight training. She’s supervised students interviewing returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, transcribed the interviews and turned them into the piece. “It was easy to put on,” she says, explaining that all she needed were “duffle bags and nine actors, two of whom were veterans.”
Of these non-acting dramatic roles, she says, “I’m not giving up acting in any way, shape or form, but I’m trying to move into directing more. I really enjoy it. I enjoy figuring out the puzzle. I’m a combination of detail-oriented and knowing how to let things go.” Langstaff’s acting informs her directing. “I can travel into each one of these characters and try them on myself,” she explains, “what’s in their mind, how do they feel, what music do they listen to, what do they do at work versus what they do in their home, what is their rhythm, what do they need, want and are they afraid of. All the questions I would ask myself when I am doing a role.”
Daughter of actress Robin Howard, second-generation theater artist Langstaff says she always assumed she would be an actor. “You’re just swimming and you swim right into the pool. You’re brought up in the theater and it’s just your other world,” she says.
“[My mother] was a great example, that invisible figure standing with outstretched arms, taking the training wheels off my bike. I know she was always there to guide and keep me grounded,” she says.
Although she didn’t see much of her father, Jack Langstaff, a writer and singer who died in 2005, she grew up reading his children’s books (including the Caldecott Medal-winning “Frog Went A-Courtin’”) and listening to his recordings. In 1971, her father also founded the Christmas Revels, an annual celebration performed at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater. Growing up, Langstaff would travel to Cambridge with her mother to see her father’s annual show. “They were magical to me,” she says.
She spent summers on the Cape swimming and watching her mother perform at the Provincetown Playhouse. Now her five-year-old son, Jack, is watching her. Maybe someday we’ll be seeing him take up the family mantle.
Just the facts
What: “Enter Kurt Vonnegut,” by Kevin Rice
Where: Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Road, North Truro
When: See website for show dates and times
Tickets: $15-$36, (508) 487-5400, http://www.payomet.org, and box office
‘Spoon River’ Takes The Stage At The Poets’ Theatre
Boston actors Steve Barkhimer, Marianna Bassham, Benjamin Evett, David Gullette, Caitlin Langstaff, Paula Langton and Nael Nacer will be bringing the late poet’s words to the stage.
Part centennial celebration, part something much grander, The Poets’ Theatre of Cambridge will be presenting a staged reading of Edgar Lee Masters’ seminal collection of poems, “Spoon River Anthology,” later this month.
“Spoon River Anthology” will run June 26-27 at the Modern Theatre.
“Spoon River Anthology” will run June 26-27 at the Modern Theatre.
The poems, which were published in 1915, document the lives (and deaths) of those in a fictional farming town, narrated by the townspeople themselves. Considered groundbreaking at the time, both for its blisteringly honest portrayal of small town life, and allegations that the characters were based on real-life people, “Spoon River Anthology” has come to be considered a staple of high school English curriculums. And with that, according to The Poets’ Theatre president and artistic director Bob Scanlan, comes a certain weariness to re-engage with the work.
“I get it. On the outside the poems seem so hackneyed and overused, and people got tired of them,” Scanlan said. “But upon diving back in, I realized — whoa! This is way better than I thought.”
Scanlan, who is a professor of theater at Harvard, is directing the adaptation. He was president of The Poets’ Theatre from the early ’90s through early 2000s, shortly after the organization reopened after a fire in 1962 that left it shuttered for nearly 25 years. Despite the period of inactivity, the theater already had an impossibly bright history of producing the work of leading poets and writers, including Samuel Beckett, William Carlos Williams, Edward Gorey and Alison Lurie.
Scanlan was reappointed as president of the theater earlier last year, after the organization went through another bout of artistic dormancy. That ended with last September’s adaptation of “Under Milk Wood” at Sanders Theatre, and followed up with the critically acclaimed production of “Albatross,” a one-man show starring Benjamin Evett, in February that won two Elliot Norton Awards.
Ben Evett in the acclaimed production of “Albatross,” back in February. On the heels of those shows’ success — and all the other work that came before them — Scanlan said he’s excited to be furthering the original goal of The Poets’ Theatre, which is to bring poetry to the stage. He testified to “Spoon River’s” forgotten power.
“I soon realized they were begging for a good performance,” he said. “And when you really look at them [the poems] critically, they are part of this grand tradition of American literature. It comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, and it leads to Thornton Wilder and ‘Our Town.‘”
Literary intentions aside, the performance features some of Boston’s best talent: Steven Barkhimer, Marianna Bassham, Benjamin Evett, David Gullette, Caitlin Langstaff, Paula Langton and Nael Nacer will be bringing Masters’ words to life.
Scanlan emphasized the production will not be a traditional “poetry reading,” in the sense of music stands and finger snapping. Rather the two performances will be a dramatic, lively and distinctly theatrical adaptation. He called the cast top caliber.
“Actors like these are my bread and butter,” he said. “They know how to energize material.”