Since I came from the Marine Corps to Juilliard’s Drama Division in 2005, the question, “Who is theater for?” has been a plaguing one. Very early in my process here, my answer to this question was, “Not me.” I had my own misconceptions and couldn’t help but second-guess my new career choice when, in week two, I found myself down on all fours barking at the top of my lungs to show everyone in the class my inner puppy.
I have since made progress and through theater have found ways of evaluating and understanding my time spent in the Marines. I’ve discovered theater isn’t a precious thing at all; it’s dirty, exciting, and unpredictable. But most importantly, it’s a service. I wanted to share this with an audience of people I felt were underexposed to this art due to similar misconceptions about its preciousness—and because of my experience, I gravitated to the subculture of the military.
It’s not the most original idea in the world, joining theater and the military. This relationship has long been established throughout American history, from George Washington commissioning the Joseph Addison play Cato: A Tragedy to be performed for his troops at Valley Forge, to the 13-base tour of Macbeth in 2005 sponsored by the Department of Defense and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Which is why I was surprised when I presented the idea of performing the Sam Shepard play True West for military servicemen and women overseas, the United Service Organization (U.S.O.) responded with apprehension. Their biggest concern was the level of interest a military audience would have in theater, and second, the celebrity aspect that was missing from the project.
I proceeded anyway, and ran around for a year with this idea, writing letters to celebrities, putting together press packets, etc. Some celebrities expressed interest, but everyone eventually dropped off the planet and the project soon flatlined.
When Jim Houghton became director of the Drama Division in my second year, I went to him explaining the idea and asking for suggestions. He recommended that I consider scaling the project down to something that would require less rehearsal time, since the U.S.O. felt a celebrity element was necessary.
So I simplified the project to an evening of monologues, delivered by a cast of four or five celebrity actors with a background in theater, from plays and playwrights I felt a military audience would easily relate to. I first went for pieces by military veterans John Patrick Shanley and Charles Fuller, among other writers whose experience resonated in their work with the right tone. (One of the playwrights was Joe Kraemer, the literary manager here at Juilliard, who later delivered every celebrity actor for the Camp Pendleton show.) I estimated that two monologues per performer would constitute an adequate performance length, and imagined the staging as requiring no more than some chairs to sit on and a space to perform in.
I was now beginning my third year, and submitted a press package (leading with Dianne Wiest and Anthony Mackie) to the U.S.O. that was almost immediately rejected. The actors didn’t fit their celebrity model, the language used in the monologues was too explicit, and theater didn’t fit the military demographic. “Marines don’t want to see skits,” I was told; “they want to see the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.”
After two years of struggling with the U.S.O., I decided to cut my losses and move the project stateside to Camp Pendleton in California—the very base where I was stationed during my Marine Corps career. I thought that if the show at Pendleton was successful, I could prove there was a military audience for theater and would have better odds gaining support for another attempt to move the performance overseas.
With Juilliard alumni Laura Linney, Tracie Thoms, and David Denman headlining the project and jazz student Jonathan Batiste leading a trio of jazz musicians, Juilliard provided financial backing for the performance, and a date was set with Camp Pendleton for January 7.
In retrospect, it was a logistical nightmare, with a cast of nine flying in from New York, Colorado, and Pittsburgh—some staying in L.A., others in San Diego. I had to change people’s flights so often because of scheduling conflicts that most of the budget was eaten up before anyone set foot in California. To economize, drama staff member James Gregg (who was our stage manager) and I wound up renting cars and picking up the actors and musicians personally the next morning. My plans for a pre-show grand buffet turned into fine dining at a local Subway.
The day of the performance was very exciting partly because of the possibility that no one would come. With scheduling conflicts giving us a very short lead time, the advertising had been minimal: a sign in front of the theater, a blip in the base paper, and flyers passed out in front of the base supermarket by fellow classmate Gabe Ebert, who also performed. So I was worried when, at 6:45 p.m., there were five people in the audience for a 7 p.m. show. “I had to have passed out at least 300 of those things,” Gabe said. “I remember thinking, ‘Where are all the people?’”
When we finally took the stage, the head count was about 100. With only a five-hour rehearsal to assemble an hourlong show, the actors and musicians gave a performance that far surpassed my highest expectations. Mr. Denman was filling in last-minute, and delivered two practically memorized performances. Laura Linney, Tracie Thoms, and Gabe Ebert also never ceased to deliver alongside pianist Jon Batiste and his jazz ensemble, who gave everyone a lesson on freedom in structure. The only thing I had to do was perform my pieces and surrender control.
When the show was over, marines and their families hopped on stage to shake our hands. Most were happy, some were moved, some felt challenged—but everyone had listened and had a theater experience, and was in unanimous agreement that they wanted to see more.