In a neon-lit rehearsal room in the basement of the UW-Milwaukee theatre building, a troupe of actors is blocking a scene from Othello. As Shakespeare’s words fill the room, you begin to notice the unit patches on the actors' jackets, the pins on hats.
There is an unmistakable posture of people who at one time stood at attention and parade rest in real life. These veterans, along with one military spouse, are working on one of Shakespeare's most celebrated plays because of The Feast of Crispian: Shakespeare With Veterans.
The group, which started in 2013, is the brainchild of trained actors and directors Nancy Smith-Watson, Bill Watson, and Navy veteran Jim Tasse. They wanted to make a difference in the lives of post-deployed vets, who Smith-Watson says are often suffering. "A lot of the veterans we work with have issues with PTS… a big piece of that is their emotions are just cut off, their feelings are just cut off," she explains.
But how does speaking Shakespeare help these actors acknowledge difficult feelings? Military spouse June Preston, who plays Emilia in this production, has an answer: "The words that he wrote help bring forth the emotion you actually do feel about the situation. It’s a powerful thing. It’s just a really powerful tool for that."
According to Smith-Watson, the rule of thumb in Shakespeare is what people say is what they’re really feeling. "So the feelings are really out there, and then it’s this beautiful, big poetic language that just holds all of this emotion."
Soft-spoken Army veteran Tim Schleis is June Preston’s husband and is one of the actors playing Iago. Schleis says he wasn’t initially sold on trying his hand at acting, but they had reached the end of the line as a couple and something had to change.
"For me, it was my last chance. I was very low, in a very dark place. So I had to take a chance. When I got there, I realized I was in a place where I felt safe," he notes. "I was with people who felt the same things I was feeling, experienced the same things I experienced. So for the first time, in a very long time, I felt I was in a safe environment…"
"That was a year ago," recalls Preston. "(Tim) came home in a different mood. Something that finally sort of helped him."
Finding a safe place to be who they are, and where they can express who they might want to become, is the common thread these veterans share. Army veteran Carissa DePietro says being part of Feast of Crispian saved her life.
"I actually have a relationship with my children, " she says. "I have a relationship with my husband, like I have dreams for the future. I never thought I’d live to 40. I always thought I would have committed suicide by now. And now I’m 40 and it’s like, oh my goodness, look at this whole world ahead of me. I have dreams – I want to buy an RV and travel… I didn’t have those dreams 3 years ago. I didn’t even think I’d be alive today."
However, using Shakespeare in the rehearsal hall to help veterans was initially met with some skepticism. Nancy Smith-Watson says that when they first started, some of the mental health people at the VA wondered what they would do when the veterans got really, really mad.
"We said, ‘Oh we’re gonna applaud!,'" she laughs. "We’re going to put them on the lines and let them use the lines of Shakespeare to go to those places, and then they’re going to get applause afterwards."
For all of the therapeutic benefit the veterans get from Feast of Crispian, Smith-Watson acknowledges that she and her two colleagues are not therapists, but actors and directors. "The thing about acting is that our skills are in emotions," she explains. "In therapy, there’s positive emotions and there’s negative emotions. And they spend a lot of time managing their emotions. And in acting, we don’t want to manage them. We really want to go into the big emotions."
Army veteran Mike Keppert is one of the actors playing Othello – who is a character known for big, uncontrolled emotions like jealousy and rage. Keppert says it’s not like he doesn't know the consequences of acting on those feelings, but it is interesting to see them play out so irrevocably on stage. "He ends up killing the woman he loves, and you can’t take that back, you know?" Keppert says. "So it’s not say I’ve felt anything close to that, but it’s just interesting to see that if someone does not address certain things, how far they can progress."
Navy veteran Ronnie Graham, who plays Cassio, says he’s proud of his fellow actors in rehearsal. "I see the growth," he says. "That’s what I enjoy the most. Seeing guys... you know, they struggle."
"I mean, theater’s not easy, especially Shakespeare," Graham adds. "It’s intimidating to begin with. I mean, you think of Shakespeare, you think of these so-educated people who are speaking ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and you have no idea what they’re saying. But in order to tackle that… it’s amazing. I see guys really put forth the effort and you just admire that."
Back in the rehearsal room, the scene blocking continues and you can see the pride everyone is taking in their work. Nancy Smith-Watson says she hopes lots of non-veterans will attend the group’s performances to see that work on stage.
"I do think that most people want to take care of our veterans," she explains, "but I think a lot of people just don’t know how to talk to them. They’re afraid of saying something wrong, they don’t know what they should ask…Doing the full productions allows us to really bring them into the room with a lot of civilians."
For Tim Schleis, and for all of the veterans involved, the thrill of saying aloud those glorious words of Shakespeare is mixed with something more practical. "You take your emotions out of your duffel bag, you get to play with them, at the end of the day you put them back away," he says. "You know where they are and you’ve done something with them. So your bag’s a little lighter at the end of the day."
The Feast of Crispian's Othello - Deployed opens tonight at Next Act Theatre in the 5th Ward and runs through Sunday.