For participants, playwriting for veterans is "a lot more than just writing a play"
The Playwriting for Veterans workshop session starts the way any remote meeting does — with the digitally-fragile voices issuing from speakers or headphones, the clicking of mouses and the parade of faces before blurry backgrounds.
“So do you want me to put the script up for everybody?” asks program developer and instructor Angeline Larimer. “Are you ready?”
“I'm ready,” said Army Veteran Robert Williger. The group will be reading and critiquing his script today, named “Hearts & Minds, a one-act play.”
Larimer starts the timer and Williger’s script appears on the screen. The Playwriting for Veterans group has been meeting virtually since this spring.
Larimer begins reading the script, as narrator. “Act one, scene one, hilltop outpost in northern Afghanistan setting … there's a tent in the background stage right exit.”
While centered in Indianapolis, this group includes Hoosiers, but also veterans from as far away as Florida. The point of the group is simple — to learn the art of playwriting. Writing scripts and having them critiqued by the group.
Williger waits and listens as the four other members of the group perform his play, and discuss it afterwards.
He is from outside Orlando Florida, and said this group gave him an outlet to share his experiences while enlisted.
“I had been working on writing over the last few years, have worked on like trying to write a memoir of some of my experience,” he said. “So when I heard about this class with the playwriting, it sounded like an interesting opportunity to be able to, you know, use my, you know, write about my experience.”
This includes a year as an Army combat medic in Afghanistan in 2010. His play depicts characters who are reassigned from low-risk jobs to a rural hilltop with no electricity in a potentially dangerous area.
“That's where I did encounter some experiences, including three children that were encountered some sort of Russian mine, or some sort of explosive device and ended up being injured by that explosion,” he said. “I was the sole medic around … the families brought them to the nearest outpost, which is where I was and treated them.”
He’s able to describe this experience through his play.
These classes are structured like a standard playwriting workshop, where they work together to hone eachother’s scripts and writing. But because of their experiences, these sessions go deeper than a typical class.
“What you're trying to do is, is work around some stuff from a safe distance, which is another good thing about script writing versus group therapy,” Larimer said to Wiliger while discussing the more personal aspects of his play. “So I respect that, behind this play, is some some serious memories for you.”
This program is currently a collaboration between herself and Outreach at Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs. Larimer also teaches for the medical humanities and health status program at Indiana University Purdue University — Indianapolis.
“My hope was not necessarily that this would turn into a group therapy group, but I did know that usually in playwriting workshops, there's a lot more going on than just writing a play that we think will be entertaining to, to an audience someday, that there would be serious conversations.”
In this case, serious conversations about their traumatic experiences. On one call they were discussing suicide.
Dennis Wimer is the director of the Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs. He said such a class can be like therapy for these veterans.
“No two veterans are alike. No two solutions are right for every veteran,” he said. “And so we need to have activities that meet the veterans, where they're at … whether that be an equine therapy with horses, whether that be writing as an example. It is very emotional, cathartic to be able to put words on paper for many people.”
Scripts can be critiqued for technical and character development points, and these sorts of things came up. But also the group wanted Williger to go a little deeper into his traumatic episode in Afghanistan.
“And then it might be difficult to tap into some of these emotions,” Williger said. “But that's where the real power is going to come from.”
Of course talking about trauma is not necessarily easy.
Courtney Abell is a Clinical Counselor at the Department of Veterans Affairs Health Administration. She says a symptom of PTSD is avoidance — avoiding processing feelings and talking about them.
“I think so many times that they bottle everything up,” she said. “And things build and build on each other. And sometimes they don't go through the processing of the events or what they've went through, which keeps them stuck in that recovery.”
But in Williger’s play, the main character receives support from the other soldiers. They encourage him to be open about his emotions, and not bottle everything up.
Playwriting participant Jason Murrey of Indianapolis has spent a career post-military working on suicide prevention with the Indiana Department of Education. He has appreciated seeing veterans open up about their experiences and grow.
“I thought it was fantastic. I thought it was fantastic,” he said, adding that he believes the groups’ quality of life overall improved over the initial 16 weeks of the program. “ … it was almost like this was needed. And it had a huge impact. I think if you ask anybody, the outcome far exceeded any expectations we may have had.”
He said participants weren’t required to talk, or even write about their military service — but many chose to.
Right now, the writing group meets once per month. Larimer recently applied for grant funding, hoping to add additional online sessions, acting classes and the ability to take these plays onto an actual stage. She said unfortunately it was not accepted. "Regardless, we’re determined to keep going," she said.
While a new session is set to begin in January, interested veterans can email her at email@example.com.