- Devising Community
The great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.—Percy Bysshe Shelley, "A Defence of Poetry"
Through the act of making theatre, students actively immerse themselves in the unfamiliar and unexamined. To become a character is to understand, on some level, the mind and soul of another human being. The heightened sense of empathy necessary to represent truthfully a human experience foreign to one's own constitutes what Shelley describes as "the great instrument of moral good." In an era in which we are bombarded twenty-four hours a day with news and opinions from every conceivable political and social perspective, when reality shows have become a staple of network television, when newspaper, Internet and television images of real violence at home and abroad are subsumed in the fictive violence which surrounds us, it has become increasingly difficult to make a distinction between reality and fiction. If a war half a world away is seen only on television and in newspapers, is it real? Shelley's assertion presupposes a human connection which has become increasingly difficult to forge in our complex world. Is there a way to focus the empathy-creating process of making theatre so as to connect a student more powerfully to "the pains and pleasures of his [or her] species"?
In the fall of 2002 the United States was on the brink of what is now seen by some as a senseless waste of the lives of our country's young men and women, and an unjustifiable act of violence against the citizens of Iraq. But at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, the rush to war—although a topic of great concern to some—was not a widespread preoccupation on campus. College students born in the early 1980s held little or no memory of Desert Storm, nor did many of our students have friends in the armed services. Quinnipiac, a private school with tuition and costs of more than thirty thousand dollars a year, attracts a predominantly middle-to-upper-middle-class student body; when our students and their friends graduated from high school, college was their destination, not the military.
So it wasn't surprising, when a local veterans' arts group brought an installation and performance to the Quinnipiac campus in November of 2002, that only a few students turned out for the evening. Competing with a film showing, a hockey game, and other social activities, the veterans' event attracted only nine students from a campus community of over six thousand. Not coincidentally, [End Page 1] the five theatre students attending were friends of a young woman who had interned as a drama therapist with the veterans' theatre group.
For the small group of students in attendance, the encounter with the members of the PTSD Arts Council was the first step in a process of community building that would eventually result in The Antigone Project. The art, poetry, photography, and improvised theatre pieces presented by the veterans, and the experiences they shared during the talkback after the performance, made the violence and ongoing trauma of war real for the students in a way that books, newspapers, and media coverage had not. One veteran recalled the years he lived as a ghost in his own house after his return from Vietnam, passing his wife and children on the stairs and never seeing them. Other veterans of the same era remembered the painful experiences of being spit upon and derided in airports and on trains as they made their way home after discharge; one man stated that he had taken off his uniform that first day, hung it in a closet, and never put it on again. A Marine medic described the experience of holding his best friend in his arms as the soldier bled...