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Activism on Stage: The Telling Project: An Interview with Jon Wei, Founder and Director

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 5, July/August 2013
p. 8 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0098

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

What was the genesis of The Telling Project?

Truth be told, it was a series of accidents and coincidences. I was working at the University of Oregon while my wife completed her M.F.A. there, and part of my job was to advise a fledgling student veterans group. I’d had very little contact with veterans previous to that, having none in my family and having no one in my immediate or even secondary peer group who had served (that I knew of). This was in 2005—the 3rd year of our presence in Iraq and 4th in Afghanistan. I was lucky enough to connect with a number of vets who were patient with my ignorance—which was substantial. Over time, I “discovered” just how very little I knew about their experiences, their backgrounds, their character. And this seemed wrong. These were public servants, representing our country to the rest of the world. If I didn’t know them and understand their experiences, there was a large part of who we were as a nation and I was as a citizen that I didn’t understand. I was encountering the limits of my knowledge and the inadequacy of my stereotypes. At some point, it became clear to me that hearing these folks tell their own stories was a significant missing piece in the public discourse concerning these wars and our national identity as a whole. The idea of doing this as a performance came out of the need for both direct contact between these folks and their community, and the need for a prepared space for that to happen. There was (and is) still a tentative relationship between civilians and military folk, especially around the topic of service, and performance provided a structured approach to this tentativeness.

How important is collaboration in this process?

Collaboration is everything. First of all, it’s theatre, and theatre is collaboration. There are a whole bunch of people involved in creating a performance. On a more psychological level, what you have is a group of people working together to individuate—which is really interesting and deserves some explanation. The fundamental “problem” that The Telling Project is addressing is that the military is conceived as a monolithic organization—in the civilian community, in the media, among policymakers, etc. The military has characteristics, like a person: it’s harsh, automatonic, violent, unemotional, homogenous, aggressive, etc. Those returning from service are either expected to conform to or reject these conceptions. Unsurprisingly, very few ever reflected them more than partially in the first place—because they are, in fact, human individuals. In addition, as human individuals they’ve had experiences in the “name of” our nation that are human, individual and infinitely various. Monoliths fail to encompass what is undertaken in the “name of” the U.S.A. War isn’t a political action. It isn’t a military action. It isn’t religious or social or economic. Though it is all of these things. War is, in reality, an infinite number of intimate interactions—individuals communicating through sight, sound, smell, touch with other individuals.

So, we work together as a group—artists, technicians, pr and production specialists, veterans and veterans’ family members and the audience themselves—to understand one another, to complicate and engage, to break down the monolith and “reveal” the individuals.


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Jonathan Wei (left) and Army veteran Lemuel Charley (right) in the interview studio in 2007 in Eugene, Oregon.

Is there a ritual element to your performances, a need or goal of reintegration between the performers and the audience? It seems to me that this is an important part of healing.

There is a lot of history to war being a taboo topic in the public conversation, a collective reluctance on the part of both veterans and civilians that we were all born into and that we all reinforce in a variety of ways. Protest is a way of not talking about war. Advocacy is a way of not talking about war. We have hundreds of ways of not talking about war, and almost no way to actually talk about it. These taboos require a good deal of energy to...



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