- "The Veterans Project":Historiography in/as Performance
"There's so much dancing in the desert because there's not another thing to do out there."—Matthew
A young soldier wearing sand-colored fatigues, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, shimmies and twerks in a homemade video projected onto a large screen in the Lyceum Theatre in Tempe, Arizona. Beneath the screen sit four veterans: three male, one female, all in their late twenties and early thirties, from the US Army, Navy, and Air Force. As the onscreen dancer turns to the side, spanking his imaginary dance partner under the hot desert sun, Matthew, a combat veteran seated onstage, continues his commentary: "That's the thing about combat—it's 99 percent boredom, 1 percent scared shitless."
This essay combines critical reflection with dramaturgical analysis to detail some of the questions that arose when working in applied ethnographic theatre with veterans of the US armed forces. In the aftermath of 9/11, theatre has grappled with ongoing armed conflicts through a number of recent projects and initiatives performed throughout the country, including The Telling Project (2008–present), Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project (2013), and Basetrack Live (2014). Each of these works has taken a different approach to performance (for example, historical dramatization, musical theatre, or documentary theatre) and has involved veterans in a number of different capacities (as collaborators, performers, consultants, or authors), but all share a fealty to the notion of a fixed, stable script. By contrast, "The Veterans Project" is an unscripted performance series that provides a live forum for veterans to share their stories with their communities. Now in its fifth year, this synthesis of oral and public history and performance is presented annually in a series of live events as part of the university-wide "Salute to Service" week coinciding with Veterans Day at Arizona State University (ASU), one of the largest universities in the United States. Each year, our production team works with veterans, many of whom are students, staff, or faculty from the ASU campuses throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area, to both create and document performances unique to their personal experiences. Through this project we have sought to transform performance into a consciously historiographical space. We use tools from the digital humanities to create work that comments on itself as it is being performed, simultaneously creating and disrupting narratives through structured improvisation and challenging audiences' notions of who serves and why.
I begin this essay with a consideration of some of the goals of embodied historiography from the perspective of a theatre historian and dramaturg, and discuss its application as dramaturgical form in "The Veterans Project." I then analyze performance and documented rehearsal examples from three of the six times that "The Veterans Project" was staged from 2013 to 2016 to ask to what extent the process of improvisational "truth-telling" through performance might serve to translate experience and transform dialogue, or conversely to reinforce stereotypes that perpetuate the military/civilian divide. Each of the discussed performances featured male and female cis-gendered veterans onstage, and our most recent performance also featured one transgendered man. I am choosing to focus on female veterans because of the frequency with which their gender was itself an issue in [End Page 179] the stories they told about their service. I found this factor to be particularly significant, given that while nearly a fourth of the male population of the country are veterans of the armed forces, only 2 percent of all US women are veterans (Newport). My analysis is guided in part by the work of Michael Frisch, whose 1990 A Shared Authority posed major challenges to the fields of oral and public history through its reconsideration of the "very processes of engagement, in the altered relationship between historian and 'source,' between scholarship and public discourse, and between dominant cultural forms, assumptions, and institutions and the alternatives that practitioners of these methods so often hope to empower" (xiv). As it is enacted onstage, embodied historiography uses the space of the theatre in an attempt to meet Frisch's challenge; in its blurring of the lines between dominant and alternative narratives, performer and...