'Verbatim theater' gives new voice to veterans' stories in production touring Kentucky campuses

gkocher1@herald-leader.comApril 13, 2014 


    'Voices of Student Veterans'

    ■ 7 p.m. April 16. Downing Student Union Auditorium at Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green. Free.

    ■ 6 and 8:30 p.m. April 21. Black Box Theater, Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts, Richmond. Free, but tickets required. Available at EKU Military and Veterans Affairs Office, 317 Lancaster Ave.

The play's power is in its simplicity and authenticity.

The audience hears actors speak the actual words of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan: what they saw, heard and felt from deployment through combat and then back home again on a college campus.

What transpires is 70 minutes of "verbatim theater." The experiences that are told range from the harrowing to the hopeful.

Nearly 200 people at the University of Kentucky Student Center theater heard those stories Sunday during a staging of Voices of Student Veterans.

The play is the latest incarnation of a script that debuted under a different name three years ago at the Armory at UK. This shorter version has been touring other universities throughout the state, thanks to a grant from the UK Women & Philanthropy Network.

The monologues and dialogues in the play come straight from interviews conducted with five veterans who shared their stories with UK's Nunn Center for Oral History.

Herman Farrell, associate professor of theater at UK, who assembled the script, described the latest version of the play as a hybrid that draws on the best parts of its two previous incarnations.

He hopes the "documentary drama" can be published and used as a model for other campuses to replicate.

"And then other colleges and universities will consider doing it on their own," Farrell said. "If they do the oral histories on their own and get some artists to present the story, then it will make its way across the country."

Veterans have a difficult time making the transition to university life, said Tony Dotson, director of the UK Veterans Resource Center.

"They don't feel like they fit in. They don't feel like they belong because they are so different in their experiences," Dotson said. "The gap between those who have served and those who haven't is at its widest on university campuses today. And this play does more to close that gap than anything I've ever seen."

The oral history project has completed 50 interviews with Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans at UK, Eastern Kentucky University, Bluegrass Community and Technical College and elsewhere, said Doug Boyd, director of the Nunn Center for Oral History. The center would like to conduct other interviews with willing veterans.

Among those in the audience Sunday was Jonathan Herst, 35, an Iraq war veteran who was among the first to parachute into Iraq. He is now a Veterans Affairs therapist.

Asked what it was like to see his story onstage, Herst said: "It almost doesn't feel real. It brings back a lot of memories, so it's a good thing and a bad thing at the same time."

He said the best way for someone to approach a veteran one-on-one is to "be straightforward."

"Don't beat around the bush. Don't make it awkward. They'll let you know if you have overstepped your bounds or asked the wrong question," Herst said.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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