To survive the experience of war, some veterans need to get their memories, thoughts and feelings out into the open. Others find comfort in listening. And then there are veterans who prefer not to express anything at all — in some cases, holding everything inside for decades.
Wherever vets fall on this wide-ranging spectrum, Chance Theater’s Veterans Speak Up program seems to have something helpful, perhaps invaluable, to offer.
Veterans Speak Up is an offshoot of the theater’s “Speak Up” community outreach program, where a series of weekly workshops culminates in the public performance of an original theatrical piece written and performed by the current year’s participants.
The program took shape in 2015 in partnership with Veterans First (now Veterans Outreach OC) as a direct outgrowth of a 2014 study conducted by the Orange County Community Foundation. The study found that members of the military coming home to Orange County, which has the fourth-largest veteran population in California, are significantly under-prepared for civilian life.
Karen O’Hanlon, the program’s director from its inception, said eliciting the trust of vets who participate has easily been the most daunting task. Easing the path is “sincerity,” showing vets she only wants to hear their stories at whatever level they feel comfortable.
Constant throughout the program’s four years has been its goals of empowering vets and building empathy within the community for the experiences, mindset and challenges vets face on a daily basis.
O’Hanlon said she and others at Chance envision the program as using theater “as a means for rehabilitation and expression by talking about their experiences and sharing with their families, fellow veterans and members of the public [so they can gain] a better understanding of the life of a veteran — its challenges as well as its points of pride.”
In many cases, these difficult events have led to traumas associated with PTSD. That condition, O’Hanlon said, appears to be the most prevalent among vets, and it can also trigger, among other difficulties, homelessness or drug abuse.
A 2017 “Homeless Count and Survey Report” conducted by the Orange County Continuum found that last year the number of homeless veterans increased in Orange County for the first time in seven years.
Another thread many vets have in common is how they’re treated and regarded by others upon re-entering civilian life.
“A returning vet comes home a changed person,” O’Hanlon said, noting that for Vietnam vets, homecoming “has been toughest — they weren’t treated so well.”
Veteran Frank Barry had already been a Chance patron for a dozen years when he decided to participate. He saw a flier in the theater lobby in 2015 asking vets to tell their stories — something he hadn’t yet been able to do. An eight-year U.S. Air Force vet and linguistics specialist, Barry was part of an undercover airborne unit flying nighttime missions out of Da Nang.
“Because what I did was classified, I had never had a chance to tell my story,” said Barry, who majored in theater at UMass.
Unlike Barry, though, for most veterans, the process of creating a work of theater is something new. Handouts guide them through four areas: sharing, choosing, crafting and performing. O’Hanlon said whether sharing something particularly sensitive — or even simply feeling uncomfortable being on stage — vets “are always in control” of the process and the material. They can veto anything that causes unease or discomfort.
Most valuable to Barry has been the stories of the other vets. Barry said the program “is such a catharsis” for many who participate, a factor he said aligns neatly with “the true nature of theater — to be cathartic.”
O’Hanlon, Barry said, deserves credit and praise for the program’s success.
“A lot of stuff comes up [in the workshops],” he said, “yet she doesn’t edit or censor. She creates a space where the guys can share things and cry and laugh. She makes us all very comfortable telling our stories. If it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t do that.”
O’Hanlon believes it’s crucial for self-healing that the vets don’t feel diagnosed, censored or judged.
“It empowers them while also frequently kicking open the door of communication with loved ones in attendance,” she said.
This year’s vets will split into two groups Nov. 11 to deliver Veterans Day performances, both at 1:30 p.m., one at Bowers Museum’s Norma Kershaw Auditorium ($12 general, veterans admitted free), and one at Segerstrom Center’s Argyros Plaza (free of charge).
But the full show will take place Dec. 4 at Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills.
Audiences should be prepared.
“What they’re talking about is scary stuff, and we’re not sugar-coating,” O’Hanlon said. “This is about them speaking their truths, so there’s a certain harshness to it.”
If You Go
What: Veterans Speak Up
Where: Cripe Stage, Chance Theater at Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center, 5522 E. La Palma Avenue, Anaheim
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4
Cost: $11 to $15 (discounts available for active and veteran military personnel, seniors and students)