The inaugural Shakespeare with Veterans ensemble performed last Sunday. | Photo by Holly Stone

The inaugural Shakespeare with Veterans ensemble performed last Sunday. | Photo by Holly Stone

There is a circle of people standing in a room. They have come to do serious work. There is a man standing in the center of that circle, a combat veteran who spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, a man who has seen things the civilian population won’t ever really understand.

The man looks down, then up; there is a question in his eyes. Then he makes a split-second decision, answering his own question, and spins with fierceness and determination, pointing an accusatory finger at one of the other people in the circle. He begins yelling, “Bibbity bibbity—” but he’s interrupted by another man, a combat vet from Vietnam, who yells: “Bop!”

The man will stay at the center of the circle. For now.

The eight men and five women — all vets — are playing a theater game. It teaches participants a bunch of things. It builds camaraderie, loosens up inhibitions of looking silly in public, and teaches you to think on your feet. It’s the kind of game taught in every beginning acting class all over the world. There are tense moments, but also a lot of giggling, especially when you add in the rules about saying “elephant” or “viking ship,” phrases that trigger some pretty hilarious miming.

This iteration of bibbity bop is happening under the watchful eye of associate artistic director Amy Attaway, and it’s part of Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s newest outreach program, Shakespeare with Veterans.

Shakespeare with Veterans is Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s newest outreach program. | Photo by Holly Stone

Shakespeare with Veterans is Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s newest outreach program. | Photo by Holly Stone

The basic idea? Get vets talking about and interacting with Shakespeare and with theater. Give them a way to talk about war and tragedy and loss and loyalty without ever having to actually talk about their own feelings.

At the same time the vets are working through their own trauma, the ensemble created by these women and men can combat another problem — the negative public perception of vets. The group had its first performance at Sunday’s night production of “A Winter’s Tale,” and they showed the public a side of veterans they aren’t used to seeing.

The program is the brainchild Fred Johnson, a retired Army colonel who worked for the Fund for the Arts. Johnson’s train of thought began with all those war scenes in Shakespeare classics. “Richard III,” “Macbeth,” “Henry V” — heck, all the Henry’s — all have scenes of war. And using theater as therapy has a long history.

Johnson reached out to Kentucky Shakespeare’s artistic director Matt Wallace, who already helps run therapeutic programs like Shakespeare Behind Bars, so he was a natural fit.

Wallace handed the idea over to Attaway and Kyle Ware, Kentucky Shakespeare’s director of education. They started working with a group of vets, meeting once a week to play silly games, learn the language of Shakespeare and hopefully heal.

The Vet Center

Nestled away in an historic Victorian home in Old Louisville is the Vet Center. It’s a community-based place for veterans to get help. Nearly 80 percent of the staff are combat vets, including Patrick Alexander, one of the center’s re-adjusting counseling therapists. Alexander is part of the inaugural Shakespeare with Veterans program.

Patrick Alexander in rehearsals | Photo by Eli Keel

Patrick Alexander in rehearsals | Photo by Eli Keel

Alexander stresses how important it is that the Vet Center is staffed by people who have seen action. When a vet comes to the center for help, “they’re already talking to someone who’s been in the desert or in the combat theater of their generation and know what they are talking about, know what it’s like to put the boots on,” he says.

When Kentucky Shakespeare was trying to find a group of vets to work with, they wanted to reach out to a population  already on a therapeutic journey, so the Vet Center was an ideal populace. They also reached out to Athena’s Sisters, a group focused on helping women veterans through a variety of creatively based activities.

Both groups are run by vets who work with vets, and that’s important. There is a level of trust between them. Alexander recalls having to trust another vet when it came to trying out Shakespeare.

“Our team leader, Al Snyder, said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this group I want you to participate with,’” says Alexander, who already leads several therapeutic groups. “I said, ‘OK, am I doing another therapy group? That’s cool.’”

Then Snyder told him, “No, it’s a little bit different. We’re going to do a Shakespeare group.”

Alexander laughed remembering his reply: “I was, like, ‘Bro, I don’t do that sort of thing.’”

Snyder reassured Alexander, who eventual came around to the idea and now says the work has changed him completely. “It has been an experience that has changed not only my personal life, but how I view the veterans and the veteran population,” he says.

Of course, lots of people might initially balk at being on stage or playing silly theater games, but that isn’t even the biggest problem Alexander, Attaway and the other heads of the program are trying to overcome.

The biggest problem is the stigma instilled in the men and women against asking for help.

The Stigma

Cassie Boblitt performs. | Photo by Holly Stone

Cassie Boblitt performs. | Photo by Holly Stone

Cassie Boblitt has a bubbly personality paired with a wide and easy smile. She’s outgoing and friendly, and she’s involved in other performing groups around town including Cirque Louis. It’s hard to imagine her pulling tired and wounded vets out of holes in a combat zone to give them water and help.

It’s also hard to imagine her needing help. And that’s not entirely an accident: For a long time, she hid the fact that she needed help.

“I actually was diagnosed with PTSD about four or five months ago, and I deployed 13 years ago,” she says. “(I was) just pushing that away for 13 years, not being able to express that for 13 years.”

Boblitt couldn’t even share her feelings with those closest to her, like her mother, whom she describes as her best friend. “Because you just don’t,” she says. “Veterans don’t.” She finally took her mother with her to therapy just a few weeks ago to finally admit she was hurting.

Alexander said this is common with vets.

“No one wants to identify that ‘I’m having trouble,’” he says.

“You are trained so hard in the military for so long to be strong, and any time you ask for help, it’s a sign of weakness,” adds Boblitt. She believes it’s doubly true for women in the armed forces. “Honestly, as a woman, you already have that tag, you’re already considered possibly weaker, so you have to really step it up. And I never — look at my military records — I never once went to the doctor my entire time. I never missed a day of work.”

Special Language, Special Skills

Aura Ulm was in the Air Force for 26 years, and she’s a board member with Athena’s Sisters.

“We have our own little language,” says Ulm. “We’re already connected by the fact that we are in the military, even though we didn’t have the same career field, we weren’t in the same branch of service, but we were still all connected. We were out there, and we signed up, and we said, ‘Yes, we will do whatever needs to be done.’”

Ulm also talks about how the military creates a family away from a vet’s normal family.

“If you’ve been in the military for a long period of time … you really kind of lose a little bit of yourself at home, because you are associated with another family, which is your military family,” she says.

One of the things that causes vets to suffer when they try to re-integrate is that loss of their second military family. But groups like Athena’s Sister’s and the Vet Center can use programs like Shakespeare with Veterans to connect vets back to that family.

And that other family has been trained with certain skills and certain values.

“You have these unique skills — they don’t apply directly to the civilian world, things like loyalty and duty and mission first,” says Alexander.

Those values echo the need of a group of stage performers. In the theater world, they might say “ensemble,” “motivation” and “the show must go on.”

But what theater has that the military doesn’t is a complex language surrounding feelings and emotions. Those things are difficult for vets to talk about, but it gets easier when you are talking about something a character is feeling. Emotions are safe when they are in a script instead of a heart.

“We’re not talking about emotions directly,” explains Alexander. “We’re not talking about combat exposure, or things that happened in Vietnam or Iraq. We’re talking about Shakespeare.”

The Shakespeare with Veterans ensemble | Photo by Holly Stone

The Shakespeare with Veterans ensemble | Photo by Holly Stone

Of course, the men and women participating in Shakespeare with Veterans know they are there to talk about their feelings. They know they are there to heal. But they also know they are there to have fun — and to learn.

“No matter what else is going on, every Thursday I know I get to be here and have fun,” says Boblitt. “And really digging into his writing and the words and the meaning has been amazing.”

“It gives us new insight, not only toward Shakespeare, but ourselves and each other,” adds Alexander.

To Be or Not to Be

For last Sunday’s performance, the group created arrangements of several Shakespearean monologues. Attaway called them “choral arrangements,” likening them to Greek chorus.

“We’ve taken the text, dissected it, lived with it, learned it, and then rearranged it in ways that feel meaningful to us as a group,” says Attaway. And this approach came from the vets, the staff. “The thing all the veterans expressed is that they wanted to feel like a unit. So there’s no big star of the team doing lots of lines.”

The monologues they performed are from “Henry V,” “The Merchant of Venice” and “Hamlet.” While some Shakespeare fans may enjoy the poetry and dense language of the famous “To be or not to be” speech, for many vets, it’s an active and ongoing question. Suicide is common for returning vets.

The unit performed the monologues in front of several hundred people on Sunday, not only to fight their own demons but to encourage other vets to overcome their disinclination to ask for help.

Shakespeare with Veterans is seeking more participants. If you or someone you care about is a vet and would like to know more, contact the Vet Center at 287-6710 or or email Fred Johnson at [email protected].