The reception of US veterans has changed dramatically over time. Men and women returning from WWI and WWII were seen as brave heroes and were shown respect at first glance because of the service they did for our country. By the time the Vietnam War ended the polar opposite was true. The hatred for our involvement in the war had spilled over onto the soldiers themselves, despite the fact that many of them had served by means of the draft, not voluntary enlistment. Vietnam veterans gained the reputation as being crazy and unhinged, because of the horrors of that war. The respect shown to earlier veterans had all but vanished. Over time attitudes have started to swing back in the other direction, but numerous veterans still face challenges upon their return to civilian life. Among those challenges, is how to reconcile a normal day to day existence with the things that they had to do and the things that they had to see while serving their country. Founded in 2004 by a group of veterans, who also happened to be actors, the United States Veterans’ Artists Alliance seeks to ease that transition through the arts and has grown into a true asset for Culver City and all of the returned and returning military personnel in the Los Angeles area.
USVAA is a multi-cultural organization that supports veterans through various aspects of artistry; sculpture, painting, mixed-media and theater. Their main focus is on craft, creating polished, professional work where veterans get to tell their own stories. They get to explore, and maybe start to make sense of their experiences in an environment that encourages that exploration and doesn’t require the watering down of the message to make it more palatable. The edgier the better. Through the USVAA, veterans have a chance to work through what was their old life to help them incorporate that into their new life, instead of forgetting and trying to move on. In many aspects, creating art can be very cathartic and therapeutic to the artisan. However, in no way does USVAA see themselves as providing therapy, there are no trained therapists on staff. Therefore, when they encounter a deeply wounded veteran they refer them to organizations like The Soldiers Project where they can receive trained professional guidance. That way the creation of art can complement their healing process.
Secondary to the art, but in some aspects just as beneficial is the networking for veterans that is facilitated through USVAA. Not only does USVAA provide an outlet for veterans to work together to create art, but their goal is also to help veterans find the resources that they need; whether that is counseling services through places like The Soldiers Project, or leads and introductions to help find work in the arts and humanities industry. Bringing veterans together to create good, professional work, whether for USVAA or beyond, is first and foremost the goal. It was with this goal in mind, that USVAA partnered with Rogue Machine Theatre and John DiFusco to bring the productions of “Tracers” and “Long Way Home” back to Los Angeles. Originally conceived in 1980 through a series of workshops with Vietnam veterans, with the final script written by John DiFusco, “Tracers” follows several men through bootcamp, war and then back home into civilian life. Originally directed by DiFusco, and performed by an all veteran cast, this current production returns to its roots with an all veteran cast.
The casting process was much longer than a normal casting process because of the desire to only cast combat veterans. Not only did they have to find the right actors for the right parts, but they had to find actors that were ready to go through the journey that the play takes them on and for some newly returned from the Middle East, it was still too fresh. Going to war will likely be the most traumatic experience in any veteran’s life, so reliving those days can be very hard. Understanding this, the rehearsal process was also much longer than normal and rehearsals would generally start with a circle where cast members would be able to discuss their own experiences and memories that were rising to the surface because of the work. DiFusco, having been through and moved by this process many times over the years, created “Long Way Home” in 2012 documenting the creation and journey that “Tracers” has taken. Both shows, much like the goal of the USVAA, focus on the truth of the soldiers’ stories. Not the glamorization of war, or gratuitous blood and guts for shock value – one particularly poignant scene bypasses the blood and gore completely, choosing to mime the movement of dead bodies and body parts – but the truth of the experience from the men who lived through the combat.
The stories told are edgy and necessary. Not just for the veterans doing the telling, but for those of us outside of the military to gain a better understanding of what our men and woman in the armed services do for our country every day. For more information visit http://usvaa.org.
*Coverage provided for the Culver City News