A few unusual additions showed up at a downtown rehearsal room a few weeks ago for the actors' first read-through of the script for "How I Got That Story" at Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company.
For them, war is more than a story.
They were Ernie D'Leon, an army recon man who served in Vietnam. Joe Ciokon, a U.S. Navy reporter in Vietnam. Max Gruzen, a U.S. Army photojournalist in Vietnam. And Sue Diaz, who wrote a book while her son was on two deployments in Iraq. Diaz also hears many war stories — she runs writing workshops for veterans.
The play, written in 1979 by Amlin Gray, follows a fictional news reporter through Ambo Land, a pseudo-Vietnam. As he whirls through the country, he and the audience experience heightened, absurd characters and places.
But director Seema Sueko wants to ground the play in reality and authenticity.
That's why she asked the veterans to be at the first read-through of the play, to give their two cents on the situations and motivations the actors need to portray. "It is definitely not a performance," Sueko said. "It is discovery."
We've been following the behind-the-scenes work at Mo'olelo to prepare for "How I Got That Story," which opens for preview performances on Thursday. As part of our Arts: Embedded series, we're watching how the raw, unfinished pieces of making art come together before the curtain officially rises.
We knew that when the veterans came to rehearsal, there was a chance the play wouldn't line up with their real-life experiences. We watched — as did director Sueko — to see how that potential clashing of fiction and reality would go over.
Actors Brian Bielawski and Greg Watanabe cracked open their binders and began to read. Afterward, the vets weighed in, peppering their responses with their own war stories.
Gruzen, the photojournalist, scoffed at the reporter's naivete.
"My issue is more with the author than with the actors," he said. "I find the reporter character unbelievable. I worked with some serious, dedicated people who would give their left arm for a story."
In the play, the reporter shares his internal angst with the audience as he gets frustrated trying to find facts and report news from the warzone. But the real reporters that Gruzen knew didn't leave time for navel-gazing and emotional reactions. "He is not like any reporter I knew in Vietnam," Gruzen said.
The other vets nodded.
"We can't change him, though," D'Leon said. "This is who he's going to be. Though it may be absurd, that's what it's all about."
"There are really some nutty guys out there," Ciokon agreed.
Sueko posed a more general question. "When you hear someone's doing a play about war, what do you hope gets expressed, in essence?" she said.
The vets and Diaz all emphasized the bonds that form between soldiers. The loss of innocence. The horror of losing friends.
"Who's supposed to go through all of that in a year's time?" D'Leon said.
This gave Bielawski an idea about his character, the reporter, who generally travels from scene to scene alone, a roving civilian reporter. "I think one of the reasons this guy gets so screwed up is that he's so isolated."
The next week, it was time to take some of that direction from the vets and apply it to one of the scenes, where a group of soldiers is ambushed while the reporter is embedded with them.
The Mo'olelo team prepared to block the scene, or walk through potential ways the actors could move with the props and costumes to act out the story. D'Leon and Ciokon were back. Another veteran, Don Armitage, brought armloads of gear, uniforms and books to the rehearsal to demonstrate how to wear them properly.
Armitage worked backstage years ago on another local production of this play. He pulled out uniform pieces and showed Watanabe how to put them on.
Armitage held out a pair of fatigues. D'Leon refused to put them on. But he admired Armitage's weapon, an M-16. "You have a nice '16 there, brother," D'Leon said. "I haven't seen one of these in a while."
D'Leon demonstrated to Sueko and the actors how to move through the jungle. She noticed how he held the weapon, and asked about where the soldiers should be looking, about how their uniforms would realistically be worn.
"You have your gun down and to your left," she asked. "Are you scanning?"
Watanabe asked for help understanding one piece of the ambush scene. His character is supposed to call in for help, and the reporter is nearby. The radio man has died, and so Watanabe's character wants the reporter to shield him while he calls.
"Just so I know, what would be my expectation of what he would be doing?" Watanabe asked. "If I were lying down, kind of like how you were showing, like this? What would I expect him to do? Come over and crouch next to me? Or lay down next to me?"
"Yeah, come over and crouch next to you," D'Leon said. "Well, let's do it."
After watching D'Leon's demonstration, Watanabe gave the scene a shot. Bielawski watched D'Leon — it would be his job to give Watanabe's character cover.
"Oh, OK. That totally helps," Watanabe said. "Now I know what I'm asking him to do."
Sueko and the actors thanked the veterans for reliving some scenes they knew weren't comfortable. Before they left, the vets posed with Bielawski and Watanabe so Sueko could take a photograph.
To catch up on our Arts: Embedded look at this play, read about our first conversation with Sueko, where she illuminated why she opens rehearsals to potential clashes of fiction and reality.
"How I Got That Story" begins preview performances on Thursday and runs through March 18. Stay tuned for our coming dispatches.
I'm Kelly Bennett; I write about arts, ideas and nonprofits for VOSD. You can reach me directly at email@example.com or 619.325.0531.
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