- Courtesy Of Sgt. Ezekiel R. Kitandwe/u.s. Marine Corps
- Poster image for Deployed
The U.S. military has made recent strides toward gender equity, such as the Pentagon's opening of all frontline positions to women in 2015. Yet the past decade has also seen numerous revelations of gender discrimination, harassment and even rape in the service. Locally, Nicola Smith and Samantha Lazar have documented the unique experience of being a female soldier in their new play Deployed. A free reading produced by Northern Stage takes place this Saturday, March 30, at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction.
Deployed is a piece of documentary theater derived entirely from interviews with female veterans about their time in the military. Smith got the idea of capturing their experiences while working as a journalist for the Valley News in Lebanon, N.H. "I was reporting on a book group at the VA," she recalled. "My father was a World War II vet, but they were telling stories that were like nothing I had ever heard before."
Not wanting those voices to be lost, Smith began interviewing dozens of veterans from Vermont and New Hampshire, all connected to her through the VA. Over the course of a year, she recorded hundreds of hours of testimony, conducted follow-up phone calls and transcribed conversations. She ended up with an impressive collection of experiences from all branches of the military except the U.S. Coast Guard, representing a wide breadth of ranks and ages; while some of the sources were in their late twenties, others had enlisted in the 1970s.
The 58-year-old Tunbridge resident had never written a play before, so she began a search for collaborators to help bring her vision to life. Early funding from the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation, the Vermont Arts Council, the Vermont Community Foundation and the Pussycat Foundation helped keep the project afloat, and when Smith approached Northern Stage with the play, the company was more than willing to jump on board.
Amanda Rafuse, Northern Stage's director of artistic outreach and the director of Deployed, connected Smith with Lazar, a dramaturge and PhD candidate at Yale School of Drama who now lives full-time in Lebanon, N.H. Together, Lazar and Smith began the task of sifting through the transcripts and weaving the varied stories into a cohesive narrative.
Lazar, who has a rich background in devised (or collaborative) and experimental theater, explained, "We were looking for a structure that didn't alter the content of the stories but that also allowed these women to be in dialogue with one another."
Every line of text in the play comes verbatim from a veteran's account. The playwrights changed the names of their sources and created some composite characters who encapsulate multiple women's experiences. At every turn, they tried to imagine how all of these veterans' stories might intertwine.
The result is a seven-character cast that, taken as a whole, serves to tell a rich and diverse account of what women veterans in Vermont and New Hampshire experienced during their time in the service.
For Smith, these stories have been revealing and haunting. "With the exception of just one woman I spoke to, they all had experience with sexual harassment or rape," she said. While expressing admiration for these veterans' resilience, Smith also voiced exasperation: "Why do women still have to put up with this stuff? Why are women still attacked and assaulted and expected to shut up about it?" she asked.
Still, the story isn't all bad. Smith reported that none of the women regret having served. They talk about having been able to travel, accomplishing tasks they never thought possible and feeling like they were serving a larger purpose. "We try to keep it balanced in the play and make it a good representation of a whole experience," Smith said.
This week, Rafuse will lead regional actors in workshopping the play, culminating in the script-in-hand staged reading at the VA on Saturday. A discussion with the creative team will follow, with support services present. The feedback that Smith and Lazar receive will help them develop Deployed further.
Smith hopes that some of the women she interviewed for the piece will attend the reading. "I think part of the reason why they agreed to talk to me was that they wanted others to hear about everything they had accomplished," she said. "I hope that this is a way of acknowledging all of their contributions."