MY ART STORY by

Nancy Smith-Watson

Milwaukee
Wisconsin

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Four adults rehearsing a play with two men in the center confronting each other physically

Feast of Crispian facilitators work with veterans on a scene from Julius Caesar. Photo courtesy of Nancy Smith-Watson

In 2013, my two partners and I facilitated our first acting Shakespeare intensive at the Milwaukee Zablocki VA hospital for veterans struggling with a range of invisible wounds. Here, two years later, we have worked with hundreds of veterans and are poised to present our first all veterans full production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

As lifelong actors, theater educators, and devotees of Shakespeare, we had a strong sense of the power of expressing our most integral humanity through voice, language, and physicality in the theater. With Shakespeare, we get the added benefits of rhyme, rhythm, meter, and metaphor lighting up the brain’s sensory centers. We offer strong and descriptive words to those who can’t find words of their own. We offer the mask of character that gives a sense of anonymity to the “actor’s” personal story.

Our veteran participants find release, acceptance, a safe space, and personal insight into their own emotional workings. They explore and experiment—in the safety of “make-believe”—the big emotions that torment them and hinder them on a daily basis. And at the end of the exploration, they receive a heart-felt round of applause!

Our intensives consist of simple acting exercises that aim to provoke emotional response and reframe perspective on the everyday responses that we have, and scene work in pairs using special techniques that allow the veterans to be speaking and expressing their character immediately. We use the universal stories that Shakespeare tells so beautifully as a gentle path into the personal stories of the veterans. The work is rigorous, serious, scary, and enormously rewarding and transformational for both the participants and us facilitators.

Julius Caesar, open to any vet of any status, will be an opportunity to fill this classic story of war with the personal experiences of the people who have encountered war in one form or another; not a retelling of it but deepening into the myriad of specifics that their real-life experience brings. The intensives are for the enhancement of the veterans recovery and reintegration and, while Julius Caesar is expected to have therapeutic benefits for them too, it is also our purpose to open a public dialogue on that age old issue of “Who are these warriors now, and how do we enfold them back into our community?”

Some quotes from our veterans:

“All you’re doing is saying some lines but you don’t have time to lie to them, or lie to yourself. Pretty powerful stuff!”

“I know this program is my greatest risk and my greatest reward.”

“Shakespeare is scary, he’s sneaky, and he knows all our stories!”

Nancy Smith-Watson
Feast of Crispian
Milwaukee, Wisconsin