Reflecting on Chesapeake Shakespeare’s Veterans Program

On this Veterans Day, I wanted to share some of the fine work Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has been doing over the past four years.

In 2017, the first arts partnership that The Institute of Integrative Health (TIIH), and their subsidiary VetArts Connect, formed was with CSC. That ten-week program culminated in a public sharing of the work that group had done, and was featured in an article in The Baltimore Sun.

In their sponsorship of this class, TIIH sought to measure the participants’ feelings of anger, anxiety, depression, and isolation. They conducted surveys at the start of the class, during the class, and two months after the class had ended. The results from that first health-arts program were astounding. Participants reported a 14% decrease in feelings of isolation, and 21-29% decrease in feelings of depression, anger, and anxiety.

Based on the strength of this work, in 2019 CSC was awarded our first Creative Forces contract to work with veterans on a project at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Participants in that cohort performed A Midsummer Nights’ Dream at Walter Reed, CSC, and at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in Frederick. CSC was the only arts organization in the state to receive a contract, and just one of eleven contracts in the country.

One of the most beautiful creations from our work was the formation of Olive Branch & Laurel Crown (OBLC), an acting ensemble made up of several participants from the first few classes. They began meeting outside of class to read Shakespeare and to find passages from plays and characters that resonated with them. We recognized that they were ready to work on a full Shakespeare play, and focused the spring 2019 class on an abridged version of Henry V. That summer, we invited some of OBLC to work with our High School Ensemble on their Much Ado about Nothing. Both groups were able to learn so much from the other.

Their first original presentation, Road to Bedlam, concentrated on scenes from Shakespeare of rage, madness, and despair. That show was presented in the fall of 2019. This was their creation

Sadly, TIIH shuttered the VetArts Connect program two years ago. CSC’s Board of Trustees made the bold decision that we still offer veterans’ classes free of charge, and to give OBLC space and resources to continue their passion.

When we began our partnership with the Steven A Cohen Military Family Clinic at Easterseals for a 2020 class at their Silver Spring location, we had no idea that we’d move to an online program that would reach veterans in the area, but also participants in Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and active personnel in England and Germany. Over the course of the summer and fall, CSC offered classes in comedy and in drama through this partnership, all virtual.

CSC is now on our fourth contract with Creative Forces. Their support means that our class for veterans is back to in-person. We are now teaching acting in Creative Arts Therapy sessions through the VHA at Perry Point. And OBLC will premiere their newest production To Be a Soldier at the international conference of the Shakespeare Theatre Association in January, 2022. That show will tour to locations in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia in the spring and summer of 2022

The people who’ve contributed to the success of this program is a lengthy list. Please let me recognize just a few:

JW Rone (formerly of TIIH, VetArts Connect)
CSC Teaching Artists Michael Harris, Dr. Jaclyn McGloughlin, Alexandra Hewett, Gerrad Alex Taylor, Luke Scaros
CAPT. Moira McGuire (USPHS DHA WRNMMC), Mallary Lass (Steven A Cohen Military Family Clinic at Easterseals), and Kelsey Eisenhauer, MT-BC (VA Maryland Health Care System at Perry Point)
and Hannah Jacobson Blumenfeld, Kelly Feltaut, Carolyn Bartley, Bill O’Brien, Marete Webster, Jana Jones

Lastly, writing about this program feels incomplete without including the responses from members of OBLC. Below are some of their remarks which they’ve permitted me to share.

Thank you,

Ron Heneghan
Director of Education
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

“I was in the Army for 4 years of Active Duty and 6 with the Reserves. I have been a long-time patron of CSC for more than 10 years so I received the information about the OBLC via emailed newsletter. I expected it to be fun and exploring the text of Shakespeare‘s works. I was not disappointed. I was eager to meet new people and engage my mind as I was in the grieving process after the passing of my wife. Her illness prevented me from participating in the Fall 2017 session, but I remember seeing the notice….I continue to participate in this program because I enjoy the material we work on, I am learning about the acting process, and I enjoy the company of the other members in the Ensemble. I have bared my heart and soul to them. They have been there for me in my lowest point and stood by me to help. These veterans in the Ensemble have become my closest friends.”
– Matthew Imholte

“Well at seventy years old, I never expected to be so invigorated at his point in my life with new ideas, experiences and creative challenges. I would have never imagined myself engaged with a group of people whose common thread was military experience. At his ripe old age to be awakened by the words of Shakespeare and to be shocked by all I missed throughout the years, tends to engender mixed feelings of remorse for the lost time yet pride in what I can now joyously behold. I can never sing enough praise for my fellow Ensemble members. To think just a few short years ago we were all complete strangers. We soon became friends and cohorts. To say today we are truly brothers and sisters is meager understatement.”
– Richard Wirth

“I was in the first OBLC class, when we came up with our own scenes to perform instead of aiming for a full or abridged play. I couldn’t find a scene I really wanted to perform, so I did something uncharacteristic and perhaps in the spirit of the class–I took a risk and tried rewriting a scene from Hamlet, but based it on my own experiences. It was frightening and I don’t know if it was any good, but I did it. It was rewarding that not only did we perform onstage, but we were embraced by CSC and welcomed to continue learning and performing. I took on a few roles in our production of Henry V and aided the high school summer program with their production of Much Ado About Nothing. I’m not sure I can say I’ve learned anything profound or been challenged beyond getting used to being on stage or memorizing my lines, but it’s been rewarding to understand these classic works better, figure out how to move on stage, and add characterization beyond what is simply written on the page.”
– Zach Fellers

“Back in April of 2017, a fellow female vet approached me and said “Hey, you like Shakespeare, right? Wanna come to a class for vets this weekend?” Shakespeare on a Saturday? Sure, I was in! She and another female vet friend of ours decided to sign up and see what it was all about. Once I realized there would be “sharings” of personal experiences, I felt like a fraud. I didn’t feel like a “real vet”, since I had been (honorably) discharged from the military after two years of constant health struggles. I didn’t feel like a ‘real’ soldier, just a failed ‘soldier in training’ that couldn’t hack it in the real military. However, what this incredible group of people helped me realize is that – I didn’t quit. I still earned my vet cred from the shared experience of having volunteered to be part of the armed forces of this amazing country, and the willingness to give my life for its defense. This amazing group helped not only expose demons I didn’t know I was fighting, but then helped me vanquish them. Shakespeare’s characters, much like the service members learning about them, are never simply good or evil. They are nuanced, and complicated, and motivated by factors open to exploration and interpretation. I have learned a lot about myself as a person and as a performer. With Bedlam, I fell in love with the meaty part of Queen Margaret and glommed onto that. She remains my favorite character, and I will worship at the altar of her words for the rest of my life. (Her many, many, many words!) I’m known IRL as a bit of a Little Miss Sunshine. It was pure joy exploring the rage and mania of this character. By now, I’m completely hooked and have the privilege and honor of serving as one of the ‘founding members’ so to speak. This crew became like my chosen family. The program helped make me more confident in my veteran status. They taught me it isn’t just about how long or where you serve, but also how and with whom. It’s membership in a co-ed fraternity that spans generations and geographic locations. This group/experience is unique. It’s part theatre class (history, performance), part family reunion, part support-group. It’s now evolved to where we get to use the skills we’ve learned to share our version of Shakespeare with others. I see a future where we recruit more veterans and explore ways to help them deal with “life on the outside”. We may not still wear the uniform, but are forever changed from having served. The qualities of leadership, fidelity, commitment to mission, and service to others transition very well from the battlefield to the stage.”
– Sharon Preator

“ I was a patron of CSC and on the email list, so I received an email in early April 2017 announcing CSC’s first acting ensemble workshop for military veterans run in partnership with The Institute for Integrative Health’s program, “Vet-Arts Connect. I saw this workshop as a great opportunity to get more training, to expand my training and experience into both theater and classical material, to work with a bunch of fellow veterans, to explore veterans’ experiences and issues relating to military service in the artistic medium of acting that I already enjoyed, and to get my first exposure to Shakespeare’s plays. I expected what I got: expert instruction in reading, interpreting, understanding, and performing Shakespeare’s writings, training in theater acting that I had not previously had, and thoughtful exploration of general themes and topics of military service and the direct personal experiences of members of the class. There were some things about the program that I didn’t expect… I didn’t expect the deeply caring connection and generous giving of themselves offered by the Teaching Artists of the program. I didn’t expect how much I would grow to love Shakespeare’s words, style, language, and stories. I didn’t expect how fantastic an experience it is to act on stage in front of a live audience in real time. The program also revealed creative and artistic aspects of myself that I had never before known, that have since led me on a whole new expansion of who I am as a person, and what my life entails and includes. The people who have worked with us have been so spectacular, and I both learned so much and had such a great personal experience, that by the end, I wanted there to be more of the same workshop. Since then, we’ve been encouraged, coached, and guided to grow as students, as actors, and as artists. And as we’ve grown, and become more and more able and accomplished, we’ve been warmly recognized and welcomed by CSC as a part of the company and included in main company plays. The organization is professional and successful and all about its business; but also warm, caring, welcoming, accommodating, uplifting, and open. This is a great group of human beings and a great group of actors. Even when we don’t have a specific CSC project we’re involved in, we meet independently on weekends to study, learn, and practice acting in a study group; and we do other activities together. I’m proud to be associated with every one of these folks, and value their presences in my acting life and my personal life. The vets’ program and this ensemble also have carried several of us through really difficult times in our lives; including me personally. I started it shortly before a huge, unexpected, sad change in my life; and the people, the art, the focus, the nurture of the program, and the dynamics of the group carried me through in a much better fashion than I would have been in without it. I’ve also dealt with issues related to my military service through the work the original vets’ classes do, both in artistically expressing my own thoughts and feelings, and by helping other members do so with their baggage as well. My moods, thoughts, emotions, and life in general are far better for being a part of this program and the acting ensemble we’ve built since then. Programs like this can be so much more meaningful and helpful, in ways that are concrete and life-changing, than the common “Thanks you for our service.”
– David Hanauer