“Telling: Lansing,” a new story-driven play based on the experiences of local military veterans and their families, premieres this weekend. It’s scripted and performed like a theater production, but the script is derived from the real-life stories of the performers themselves. For NPR listeners, imagine “StoryCorps” or “The Moth Radio Hour,” but on stage and solely devoted to the stories of local military veterans and families.For many in the production, it’s the first time they’ve shared their experiences with anyone outside of close family and friends.
“Nobody really wanted to talk about it, so I didn’t,” said Vietnam veteran Jim Dunn. “When I first got back from Vietnam, people were assuming you were going to walk into a gas station drunk and shoot somebody. The stereotype was awful.”
“You don’t take many opportunities to describe [combat experience] in any kind of detail because you can’t talk a little bit about combat,” added 25-year military veteran David Dunckel. “You have to tell them (everything) — and that’s really difficult to do unless you’re very intimate with somebody,”
The catalyst here is Max Rayneard, cofounder of the Telling Project. Rayneard interviewed each subject for several hours, then edited and reorganized those stories into a succinct, yet powerful, script.
Initially, Dunckel didn’t even recognize himself.
“When I first read (the script), I was like, ‘Oh that poor fucker. Holy shit that’s me!’” he said.
For the participants, most acting on stage for the first time, the project was more consuming and rewarding than they expected.
“I didn’t realize it was going to consume my life,” said Elaine Putvin, whose parents both served in World War II. “But it’s been great because when I interviewed, I took some time away from the hospital where my husband had been a patient over the long term. And when he passed away toward the end of July, it was good to find things like this to be involved in.”
Jodi Hancock, whose father served in Vietnam, said the project felt like a calling.
“My dad passed away when I was 12, and about 10 years ago he was honored at the Vietnam wall in D.C.,” she said. “It was the first time I was able to share any part of his story with other people I didn’t know. It was kind of a re-grieving, but it was also really healing to be able to keep his memory alive.”
When Hancock first heard about the project, she assumed, like many of the participants, that the script would involve delivering a single monologue and exiting the stage.
“But when we got the script, we are on stage the whole time and we’re playing off of each other,” she said.
Between the eight participants, their military experiences span over 50 years and highlight experiences from World War II and nearly every U.S. conflict since. For Dunckel, the experience of being a soldier and subsequent physical and mental trauma changes little, even despite policy and technological advances.
“The core person inside gets all wrapped in that new technology and armor and carrying these new rifles, (but) our stories are still so much the same,” he said. “Now that hasn’t changed since the Peloponnesian Wars. There’s that shared experience of combat veterans.”
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misattributed a quote by Jodi Hancock to Theresa Bousson, another performer in the production.
Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.
8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5-Saturday, Nov. 7; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8; 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12-Saturday, Nov. 14; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15
$15/$10 veteran, student or senior
Miller Performing Arts Center
6025 Curry Lane, Lansing
(517) 927-3016, peppermintcreek.org