War Stories: A SUNY Empire State College Community Performance
By Vickie Moller, student, Long Island Center-Hauppauge Unit and 2011-2012 student representative, Student Affairs Committee
April 18, 2012
On March 28, 2012 at 6:45 p.m., many of us in attendance at the All College Conference in Saratoga Springs assembled for “War Stories”, a 75-minute performance created by three mentors from the Northeast Center—Elaine Handley, Claudia Hough and Cindy Bates—based on the collective stories and musings of SUNY Empire State College students, faculty and staff about the realities of war.
None of us, perhaps even those who knew well the content of the stories about to be shared, could have fully prepared for what was to follow. Rather than entertain us, the performance transported us—to the uncensored raw realities of the battlefields, hospitals, homes and hearts of those courageous enough to relive their stories and allow them to be told.
Edified and horrified, in rapt attention, we drew close to the desperate pleas and inconsolable haunting of the personal voices of war—their fears, longings, confusion, rage and deep devotions and intense passions.
A 19-year-old infantryman from the war in Iraq wonders if the “faceless man” he sees in his dreams had a family who was waiting for him to come home and if he had a picture in his pocket when he died. He wonders, every day, if God can forgive him for shooting the stranger.
“What was the worst thing about being in combat?” an eager young man preparing to go to war in the 1970s wanted to know. “Was it the bombs? Was it watching the people around you get shot—blown up? Was it the fear of being killed?” “No”, answered the seasoned veteran. With tear-filled eyes he explained, “it was the silence after battles” that bothered him the most, ”the buzzing of the flies on the corpses…the sound he heard in his sleep in his nightmares.”
A woman, anguished and empty, prays “every minute of every day” for the one she bid farewell to on the old front porch. She watches every morning and cries every night for the one whose picture she carries “tucked away in her pocket above her heart.”
The conflicted personality who cried at her graduation and later threatened her with a knife, who playfully carried her on his shoulders and then tried to strangle her, was her father, a WWI vet who watched his buddy die in front of him in a foxhole, his face unrecognizable. He drank too much, fought too much and was unable to deal with the demons that haunted him. His child “has seen what war can do to a man.”
More than a performance, “War Stories” is a transaction of living messages—retold, reenacted, transmitted and received. When they are told, we are changed. For some, the understanding they gained may have exacted from them a measure of their innocence. Others, reliving their pain and facing their fears, may have experienced a degree of healing. Some, who identified with a story on behalf of a loved one, may have found comfort. Yet for others, the performance may have served as confirmation, once again, that after so many years, there are still no answers.
Ryan Smithson, a graduate of the Northeast Center, served in the war in Iraq. He performed in “War Stories,” and his story, “Them,” was read by another actor as part of the performance. Smithson, who lives with and understands, firsthand, the burdens of war, told the audience that writing and sharing is a way for him to release those burdens. “When I share,” he said, “it helps—that’s why people tell stories.”
During a “talk-back” period following the performance, audience members had an opportunity to ask questions and share their reactions, adding yet another far-reaching, instructive dimension to “War Stories.”
Through this project, Handley, Hough and Bates said it was their desire to “weave together a work that will represent the many experiences of war, that will allow our voices to be heard and that will educate us.”
“War Stories” is a compelling public declaration that they have succeeded brilliantly.
At 7 p.m. on April 24 at 7 p.m., “War Stories” will be performed at the GE Theatre at Proctor’s, Schenectady, N.Y. Admission is free. The performance may be viewed in person or via the Internet. For more information, visit choose.esc.edu/events/war-stories.