Veterans and Theatre Institute: Artistic Statement

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Playwright and veteran Maurice Decaul (pictured above) shares his journey to leading the Veterans and Theatre Institute in the following artistic statement, which was included in the initial proposal for support to Doris Duke Charitable Foundation:

"My life as an artist began in March, 2003 outside Nasiriyah, Iraq. Smoke rose in the distance as impacts from Marine artillery landed in the city. The sound was low, rumbling, the onset of a great storm. Heat outside and within my bio-chemical resistant suit (MOPP suit) raised my body’s core temperature five degrees. Dust displaced from shuddering artillery pieces drifted onto and into my rifle's internals, clogging it, making it combat ineffective. This is where my art practice comes from: a deeply felt experience which, a dozen years later, I find myself trying to describe. The war is present in my plays and in my poetry, but it is not of war I write. I write about people real and imagined who are forced by circumstance, by geography, by extremes, and/or by choice to confront humanity's most extreme behaviors and emotions. I write to spark and maintain radical empathy in my own life and in my audience. I explore my own relationship and complicity to empire, to a catastrophic war whose latest manifestation can be seen on our televisions and read in our newspapers as the refugee crisis enveloping Europe. I write about this because it is the gift I have been given, my life. I am fortunate to have been gifted time to reflect and interrogate lives as lived.

I know personally the value of veteran-focused writing programs. I began my writing career at New York University’s Veteran Writing Workshop. I found out about it randomly and decided to attend. The sessions changed my life because for the first time since coming home from war, I began to talk about it. It was a transformative and transcendent moment. I began with poetry but soon realized that my heart was also in drama. Although I was able to take a playwriting workshop my senior year of college, my career as a playwright did not begin until I attended Paula Vogel’s Boot Camp, which was happening in conjunction with the development of Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq at the Wilma Theatre, a Blue Star Theatre, in Philadelphia. These sessions with Paula Vogel were sponsored by TCG, and the work I wrote while in attendance became my writing sample from graduate school. When TCG contacted me and asked me to be a part of this project, the answer was a quick yes, and since then, as we’ve conceived of the Veterans and Theatre Institute, I have been entrusted with a central role in its creation. As I know that not all veterans will be interested in literary arts, the goal is to design curriculum reflective of a variety of skills required to design and mount a production, to include but not limited to directing, technical theatre, and different aspects of design.

Having been present at every meeting concerning the Veterans and Theatre Institute, I anticipate being involved in every phase as it is built, refined, disseminated, and evaluated.

Beginning with phase I, Community Assessment and Curriculum Development, I will be able to leverage existing relationships within my veteran and academic communities to help answer our core inquires and secure institutional partners, and in phase II, Program Pilot Launch and Rollout, I will lead the initial sessions during the 2016-2017 academic year, working with TCG, our community partners, and participants to evaluate and design changes to the structure and curriculum of the Veterans Theatre Institute as we ready for full rollout to four additional sites during the 2017-2018 academic year. Finally during phase III, Evaluation, Replication and Dissemination, I anticipate working with TCG, our community partners, and participants to further edit the structure and curriculum of the program in order to ready it for evaluation and wider dissemination. As the Veterans and Theatre Institute begins to replicate, I will remain accessible to any person, group, or organization to ensure the Institute's continued success.

My willingness to partner with TCG comes from a deep place of trust and respect for TCG as an organization, and just as importantly, for Teresa Eyring, Laurie Baskin, Meredith Suttles, Allison Whitehall, and Alissa Moore, who have invited me to participate in conversations about the future of American Theatre. Our first interactions date back to Philadelphia at Paula Vogel’s Boot Camp weekend playwriting intensive. The night of our play readings, Teresa was there to support and champion the writers, The Wilma, Blue Star Theatres, and of course TCG. Our relationship developed further that year when I was invited by Laurie Baskin to be a part of the initial Artists Working with Veterans of U.S. Wars (AWVUSW) cohort in TCG’s Theatre Nation project, which brought together theatre makers from across the nation who are engaged with veterans to discuss ways of fostering interest, deepening existing relationships, and stimulating new ones with our target group. A third point of contact with TCG came early in 2015 when I was asked to participate on TCG’s Blue Star Theatre Grant Panel. We eventually granted $20,000 to four Blue Star Theatres to support existing projects and launch new projects centered on veteran participation and access.

I came to writing through New York University’s Veterans Writing Workshop. I began there in the spring semester of 2010 and stayed on as a student until 2012. While attending New York University’s Veterans Writing Workshop, I saw a need for a similar program for the veterans attending Columbia University, where I was matriculated. I contacted the head of creative writing, Professor Alan Ziegler, about creating a similar program for Columbia University veterans. He saw the value and greenlit the program, which I then co-founded with Lauren Birden, a second year graduate student as a part of Columbia’s Writing CA/T’s [Columbia Artists/Teachers] program. The program is still flourishing at Columbia five years later and provides a fellowship to graduate students interested in teaching, several of whom have been veterans. After Columbia, I sought my MFA in poetry at New York University. While there, I was awarded a yearlong fellowship to teach the Veterans Writing Workshop, bringing my experience there full circle. I have also had the honor of teaching writing to veterans at Marlboro College in Vermont as part of their summer intensive and at the Walt Whitman Birthplace on Long Island, NY. I am currently a scholar associated with Aquila Theatre Company’s You|Stories NEH-funded public humanities program which uses Ajax, Philoctetes, Agamemnon, and Herakles as teaching tools to engage civilian and mixed audiences around themes of ethics, the idea of the hero, the dilemma of war, and the warriors' return.

From a programmatic standpoint, I would define success of VTI on a continuum beginning with numbers of participants served, replication of VTI in diverse theatre markets with an emphasis on developing markets with an under-representation of veteran participation, and growth and retention of participants and institutional partnerships. Beyond what can be quantified, as an artist and as someone who has benefited from similar initiatives, my ultimate goal is to provide access, space, and instruction to fellow veterans returning from our nation’s longest wars. If one or two or three are able to transcend war and make something beautiful from the experience, I would consider this a success."

MAURICE EMERSON DECAUL, a former Marine, is a poet, essayist, and playwright whose writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Sierra Magazine, Epiphany, Callaloo, Narrative, The Common, and others. His poems have been translated into French and Arabic, and his theatre pieces have been produced at New York City’s Harlem Stage, Poetic License Festival in New York City, Washington DC’s Atlas INTERSECTIONS FESTIVAL in 2013 and 2014, l’Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe in Paris, The Paris Banlieues Bleues Festival, The Middelhein Jazz Festival in Antwerp, The Avignon Theatre Festival in France and Détours de Babel, The Grenoble Festival of Grenoble France, Arizona State University Gammage Memorial Auditorium, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, The David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, and the Park Avenue Armory in NYC. Forthcoming productions include The Mary L Welch Theatre at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania; The Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Brown University. His album, Holding it Down, a collaboration with Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd, was the LA Times Jazz Album of the Year in 2013. Maurice, a Callaloo and Cave Canem Fellow, is a graduate of Columbia University [BA], New York University [MFA], and is an MFA candidate in playwriting at Brown University.

For more information about VTI, please email Maurice Decaul.

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