A Warrior Chorus

by Howard Sherman
Our Trojan War at Aquila Theatre with the Warrior Chorus
Our Trojan War at Aquila Theatre with the Warrior Chorus

Aquila Theatre, Veterans, and Our Trojan War

A group of American soldiers storm the sparsely furnished home of a Middle Eastern couple in an unnamed country. Securing the location, they whisk shrouds off covered objects on the floor, only to find… books. Discovering that these texts are not radical handbooks but rather classics of world literature, the soldiers and their—hosts? captives?—proceed to tell stories from Homer, Sophocles, Plato, and Virgil.

That, in the most rudimentary description, is the outline of the Aquila Theatre Company’s Our Trojan War, which has begun touring in the U.S., including a weeklong stop at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April. Adapted and co-written by Aquila’s Desiree Sanchez and Peter Meineck, and directed by Sanchez, Our Trojan War emerged from Aquila’s Warrior Chorus initiative, begun in 2008, which has gathered military veterans together in Los Angeles, Austin, TX, and New York for ongoing programs rooted in classic literature.

Sanchez described the development of Our Trojan War as akin to the work of devised theater practitioners, albeit with established texts from which they could draw freely, such works as The Aeneid, Antigone, and Oedipus Tyrannus. “Peter and I created a format,” Sanchez explained. “Peter picked a lot of the pieces together with me that we wanted to use as a sort of springboard, piece he felt were apropos based upon our conversations with veterans and the Warrior Chorus sessions. I also pulled a couple of pieces that the veterans had written in our workshop as responses to The Odyssey.” Meineck affirmed that approach, saying, “It really mainly came from our work with the veterans, our table work…. I think they were really guiding the choice of material.”

“All through the process,” Meineck continued, “those who were writers were going away and writing their own responses and bringing them back in. We dealt with themes, so homecoming, hospitality, leadership, democracy, tyranny—people were writing on this and I personally loved their writing. I wanted more and more of it. But of course, the trick of a mosaic approach is that actually by pairing their writings with the classical works, it probably gets more people in to hear their voices. That was really the impetus of the project, which is to hear the veterans’ voice, not celebrities, not professors, not experts, but them.”

Sanchez said, “We did come together and we tried certain themes out. We tried to figure out how does this one scene relate to the other scene and then I would go back and generate some sort of dialogue for in-between scenes. Then we’d bring that to the room. Then dialogue would get shifted and changed and adapted in the room by various people, so that it became a more organic process. It became more poignant and facilitated the message that we wanted to project.”

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The show was cast with a number of military veterans as the soldiers, adding verisimilitude to the production and true to its Warrior Chorus origins. John Meyer, who served in an Airborne Ranger Regiment, had contributed material to the script and had previously performed with Aquila, joined the cast late, after another actor had to leave after the first couple of performances. “That was pretty terrible in some ways,” Meyer said, recalling joining the ensemble in North Carolina. “I haven’t had a pistol grip in my hand—on the M4 assault rifle or carbine, there’s a pistol grip. It’s a very familiar feeling. I officially spent six years of my life with that in my hand. And it was strange to go back to that and feel that.”

The immediacy of the production was important to Aquila not just viscerally, but practically. “It had to be simply staged,” said Sanchez, “because it had to tour. We didn’t want to run into a situation where somebody who wanted to have it couldn’t afford to have it. So, it was more important that we get the urgency of this play. It’s more important we do the play that we want to do that says what we want to say and get it to as many places as we can with it still looking beautiful and still having high production values, but not so fussy or overdesigned that it becomes this monster to tour.”

Meineck addressed yet another aspect of timeliness in discussing the creation of Our Trojan War, saying that the approach became very different following the 2016 presidential election. “They [the Warrior Chorus members] felt that a project that was going to be about homecoming suddenly became more of an urgent project about their role in protecting and preserving the Constitution. They became very interested in a forward-thinking project about the meaning of democracy. They thought that, even though us professors might know this material, that many people in America had become disconnected from the very meaning of the word, which of course is Greek in its origin and comes from this period.”

In addition to the classic texts, Our Trojan War also folds in excerpts from famous speeches and writing by Robert Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Emma Lazarus, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. Meineck described a process of testing these segments by having members of the Warrior Chorus reading them aloud to passers-by at Battery Park. “It was amazing to me,” he recalled, “how people, one, had never heard this stuff before, and two, that the simple act of reading Frederick Douglass or George Washington in a public space suddenly seemed subversive, which two months prior would not have been subversive at all, suddenly seemed liked a bold thing to do, which was quite sad actually considering the kind of dialogue that was happening in public discourse at the time.”

Sanchez, Meineck, and Meyer all spoke of the responses they heard to the piece in its various stops, and how that could vary by city and by the balance of veterans to civilians in the audience. Sanchez described having been in “purple towns in red states—it was great for the veterans to go out and really connect with different veteran communities across the country.” Meineck noted that he felt that, “One of the big problems we have in this country is only one percent of our citizens serve in the military, and yet our military is such an important arm of our foreign policy.”

Meyer said, “Veterans tend to pull out details that we wouldn’t think that they would be noticing. It’s not uncommon, for example, for them to be able to, after we read a section or after they see a piece like this, they’ll quote or remember specific parts that had meaning to them.” Meyer also used an unexpected metaphor in describing the reception for Our Trojan War, saying “I think the best response we get from it, and probably the most consistent response, is people who are looking for a sort of living newspaper. We’re not approaching this from a perspective of where you imagine what it would be like in an ancient Athenian audience. There’s some sort of on the ground experience with these sorts of moral problems that these people are stumbling into.”

There was essential funding for the Warrior Chorus project from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which has been targeted for elimination by the current administration in Washington, although funding is in place, as of this writing, through September 2017. Asked about future funding, Sanchez said, “We will continue as much as we can with our mission, but it’s going to become increasingly more difficult without funding.” The discussion of government funding prompted Sanchez to recall a statement made by a colonel on faculty at West Point, who spoke at a talk-back after Our Trojan War. “He spoke about the importance,” she said, “of using this literature to train his officers to be the best leaders that they can for the men and women who go out there and put their lives on the line.” Sanchez followed up by saying, “We don’t have any way in this country to educate us in the way that we need to be educated to be a successful democracy. So, cutting the NEH is like basically saying we are not really interest in democracy and its viability. And that’s sad.”

Speaking about the overall approach to the Warrior Chorus project that birthed Our Trojan War, Meineck said, “It was very important that ours was a humanities-based project that was about letting the veterans speak. I did not want to be the voice of authority here. I just wanted to be an advisor. I wanted them to have the authority. I wanted them to make the mistakes. I wanted them to learn the process. I wanted them to go into the arts and humanities in careers if that’s what they want to do, but we felt very strongly that that was the meaning behind the project and the reason that we received the funding.” Of making theater with veterans, Meineck stated, “I think these men and women have a wisdom based on their suffering and their experiences that we need to hear in this country, and I think that’s part of being a democracy.”

Be sure to also read the companion piece to this article, A Veteran's Voice a conversation with Warrior Chorus member John Meyer.