Play about Afghan conflicts gets encore performance with Pentagon blessing

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 12:24 AM

It's not every day that the artistic director of a theater company is invited to a high-level meeting at the Pentagon. On this occasion, though, the objectives of a small British troupe and the world's mightiest war machine were remarkably in sync: Both wanted members of the U.S. armed forces to be immersed in a day of plays, to experience through the artifice of the stage some of the harsh truths about fighting a war in a forbidding Asian country.

That breakfast get-together in October has resulted in one of the more extraordinary theater bookings Washington has seen: the brief return here next month of "The Great Game: Afghanistan," Tricycle Theatre's three-part, 71/2-hour survey of foreign intervention over the centuries in Afghanistan. The dozen playlets that form the production are a chronicle of the conflicts waged by superpowers in Afghanistan from 1842 to the present. What makes it unique is that the day-long special performances Feb. 10 and 11 will be offered free to an audience consisting entirely of soldiers, wounded veterans and government officials, all with some urgent connection to the war.

"All of the actors are very committed, and everyone leapt at the chance to do this," says Nicolas Kent, who runs the London-based company. "In the theater, it's wonderful when you get to do something that interests or influences the policymakers."

"The Great Game" was presented for two weeks in September at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall on F Street NW, and subsequently toured several American cities. Bringing the elaborate show back to the United States - it consists of 12 original half-hour plays dealing in chronological order with the British, Russian and American invasions of the south-central Asian country - would require a lot of planning and about $175,000.

But because the Pentagon did not want to use taxpayer money for the event, those involved in the negotiations say, other means had to be devised to finance it. That's when the Bob Woodruff Foundation stepped in. The organization, established by the ABC newsman, who was severely injured while covering the war in Iraq, seeks to advocate for wounded and returning soldiers. It contributed $100,000 for the remounting in Washington, and the rest was raised from other private and nonprofit sources.

"The production really strikes at the heart of what our service members are facing every day in Afghanistan," says Rene Bardorf, the foundation's executive director. The thinking was, she adds, "that if you better understand the cultural influences in Afghanistan, we'll be better able to support our warriors who are now returning."

Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Perry, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says interest in the production was sparked by several officers, including Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, who attended "The Great Game" in September. "They came back and talked it up," Perry says. "They were struck by the play and felt it could serve as a learning tool for anyone wanting to gain a better understanding of Afghanistan."

Although defense officials at first wanted the production to be staged at the Pentagon, Kent says the massive building's "theater" is in actuality an unsuitable lecture hall in a subbasement. "To get all the scenery in and all the actors in would be pretty much a nightmare," he explains. As a result, the Shakespeare Theatre Company agreed to donate Harman Hall for the two additional performances.

Chris Jennings, the Shakespeare's managing director, says the troupe had to juggle its schedule slightly to accommodate Tricycle's return, but that the effort was given high priority. "The goal with theater always is to find the people the work speaks most to," he says. "It's a home run to have the direct connection of that community and this piece of work."

It's unusual for the military to so wholeheartedly embrace a piece of theater. But some of those working to include the armed forces more actively in the arts say the response reflects a more enlightened kind of thinking in the Pentagon and some of its allies about how to engage the public and sensitize service men and women to the complexities of world history and culture.

"For me, it's a hallmark of the sophistication of the military leadership these days," says Simon Gammell, who served as a broker of sorts for the remount and also heads up arts initiatives in the United States for the British Council, a global nonprofit organization that promotes British educational and artistic endeavors. "The reason that theater existed in Western society is because it's a place for the community to come together and talk about big things."

Bryan Doerries has found a similarly evolving spirit in his dealings with the Defense Department, through which he has a contract to stage excerpts of Greek plays on military bases in the United States and overseas. His Theater of War project, which started in 2008, includes readings of Sophocles' "Ajax" and "Philoctetes," ancient dramas that often set off deeply emotional reactions in his audiences of soldiers and family members, many of whom have little or no prior knowledge of classical theater. Each of the readings is augmented by a forum that encourages audience members to talk about their responses.

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