Play about Afghan conflicts gets encore performance with Pentagon blessing

By Peter Marks
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.

"It is actually not that special that we find the military open to innovative and groundbreaking approaches, whether it's in the area of public health, or technology," says Doerries, a translator and director by training. In this case, he adds, "the question is how do we re-humanize those who have lost touch with their humanity. And theater is obviously an answer."

Theater of War is also presenting its work in theaters, and the response there has been powerful, too. An evening at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in September that brought together a civilian and military audience was so successful that it is being repeated on Feb. 22. "It was just devastating," says Miriam Weisfeld, Woolly's director of artistic development. "It really taught us a lot about who our neighbors are."

The return of "The Great Game" was in part inspired by a successful presentation of the show last summer to the British military, an event that was publicly praised by a top British official, Gen. David Richards. According to Kent and others, Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, after hearing favorable reports about the show, asked through the office of Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), for a video of the production. (Through a spokesman, Harman declined to comment.)

Tricycle has developed a special affinity for theater of up-to-the-minute topicality: Its play, "Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom," was based on letters, recorded testimony and other documents relating to Guantanamo Bay detainees and was produced locally in 2005 by Studio Theatre. That piece took a far more ideological approach than does "The Great Game," whose playlets, by mostly British and American writers, explore the frustrated effort by world powers to exert lasting military control in Afghanistan. While many of the pieces deal with diplomacy and warfare, others depict the lives of Afghan leaders and ordinary citizens.

"Quite a lot of our work has had an effect on national policy," Kent says, adding that he has been gratified by the openness of the Pentagon.

"I think that why they've responded is because a lot of very young people are going to a completely new culture in Afghanistan, a very tribal nation, and they know very little about the history," Kent says. "Therefore, this is a very good tool for that experience."

"The Great Game" is also being used, apparently, to help those who've been in combat process what they've been through. Accommodations are being made in Harman Hall to handle more than the normally expected number of disabled theatergoers.

"We've talked a lot about that with the Department of Defense. We're going to extend invitations to those hospitalized and receiving outpatient treatment at Walter Reed," the Woodruff Foundation's Bardorf says, referring to those recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "For the young warrior, certain parts of the play would make very good sense."

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