The first thing that strikes you at Dog Tag Bakery in Georgetown is a striking chandelier of 3,456 military dog tags—one for every graduate of its theatre-based fellowship program for veterans with service-related disabilities. Military spouses, caregivers, and supporters of the establishment can also donate a dog tag in honor of participants. It is a moving tribute to the power of theatre.
The Dog Tag Inc. program, founded in 2014 in Washington, D.C., helps wounded veterans transition back to civilian life through business administration courses at Georgetown University, practical training in running a small business at the bakery, and a theatrical curriculum designed to help them deal with the trauma of their injuries and experiences.
Dog Tag’s theatrical program “Finding Your Voice” has students write their stories and perform them on a small stage over the café to an audience of friends and family. Stories have included a Marine talking about his deployment in Fallujah, Iraq; a wife giving her thoughts on divorce because of so many moves, or because of a husband who came back a different person; and even an Air Force cyber-security specialist talking about the humanitarian work he did in redeveloping an area, only to see it bombed.
Dog Tag’s cofounder, the late Fr. Rick Curry, was born without a right forearm. He came up with the chandelier idea after seeing a similar installation at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago. Curry first discovered theatre when his father sent him to an acting class to give him self-confidence and perhaps become a lawyer. Instead he fell in love with the stage.
Curry eventually decided to offer a course in theatre for people with disabilities, because he saw how theatre created by and for such marginalized groups as African Americans, women, Latinx people, and lesbians and gays had given them a sense of empowerment. He was convinced theatre for people with disabilities was an idea waiting to happen. Eventually he founded the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped in New York City. Over the years, he directed 150 shows and trained 9,000 disabled performers and stagehands, giving audiences—trained by good manners to stare at a disability—the permission to look at the actors.
“If you like what you see, applaud,” he said in a video shown at his memorial service in 2015. “We don’t want you to applaud the disability. We want you to applaud the achievement.”
The National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped operated a 50-seat theatre in lower Manhattan, later adding a residential workshop in Belfast, Maine. He also continued to volunteer as a Jesuit Brother, a humble calling that meant he could counsel and do service work for parishioners but not offer sacraments. But one day a wounded Marine veteran, an amputee back from overseas service whose wife had divorced him, came to him angry and soaking from the rain. When Curry finally calmed him down after many hours, the vet said he thought he was ready for absolution—but Curry could not offer him absolution.
That meeting with the veteran inspired his next two paths: He soon began his training to become a Jesuit priest at the age of 60, and he launched a Writer’s Program for Wounded Warriors to help veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan deal with post-traumatic stress and talk about their experiences. That grew into Dog Tag Inc., and its five-month fellowship and “Find Your Voice” theatre program.
Curry cofounded the company with Constance Milstein, a business executive with a long-standing commitment to education and veterans support—and a passion for baking. The company oversees the bakery and the theatre program.
Curry died in 2015 at the age of 72. Dog Tag Inc. continues his work, and the chandelier grows. There was a memorial service at the Sheen Center in downtown Manhattan not far from the theatre he founded. None of his students had their name on a theatre marquee, but for one night they put his name up in lights.
Kenneth Roman, a former advertising executive, is a Lifetime Trustee of the National Organization on Disability.