Big drama can come from small moments. It’s not exactly a revolutionary idea, but for Chris Kaminstein, co-artistic director of Goat in the Road Productions (GRP) in New Orleans, it’s a notion essential to the ensemble’s newest devised work, Foreign to Myself, which premiered at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans in last May.
Kaminstein calls Foreign to Myself a “war play,” the kind of work examined by American Theatre in a recent “Theatre of War” issue. In that issue, Bart Pitchford’s essay “Worst Case Scenarios: A New Canon of Military Plays” looked at work that he says “oversimplifies a complex situation,” referring to plays that often center on a PTS-addled combat veteran struggling to reintegrate into civilian life. Plays about war, Pitchford argued, can—and should—do more in their portrayals of veterans, and he offered his article as “the opening salvo in what I hope to be an ongoing and generative exchange.”
When Kaminstein first encountered Pitchford’s article, he was putting the finishing touches on Foreign to Myself. As the show’s director and lead writer, Kaminstein acknowledged the challenge of creating an authentic war play that avoids the pitfalls Pitchford outlined.
“War plays are genre plays, and the genre has certain demands,” reasoned Kaminstein. “In certain ways I think [in Foreign to Myself] we are pushing the idea of making the everyday and ‘undramatic’ extraordinary, and in some ways I think we’ve given in to the demands of the genre.
“I don’t say that with regret,” he continued. “But the path to that place is pretty interesting.”
With Foreign to Myself—an unconventional work inhabiting a sparse, smartly designed stage set—Kaminstein and his co-creators took a multi-angled look at the veteran reintegration narrative, while also examining how that narrative can get processed and distorted by civilian society.
The through line of Foreign to Myself is the story of Alex, a woman recently returned home from serving in Afghanistan as a driver and mechanic in the Marines. Alex is caught between worlds, feeling isolated from the best friend she left behind and struggling to adjust to the mundanity of civilian life—particularly as she’s pressed into service as a member of her sister’s upcoming wedding.
Alongside this relatively straightforward story is a parallel narrative regarding real-life war hero Charles Whittlesey, an American officer in World War I whose “Lost Battalion” suffered significant losses while battling German troops in France’s Argonne Forest.
Foreign to Myself has some fun with Whittlesey’s hero narrative, one moment reimagining the narrative as a present-day action flick complete with a Top Gun-style soundtrack, the next engaging in improv comedy-style riffing on Whittlesey’s famous line, “You can go to hell!”—supposedly shouted in response to a German demand to “surrender or die” (proposed alternate takes included, “Option two, motherfucker!”).
The truth of Whittlesey’s situation, as told in more straightforward scenes in the play, is less cinematic. Whittlesey bristles at his reputation as a hero, unable to reconcile his public perception with his private anguish, and he eventually takes his own life.
By delving into the story of Whittlesey, Foreign to Myself explicitly engages some of the expectations audiences might carry into a play about war. But it also provides a foil for the less conventionally dramatic story of Alex, who struggles to write a toast for her sister’s big day, complains to her friends back in Afghanistan about having to wear a dress to the wedding, and begrudgingly considers signing up for “horse therapy” to help work through the difficulties of returning home.
In this way, Foreign to Myself uses Alex’s story to address issues that Pitchford, in “Worst Case Scenarios,” calls “relatively unexplored,” including women in combat, veterans’ access to healthcare, the toll that deployment can take on family and loved ones, and the “chasm in communication between the military and civilian worlds.”
“The genre of war plays and war movies is pretty extensive,” conceded Kaminstein. “Everyone’s done one. The question at the beginning was, how do we do it differently?” The answer, he said, was creating a play that isn’t really about “trauma with a capital T.”
“It’s more like identity and homecoming,” explains Kaminstein. “How do you find your identity in a civilian context once you get back? We wanted to avoid doing super-enormous dramatic scenes of war. We wanted to try to focus on the daily grind and making that dramatic.”
To get beyond the worst-case scenarios, the show’s creators delved deep. They spent nearly two years interviewing veterans (including friends and relatives) about their experiences; they talked to playwrights like KJ Sanchez (ReEntry) and Jeff Key (The Eyes of Babylon); and they dove into books like Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War.
They also worked with health care professionals, including Gala True, a social scientist whose research involves health services for vulnerable populations, particularly veterans. True co-authored a paper titled “Warring Identities: Identity Conflict and the Mental Distress of American Veterans of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan” that Kaminstein said was particularly impactful—and even gets quoted in the show’s program.
“We realized that we could do this in a way where there’s only one moment—one explosion or traumatic incident—and the rest of the play is really about the other part of this person’s life, about the complexity of being a person,” said Kaminstein.
Through a series of workshops, the ensemble’s core writing team (co-artistic director Shannon Flaherty and ensemble members Darci Fulcer, Denise Frazier, Leslie Boles Krause, and William Bowling) pulled together disparate pieces—chunks of interviews, character sketches, potential storylines, ideas for choreography—and then Kaminstein went off to write the first draft of the play, though he’s quick to disclaim full authorship.
“At some point someone has to go and wrangle with it,” said Kaminstein, acknowledging his role in shaping the piece. “But this is the most collaborative process for us in terms of the amount of input from the ensemble.”
With script in hand, the cast gathered for a read through. Once they were all on the same page, they dropped the scripts and improvised each scene as Kaminstein recorded the action. From those improvisations, he rewrote nearly the entire thing.
The end result is a devised work that exposes its mechanics: Actors routinely break the fourth wall to address the audience or explain what’s happening in the play, and scene styles vary from naturalistic drama to experimental sound and movement. But throughout it retains an organic, lived-in quality that highlights the humanity both at the heart of the work and at the heart of the ensemble that brought it to life.
“When we first started the project, we were curious about how to approach the material in a different way than people had approached it before,” said Kaminstein. “I’m not sure if we succeeded or not, but we certainly approached it in the way that’s closest to us.”