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Coping Through Shakespeare

Off the Cuff with Jim Tasse

Oct. 20, 2015
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As a veteran of the stage, a senior lecturer at UW-Milwaukee and a one-time associate artistic director for the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Jim Tasse is used to training actors. Now he’s putting that knowledge to additional use as the co-director of Feast of Crispian, a Milwaukee non-profit that teaches veterans Shakespeare to help them cope with PTSD and other emotional issues they face upon reintegration. Ahead of the company’s all-veteran production of Julius Caesar at Next Act Theatre at the end of the month, Tasse explained how the Bard speaks to the veteran experience.

What is it about Shakespeare that you find veterans relate to?
Let me give you a quote from one of our first vets: “He’s sneaky, he’s scary, but the fucker knows all of our stories.” So there’s a universality to it. I suspect it’s got something to do with the fact that Shakespeare, especially his poetry, is the language of the soul. It’s the truth. We can use language to tell the world, but we can use language to hide from the world, and Shakespeare doesn’t allow that. I believe that standing for who you are and speaking the truth is a useful thing, and that’s one of the things Shakespeare does. And I believe that if you allow the actor, the veteran, to be with their scene partner, and just say these words, that things start happening, emotions start releasing, and that will allow them to have their own experience. One of the things acting does is it makes the internal external, and I believe that’s what it does for the veteran.

Do you think you’d see the same results if you were putting on, for instance, a Tom Stoppard play?
I don’t believe so. I adore Stoppard—he’s brilliant, but it’s a question of the universality of the characters and the themes. And I believe poetry is intrinsic to the healing effect. We often say that Shakespeare’s form gives us a container to store these larger emotions. Metaphor is a way to speak difficult things. If we could describe how we felt literally, we probably would, but very often we resort to metaphor for a variety of reasons. “You pissed me off” doesn’t make literal sense, but we all get what that’s about. So I think that’s the big difference. Stoppard is extremely brilliant and cognitive and thoughtful—I adore his work, but I believe that Shakespeare operates in that realm, too, but also in a visceral way.

Do the vets get stage fright?
Oh, of course they do. But we treat it like a very simple acting class. So one of the first things you do in an acting class is find a way for the person to make a connection—with the thoughts, the ideas, the interactions. The next step is to be able to externalize that, and to make that world evident and real for the scene partner and the audience. That’s where we’re taking our veterans, to expand and explore character arcs on a deep level. So yes, they get stage fright.

How do they overcome it? Do you teach them techniques?
We talk a lot about breathing. And part of what the newly returning veterans tell us they miss is that in the military they were part of a unit. There was an easily definable task. You knew whether you were doing it right or doing it wrong. But then they get out and they’re basically entrepreneurs of their own souls. They have to figure out their own lives. Their life gets murkier. So being invited back into this core of people who also have this simple, relatively definable task—“we’re going to do a show”—is evocative to them of having those tasks. Our name, the Feast of Crispian, is from Henry V, the speech he makes in the heat of battle to his outnumbered army, and that’s the speech where the phrase “band of brothers” comes from. So I believe that’s part of it. We’re all in this together. This is a highly stressed population. You know, the people in a VA have all types of issues if they’re living there, often having to deal with abuse and substance abuse. There are people unable to have their own apartment or transportation. So let me put it to you this way: Yes, they have stage fright, but that’s nothing compared to a lot of what they have to deal with.

Feast of Crispian presents Julius Caesar at the Next Act Theatre Oct. 30-31 at 7 p.m., and Nov. 1 at 2 p.m. Tickets are free, but reservations are required. For reservations, call 414-278-0765 or visit nextact.org. The company will also host a special performance for veterans on Thursday, Oct. 29. 

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