Every performer brings his or her life experiences to the stage, but what happens when an actor has lived through war zones, combat, and trauma? For military veterans, theatre has the potential to be much more than just a pastime or a profession, it can help heal, and even save lives.
Acting, Victor Almanzar says, has saved his life on more than one occasion. When the Between Riverside and Crazy actor arrived in the U.S. as a 13-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic, he felt displaced. He gravitated towards the drama program at his high school, and later found a sense of belonging with a local theatre group.
In 2000, Almanzar signed up for the Marines to work with heavy artillery—handling shells that were two-feet tall and weighed about 100 pounds each. Serving was tough, both physically and emotionally, but he was thriving. “I was able to swing in those waters, amongst men,” he says. “It gave me a sense of importance and confidence.”
And then 9/11 happened. “I signed up to the military to get myself through school, to have a better future for myself, and to help out my family,” says the actor. “In no way, shape, or form did I think a war was coming.”
Almanzar was one of the first units to enter Iraq, and by the time he returned to the States, he only had six months left of his contract. He was offered a promotion and a hefty bonus, but he opted not to re-enlist. “There was a lot that I wanted to do in my life,” he says. “I saw the world differently; I didn’t see myself fighting all the time.”
But the transition from military back to civilian life wasn’t as smooth as he’d anticipated. Once again, Almanzar felt displaced. “For a while I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. I pulled back from family and friends and I didn’t understand why. I didn’t think about how the experience [of war] might have changed me,” he says. “There are a lot of people coming out of the military who stay stuck in that hole and there’s no coming out.”
Almanzar says that he woke up one day and thought: “I’ve got to help myself.” He changed his diet, started exercising again, and thought about the things he used to enjoy—like drama. He got a job teaching at his old theatre group, and eventually completed his undergrad and masters in acting. “Focusing all my energy into theatre was therapeutic. It helped me a lot,” he says. “It helped me put down my guard, and embrace people again.”
For army veteran and actor Sandra W Lee, the transition back to civilian life was just as difficult. Lee was a staff sergeant in civil affairs who was deployed to Baghdad for a year between 2003–04. Her job was to help rebuild infrastructure in the area, specifically schools, but she repeatedly found herself in combat zones or under attack.
“I was involved in four roadside bombs while I was there. That is life altering,” says Lee. “It’s hard for me to recall what it felt like, unless I want to give myself an anxiety attack.”
When she returned to the U.S., Lee was hospitalized for post-traumatic stress. Afterward, she tried to study international relations at University, but found normalcy was almost impossible.
“I sank into a very, very deep depression,” she recalls. “Where suicide was just the next step away.” It wasn’t just her experience of war that had impacted her—like Almanzar, she had trouble transitioning from such a regimented life “where you’re told what to do 24/7.” Before joining the army, Lee had also studied opera, so she decided to give acting another go—to try and escape reality.
“Theatre literally saved my life. I don’t mean that in an ambiguous way,” says Lee. “The theatre community wouldn’t let me fall.” What had started as a crutch and a distraction turned into her salvation.
Lee experienced a milestone in her healing process earlier this year when she performed in Waterwell’s The Blueprint Specials, which cast real military veterans in a production of forgotten Frank Loesser musicals. The show played a limited engagement as part of the 2017 Under the Radar Festival. “It fulfilled a part of my heart and soul that I felt like I’d lost,” she says, “and it helped me reconnect with veterans again.”
For Lee, what made the Waterwell staging so successful were the talkbacks, which facilitated discussions between the military veterans and civilian audiences. “Sometimes we want to be engaged in conversations,” she says, “with more truth, openness, and honesty…. To have that forum within the entertainment world is very unique.”
For veterans of the Second World War or Vietnam, such forums were few and far between. When actor Stephen Payne returned from serving two tours of duty in the navy during the Vietnam War, he didn’t have access to such programs. He was just 19 years old, and instead turned to alcohol and drugs.
“I guess I was probably suffering from what they would now call PTSD, but at the time, no one had ever heard of that,” says Payne. “I felt like a stranger. I felt like the world was moving away from me.”
After Vietnam, Payne tried his hand at painting before falling into acting through connections with the downtown theatre scene in New York. He has performed on and Off-Broadway throughout the years, and recently wrapped up performances as Julius, a dying Vietnam veteran in Basil Kreimendahl’s Orange Julius at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. The role was emotionally challenging, and would often bring him right back to his time on the Mekong Delta.
Payne says he feels very lucky to have found acting, and the relief it has provided him. “I’m so grateful for the life I’ve had. Whatever it is [that happened in Vietnam] runs so deep, that I can find relief in expressing things. I don’t think there’s ever been a play where I didn’t bring some part of that experience.”
Payne, Almanzar, and Lee agree that more military veterans could benefit from drama programs and better access to theatre. During their darkest moments, acting was a way for each of them to gradually and successfully transition back into civilian life and find hope again.
Almanzar is currently performing in the Atlantic Theatre production of Tell Hector I Miss Him, and stars in the soon-to-be-released film 11:55, which he also co-wrote; Lee recently performed in We Cry Havoc, a theatrical collaboration which she co-wrote about women in the military; and Payne just concluded performances of Orange Julius. Robert Soto also contributed to this story.