Sunday, December 28, 2008

"Surrender": the International WOW Company's war simulation drama

The play in which my sister plays an Iraqi civilian whose house is being raided will be engaging in its second run. (There's nothing like repetition compulsion for the traumatized, be they simulated or real!)

This play takes Brechtian theatre to another level of audience engagement, though exactly what the critics and audience participants glean from the experience tends to vary by participant. The critics note the intensity of the experience:

"The hallway was hot, dark and loud. Bursts of gunfire and screams echoed through the warren of rooms. A frantic Iraqi woman in a headscarf blocked the doorway. "Only women and children here," she said. I pushed past her, and saw a man with a gun squatting in the corner. I switched my rifle to semiautomatic and fired twice....SURRENDER plunges Theatergoers into the chaos, adrenaline, dread and camaraderie of modern urban warfare...SURRENDER ups the ante by putting the audience, quite literally, in the soldier's shoes."
-Wall St. Journal

"Hallucinatory...Profound...Theatergoers are in a squad, racing through rooms and facing tense scenes in enemy territory: a pregnant mother bristles with resentment at the invasion of her home; lovers are interrupted in an embrace; a lifeless body conceals a machine-gun magazine.... direct, immediate and focused"
-NY Times

A read-through of the audience comments suggests that for some, the play functions as a kind of 3D video game, while for others, it is a powerful induction into the experiences of counterinsurgency warfare (though, not surprisingly, from the soldiers' perspectives):

Unexpectedly, the experience of Surrender has changed me…For me, participating in Surrender was a brief foray into the unimaginable. Thank you so much, again, and thanks to Josh and the whole cast for an unbelievable and stunning experience.”
“Beautiful! The epitome of thought-provoking theater. Audiences have no choice but to do something about this reality.”
“I’m numb- frightening – overwhelming- found tears in my eyes though I wasn’t aware I was crying.”
“Mesmerizing. Amazing how the participants embraced their roles. Made me realize how scary it would be to be drafted.”
“Awesome. Fucking awesome. I didn’t want act 2 to end. [In Act III], I began to understand what people in the military go through.”
“This completely changes my idea of what theater could be. I want to do it again. I am in awe.”
“Most incredible piece of theater I’ve ever seen. How are they actors?”
“I can’t think of a more effective audience interaction in a performance I was brought to tears by audience members. Amazing.”
“All f-cking amazing! I’m sorry for the few words. I’m still a bit speechless.”
“My best friend is a Sergeant in the USMC currently serving in Iraq. This entire act was very emotional but gave me hope. Thank you.”
“My heart was pounding, especially in the Humvee. My hands were shaking from holding my gun but I felt like I couldn’t put it down because it was so real, and if I took my eyes off my target, something would happen. My brother is being deployed next month for his 3rd tour of Iraq so this was very eye opening. I can never know what he has gone through while in the army but this gave me a little taste.”
“ I thought the training was pretty g-ddam realistic. I have a friend going to West
Pointe and I finally have a tiny fraction of an idea of what he is going through.
I’ve never been so g-ddam sweaty at a performance in my life. Thank you. I was
alternately terrified, exciting, appalled, turned on, etc. Brilliant.”
“I can’t describe this act [three]. I can only say it is going to inspire me for months to come. Thank you.”
“F-cking scary. Felt genuine. I felt like crying several times – wanted to comfort
civilians – did not want to kill anyone – that felt strange but necessary on account
of the circumstances. Whoa.”
“This experience was so real. I felt like a soldier. I was nervous, anxious, and felt
alive…The most amazing experience I’ve ever had in a theater. This was heartbreaking,
gut-wrenching, emotionally driven. Beautifully choreographed and staged.”

Read more about "Surrender" here, and for tickets.

Here's one review, by Philippa Wehle:
Conceived and directed by Josh Fox
Written by Josh Fox and Jason Christopher Hartley,
The International WOW Company
The Ohio Theatre
66 Wooster St. New York
Opened October 26, closes November 16
Reviewed by Philippa Wehle, November 13, 2008

Imagine a line of 60 people in front of an Off Off Broadway theater in Soho eagerly volunteering to don Army uniforms and be trained by a veteran of the Iraq war in the arts of warfare. This is what I encountered when I arrived at International WOW company’s new show Surrender, a simulated war deployment experience in three acts, playing at the Ohio Theatre through November 16th. They had come to experience not only the grueling training that recruits must go through before deploying to Iraq, but also the feelings of fear and anticipation evoked in soldiers as they enter the rooms of Iraqi homes and make split-second decisions to kill the enemy or be killed in return.

Working with Jason Christopher Hartley, an army veteran who served in Iraq in 2004 and published a memoir Just Another Soldier; A Year on the Ground in Iraq, in 2005, Josh Fox, artistic director of WOW, has created a unique interactive show that is
fascinating throughout and important in terms of our understanding of what it means to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan..

Even before the first act began, I had the good luck to listen in on what was happening behind the curtains where the volunteer audience members were exchanging their civilian clothes for standard military uniforms and receiving instructions about how to tie their shoe laces, for example, on the special boots they had been given (only square knots, no loops). The cast of professional actors playing team leaders, squad leaders, doctors and nurses as well as terrorists, prisoners, and Iraqi women, 27 in all, was there to help them through the process.barking orders and making sure that they entered the performance area as quickly as possible.

Those who chose not to be soldiers, myself among them, were observers or civilians in military parlance. Ours was not as exciting a part to play as the roles of those actively involved in the experience of a simulated war but we were nonetheless close to the action at all times, and we felt very much a part of the event.

In Act 1, the nearly 60 soldiers, women and men of old ages, entered the Ohio Theater space and were divided into squads led by actors playing NCOs who had been trained in combat techniques by Jason Christopher Hartley. Once they had been properly lined up, Sargeant Hartley proceeded to give them a crash course in how to handle a rifle, how to clear a room and how to engage the enemy. If any one was not following instructions, he or she was ordered to "Push." And down they went, doing however many push ups required of them. The earnestness of these non-professionals was fascinating to watch. There was never any giggling or smirking, only what seemed to be genuine concern for learning the techniques and rules of war and helping each other to follow them.

In Act 2, the soldiers were deployed into a multi-room installation to put their military training to the test. They learned and practiced the rules of basic room clearing, stacking up, tapping it up, and learning the language they would have to use to clear the room or identify bodies, be they friend or foe. They were also given a lesson in how to search the bodies for any useful information as well as how to carry the wounded to the hospital, a room down stairs where doctors and nurses were frantically trying to save lives. It was good to hear Hartley remind them more than once that the dead must be respected, whether they are the enemy or not.

Next, we observers were invited to walk around the space and look into a series of rooms through openings in walls that had been roughly built around the training space. There we became witnesses to a number of unsettling scenes taking place in Iraqi homes: women mourning the loss of husbands and brothers, a couple shot in the act of making love, a prisoner being tortured. Fortunately we had been warned to wear the earplugs we had been given as these scenes were accompanied by the deafening noises of warfare: helicopters overhead, grenades, and rifles popping.

After a brief intermission during which the soldiers were allowed a few heady moments of well-deserved R & R, complete with beer and Go Go dancers, it was time for the troops to go home.

In Act 3, the soldiers joined the observers in the theater’s seating area, and together we took off on a Delta airlines flight taking these weary soldiers home. In typical WOW theater fashion, we were treated to a series of seemingly unrelated scenes as we watched the TV sitcom Friends on the overhead screen. One minute the stewardesses were giving us the usual instructions, the next a terrorist was slitting the throat of one of them and a soldier in war paint was racing forward to deliver a frenetic speech; dance sequences were interspersed with a visit to a hospital where the war wounded wearing tiger, pig, and shark costumes reenacted a scene we had seen in Fox’s 2007 piece You Belong to Me, and some of the volunteer soldiers were invited to play roles in scenes about looking for a job, attending a funeral, and grappling with the difficulties of reuniting with former girlfriends (their lines provided by a karaoke scroller screen), and much more.

The show lasted about four hours (none of them the least bit boring even though some might question how exciting it is to watch recruits being trained) and many of the participants stayed on afterwards to talk about their extraordinary experience (one female soldier told me how emotional she had felt during the Iraqi house raids; they had brought tears to her eyes, she said).

Surrender is a masterful achievement on all fronts. Not only have Fox and his company succeeded in producing an important piece about the war in Iraq, but the interactive nature of the show allows both soldiers and observers to get a much closer look at what it means to volunteer for duty, to train, kill and be killed, than we ever get from televised reports of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.. How they manage to harness the energies, dedication and enthusiasm of a new group of amateur players each time the show is performed is equally remarkable. Unfortunately this memorable show only runs for three weeks. I can only hope that it will find other sponsors and another space so that many more people can observe war close up.

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