TELLING: What I learned.
My husband, Mike, and I joined the cast of The Telling Project: Telling Aggieland, for one reason and one reason alone: to encourage an open discussion between our civilians and our veterans here at Texas A&M, and her surrounding cities, about military service. Texas A&M is one of only six senior military colleges, a number which includes the Citadel. Rich in service history, eight graduates of Texas A&M have received The Medal of Honor. It is, without a doubt, a university with a commitment to service. That said, even there- a discussion needs to take place. Until a person has personal experience with the military lifestyle, no matter how long they serve in the Cadet Corps or with the ROTC, they can’t fully grasp the idea of what military life is like. The best they can do is to converse with military men and women and those who support them. Us. But… sometimes we’re not easy people to approach. And, when they approach us, it’s questions that simply drive us insane that we get. For example: Have you ever shot anyone? Did you get to go see him in Afghanistan? He got to come home for the birth, right? Was he allowed to come home when you found out you were sick?
So- we joined the cast. We had stories to tell, and we had an opportunity to tell them. What we didn’t count on was learning things along the way.
I can memorize.
I’ve never been a fan of monologues. I adore the interaction of stage, the getting so into character with your fellow cast that you forget there’s an audience out there and you become the person you are playing. Getting to pretend to be someone else, just for a short time, is my favorite part of the stage. It’s what has always driven me to theatre. But this production centered round personal experiences and monologues; mine were about five minutes each. Act 1 focused on boot camp, and there was definitely interaction there. Act 2 consisted of one long monologue per person. But Act 3 had two scenes with a monologue each, that we had to memorize in about five weeks. I rewrote my second and third monologues halfway through rehearsals to more accurately reflect what I wanted to say, but I still struggled to memorize them. Dr. Greenwald (our talented director) finally took me into a room, turned out all the lights, and told me not to start my monologue until I simply couldn’t stand NOT to say it. I stood in the dark for what seemed like forever, but I’m sure was only a minute or so. Finally, I opened my mouth and the words just spilled out. It turns out, I was so focused on the fact that I didn’t know my lines that I wasn’t paying attention to the fact that I actually knew my lines.
Sometimes it pays to be the comedic relief.
I confess, when I first read the script, all I could think was that I’d been painted as the funny girl with nothing real to say, and it bothered me greatly. I felt like I had a lot to offer to the “conversation” we were initiating, and, as much as I adore a laughing audience, I wasn’t going to get a chance to say some of the things I really wanted to say. As it turns out, because I was so lighthearted during Act 2, I automatically held the attention of the audience during my two re-written monologues in Act 3. I wouldn’t have been able to captivate the audience had I just walked out into Act 2 with a heavy subject. Instead of launching into what might’ve been viewed as a ranting complain-fest, I introduced my “character” as a comedienne, basically ensuring the audience looked forward to my next monologue- which addressed the heavy subject of the effects of military life on a marriage and divorce statistics, and allowed me to set the stage for an incredibly serious monologue about attempted suicide.
The show must go on.
Just a week before we were supposed to hit the stage, some disturbing details began to come to light about someone working on the production with us. The details, while quite unimportant at this time, made for a very uncomfortable pre-production week at that time. The biggest issues came down to this person following some of the girls out to their cars, unbeknownst to them, padding some of this person’s military records with unearned awards and very questionable experiences, and making sometimes very uncomfortable demands of someone else working on the production team. This person was difficult to be around at times, because the stories just became so far-fetched that some of us couldn’t stand to even be in the same room. The concerns that some of us had, including some of them from an active duty military member in the cast, were addressed between the powers that be, who, in the end, decided to retain this particular person in the show. It was too late for such a massive change, and there was some worry that it might cause a mental breakdown. And so- we had to continue to work as if nothing were wrong, keeping our professionalism up and our bile down.
It’s difficult to work with someone you know is lying and harassing others you work with. Additionally, it’s difficult to prove, unless the person admits it- which is rare. It is also difficult to ignore the fact that those of us who were affected could have chosen to leave the production because of it. And it would have been a devastating loss for the show. It would have been a bigger loss to the community, who would not have heard our stories, and been encouraged to engage with their local veterans. We had to make a decision, continue to work with someone who was incredibly bothersome and maybe a bit of a stalker, or drop out and ruin any chance we had of bringing awareness to the issues of suicide, divorce and family support in the military. In the end, the show must go on, and we made changes to some of the things we were doing. For example, I insisted that part of the cast all park together and walk out together. The parking garage can be dark and a bit scary and I didn’t want this particular girl who was kind of being harassed to get caught in the garage alone. Additionally, I told my husband everything that was going on, and he made it a point to not allow this particular person to be around the women alone. Going into life after Telling, that is one of the biggest lessons I will always carry with me. No matter how horrible that one woman is that I occasionally have to converse with because of my job, I am doing something great, and walking away because she sucks would be a greater loss.
I needed healing, too.
Ten years of constantly being left behind, constantly being the only parent when I was never much of a “motherly” person to begin with, constantly being the wife with the “open door policy” for all of the other wives, constantly having to deflect accusations of affairs (tossed from both sides of the fence, like grenades, at both of us), never having a family I could run to when I needed extra emotional support, and not having consistent adult interaction outside of the internet because we are always moving… those things were beginning to pull on me, emotionally, and I felt like I was suffocating. I was feeling angry and hurt and crushed all the time. I was starting to lose track of the number of times I’d told my mom, with very little conviction, “It’s okay. He’ll make it up to me.”
I was losing track of the birthdays and holidays he’s missed. I couldn’t remember the number of funerals I’d attended without him. We were doing okay, but I was not. I was drowning under it all. Telling Aggieland was a way to get that out there. It was a way to take the hurt and the loneliness for the last ten years and put it into something important that was going to make a difference. Getting up in front of all those people and laying out the statistics on divorce helped me to put the last ten years into prospective. (Did you know that from 2011-2012, our divorce rate among active duty military was higher than the marriage rate? We are getting divorces faster than we are getting married!) Putting so much energy into those two monologues opened my eyes to my own need for healing. All along I thought I was doing this great thing for the community around me, and we were, but I never thought about the great thing I was doing for me.
Blood is thicker than water, but love is thicker than blood.
I’ve never been super close to my family. There were a lot of kids, 9 of us to be exact, and my parents took in foster kids as well. I was the youngest of five girls, with just 2 little brothers. My two little brothers and I were adopted. So, naturally, at times I felt closer with the foster kids than I did with my own siblings. My parents raised us as their own, treating us like their kids, as it should be. But I was old enough to remember the adoption, and so I always grew up with the knowledge that family is who you make it. In the military community, we know that better than anyone. But, over the years, I guess I’d just lost the idea that my “family” doesn’t just have to be those military men and women around me, and their kids.
While on the cast of Telling Aggieland, I met someone. We’ll call her Becky. Becky is weird. But like, a good weird that compliments my weird. Like, I texted her a few days ago with the colors I’d chosen for her wedding (no, she doesn’t even have a boyfriend, we’re just planning for the future, right?), and the names of her future children (she’ll have three), and instead of calling me a freak and running away (like a smart person would), she was just like “I approve.” Aside from being on my level of oddness, Becky is a civilian. An outright, has nothing to do with the military at all, civilian. She is a master’s student with a brilliant mind, unwavering morals, and a fantastic sense of humor. In the last week, production week, before we took the stage, Becky gave us all a card. In my card she wrote, “Lady Clyde” (because my dad used to call Mike “Clyde”). “From the first time we spoke at the workshop, I knew we would be good friends. I feel like I’ve gotten closer to you than anyone during this project. It may be because we’re both a little crazy… I mean, we’re basically best friends now anyways”.
When I got home after the first night of production and opened my card, I cried. We’ve been here for two years now, and I still haven’t found that person here. You know, my Christina. My Meredith. My person. It’s tough finding her. Only every once in awhile, every few bases, will we come across our person. Only then it seems like, after we find her, it’s time to move again. But here I am, with about an entire year left at this duty station, and I found my person! I never would’ve been blessed with a friendship with Becky if it hadn’t been for Telling, and I would’ve gone on and on forgetting that I don’t just have to pick and choose my “family” based on whether they come from the wrong side of the tracks, like me. I don’t have to base my friendships with people on what job their daddy or husband has. I can be friends with women who have nothing to do with the military, are single, without kids, and ten years younger than me if I want!
This is my stage.
Telling Aggieland was directed by Dr. Michael Greenwald. Throughout all of our rehearsals, Dr. Greenwald was consistently reminding us that this was our stage. From start to finish, the entire production was about us, our stories, and our experiences. When I wanted to change my second monologue, I asked him first. His response to me was “Just do it. You don’t have to ask me, this is your stage. If I don’t like what you do on it, I’ll tell you. But I trust you.” He made me feel very comfortable up there, like a good director does. He basically put all of his trust in us as actors, despite none of us being actors when we started. That’s a big deal, to completely give up control of the stage to your actors. A good director is a sneaky director. He knows that he’s only in complete control when he makes his cast think they are.
This was also Dr. Greenwald’s last production at Texas A&M as a full time professor. After this production, he begins a three year transitional period in which he only teaches part time. Telling Aggieland wrapped up an incredible 30 year career for Doc G at this university. Early the afternoon of our last show, one of the cast members reached out to all of us and asked if we’d like to recognize Doc G at the end of our show. Now, as a general rule, the director receives no acknowledgement at the end of a production, not publicly anyway. A director generally likes to stay out of the limelight, turning the stage over to his actors and letting them be the stars of the night. It is highly frowned upon to call attention to the director. So, just before we took the stage, this cast mate approached me and asked me to give Doc G the honors after we took our final bow. I agreed, nervously. I wasn’t sure how Dr. Greenwald would react to attention being called to him on this, our final night. But we did it anyway, because Doc G turned this production into an experience and recognizing him was the right thing to do. And I kept thinking about him telling me “Just do it. If I don’t like what you do, I’ll tell you.” I figured, I’d rather ask forgiveness than ask permission.
While it was frowned on by one or two people, this is what I learned from doing it, despite knowing what “protocol” was: this is my stage. What I do on it is what I choose to do, with the support of the people on stage with me. This is a HUGE thing to carry with me in life, as well. In life, this is my stage. As long as I have the support of my husband and my “cast mates”, what I do on it is what I choose to do. This is not to say that I ignore “protocol” or that I don’t take in to consideration what is expected of me. But rather, this means that I carefully weigh the difference between what I should do and what I know needs to be done. There are going to be times in my life when I know that the powers that be are frowning at me, saying negative things about me, and generally disapproving of my choices. And I’m okay with that, provided I know I’ve done what I thought was best at the time, with the support of those I care most about. There have been times in the past where I’ve greatly irritated “high ranking” people. I’ve worried about it and fretted about it until, at the end of the day, I go to bed knowing that I did the right thing. It can be burdensome and scary, but what I do is what I choose to do. It’s liberating, being able to go to bed at night knowing that no matter who I pissed off today, I did what I thought needed to be done.
This experience- I’d do it all over again. I’ve always loved the stage, and acting is something that will forever be in my blood. Kind of like flying. Those of you with husbands who are pilots. Those of you who ride motorcycles. You know what it’s like to have something you love in your blood. The stage? Acting? In my blood. But even the best play I’ve ever been in, even the most advanced stage I’ve ever been on and even the most talented director and crew I’ve ever worked with will never hold a candle to Telling Aggieland. I would do this project again and again and again.
For more information on “The Telling Project”, and how you can bring “Telling” to your town or base, please visit thetellingproject.org
Photos courtesy of Colonel Gerald Smith, USMC Retired, Veteran Resource and Support Center at Texas A&M. Photos by Kelley Starnes, Melissa Borchgrevink and Laine Tiedeman