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Telling Project wants to help civilians understand military life and its aftermath

Michael Lato, right, Harold Taylor and John Scates rehearse for a scene.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Michael Lato, right, Harold Taylor and John Scates rehearse for a scene.

For six performances next month in Grand Center, military veterans – and one military spouse – will present the Telling Project, a stage play designed to help the public understand what it’s like to be in the armed forces, then return to civilian life.

It uses the actual words from area veterans recruited through the University of Missouri-St. Louis. But no one should attend the production thinking it will be a straight, factual rendition of life in uniform.

This isn’t the Truth Project. This is the Telling Project.

“We are not a truth commission,” explained Max Rayneard, the senior writer for the production. “The Telling Project is not an archival historical project. We're not vested in an objective account of history so much as we are in the way that people's experiences and stories come to them after the fact.”

Rayneard started doing the scripts for Telling Project productions in Oregon in 2008 and has since worked on more than 30 versions all over the country.

The South African native, who has studied that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, helps recruit participants, interviews them at length, then returns to his apartment in Austin, Texas, to craft their recollections into a script.

But that’s not the end. That’s just a beginning.

“You put the script together and you hand it to the cast,” he said, “and it is their sworn duty in this process to tell us how we got it wrong. I put out a draft. They make it theirs and make it perfect.”

And, Rayneard added, they make it intensely personal.

“When we put these productions on, the people that are telling their stories are taking a risk,” he said. “And that part of what they're doing is to step forward out of their comfort zone and speak publicly about deeply personal and complicated things.”

Jim Craig, who heads UMSL’s Department of Military and Veteran Studies, helped bring the production to St. Louis. He put out a call in January for people who might want to take part.

“I hear from students often that the community doesn't understand me,” he said, “or they just don't get me or my experience. One of my first responses is how have you helped them understand? Why would they just automatically get it if you haven't told your story? So this is a way to do that.”

Joshua Arnold, sitting on the floor, and Michael Lato run through a scene during rehearsal.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Joshua Arnold, sitting on the floor, and Michael Lato run through a scene during rehearsal.

A three-act play

The Telling Project is structured as a three-act play: What was your life like before you went into the military, what was your life like in uniform, and what have your experiences been since you got out?

Rayneard said all three parts play an important role in helping understand how the armed services can shape your daily life, even years after you are discharged.

“It's not like you wake up one day and go, ‘Oh, those 13 months I spent in Vietnam, that's what that means. Now I've got it,’” he said. “Your relationship with that history continues to evolve, continues to evolve, and the process has to reflect that these are not stories that are finished.”

The most difficult part of the experience can be not when the men and women are on active duty, but when they return to civilian life. Too often, Rayneard said, stereotypes take hold that can harm real relationships. He recounted the typical characterizations.

“Veterans are alcoholics, veterans have PTSD, veterans are violent, veterans have traumatic brain injuries, veterans are crazy, veterans are homeless,” he said. “Veterans aren't issues. Veterans are people who have issues like we all do.”

Helping to translate the stories from the page to the stage is Jacqueline Thompson of the UMSL theater department. She has been involved with productions like Shakespeare in Old North and said she likes working with people who aren’t used to performing before an audience.

“Non-actors don’t have an ego,” she laughed. “I don't feel a lot of ego with the non-actors. They're more open and willing to listen and learn and take direction.”

Raleigh Muns, left, and John Scates discuss a scene.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Raleigh Muns, left, and John Scates discuss a scene.

Rehearsing real life

In a recent rehearsal in a building tucked behind the Touhill Center on the UMSL campus, Raleigh Muns called out the play’s opening line:

“ARE YOU READY?  Good to go.”

He is one of the five men and three women in the Telling Project cast.

They sat on red plastic chairs, clutching their scripts and working their way through an early version of the production.

As Thompson sketched out rudimentary stage blocking and gives tips on keeping things lively – pick up the pace, move with a purpose – they tell their stories, sometimes individually, sometimes as part of a group.

Mixed in with the narrative are calisthenics, mock battle movements and drill, where one of the group, Darcella Craven, turns left when everyone is ordered to turn right and mutters an obscenity just loud enough for the audience to hear.

Muns, who is a librarian at UMSL, joined the Navy in 1983, serving four years on a frigate. He said he signed up for a common reason – a need for discipline in his life, after too much time with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

Director Jacqueline Thompson follows along in May 2016 during a production.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Director Jacqueline Thompson follows along as performers rehearse.

“I was spinning out of control, hedonistically in Los Angeles,” he said. “Too much money to spend on myself and nothing else. I was either going to be dead in a year or in prison.”

Harold Taylor, who left St. Louis to become a member of the 82nd Airborne during Desert Storm, wanted to join the cast so he could tell how the Veterans Administration helped him get his life back together after a rough bout with alcohol.

“I never saw myself outside of a bottle,” Taylor said. “But once I saw myself coming out of the bottle, I did not want to go back.

“Once you get your life back together, once you get YOU together, everything else will fall in order. That's one of the things I want everybody to remember, that just because you fall, don't stay down. “

And Karen Cross joined the Navy Reserve at age 32, when she was an elementary school teacher in North County. In the play, the others make fun of her because she never had to go through basic training and deal with what one terms “the drill sergeant from Hell.”

But Cross ended up being deployed to Afghanistan, where she was part of a poetry club on the base in Bagram. She wrote of the differences between military and civilian life:

If they were not there; they don’t know the sinking
Feeling of seeing a MEDIVAC land,
There’s no understanding of keeping your Kevlar at Hand.
If they were not there; the perception of INCOMING is obsolete,
They cannot fathom the Peace that comes from
Feeling the hum of the F-16’s beat.

All agreed that Rayneard’s script lost little of their feelings when he translated and condensed their interviews. Muns put it this way:

“I like the way that our various stories complement each other. They're not all the same. They're sort of a tapestry.

Harold Taylor, left, Raleigh Muns and John Scates discuss the Telling Project script during rehearsal.
Harold Taylor, left, Raleigh Muns and John Scates discuss the Telling Project script during rehearsal.

It’s not as simple as ‘Thank you for your service’

For his part, Rayneard wanted to show that retelling tales from military life isn’t always the cleansing experience that people may think it is.

“The assumption was that it was healing,” he said And the answer is sometimes, it isn't. Sometimes telling your stories just sucks. Sometimes it just hurts. Sometimes it just triggers stuff that you thought you had let go of.

“I see it in interviews all the time. It's not about healing. It's not about the happy ending. It's not about the catharsis. That's what civilians want.”

He added that the common way that civilians greet veterans, “thank you for your service,” may be well-meaning but misplaced.

“Veterans are as diverse as civilians are, because they're drawn from civilian populations,” Rayneard said. “They're as diverse in their opinions and their responses and their politics and their sensitivities and their genders and their sexual orientations as anybody else, and yet they're kind of painted with a single brush.

“Thank you for your service. It's more complicated than that. It's always more complicated than that.”

Margaret Schreffler recites lines during rehearsal.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Margaret Schreffler recites lines during rehearsal.


For Craig, performances like the Telling Project are designed to recapture an old tradition of veterans returning home after the battle is over and telling their community what they have been asked to do.

“There are lots of historical and cultural references to warriors coming back and then telling their stories as a part of their integration process,” Craig said. “And the community that sent them, or the community that they represented, listening to those stories, honestly, openly, trying to comprehend what they just asked their citizens or their warrior representatives to do. 

“We don't have that in our country, outside of small programs like this. But there's a move afoot that says this might be what we're missing.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

If you go: The six free performances of the Telling Project will be staged at the Kranzberg Arts Center in Grand Center. For show times, click here .

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.