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Back from Iraq The veterans of "In Conflict" teach young actors, and audiences, about the human cost of war.
Until he and his young cast took the show to Edinburgh a last month, Douglas C. Wager didn't know how apt the title of the Iraq-themed In Conflict would be.

"To promote the show, we had cast members in U.S. military uniforms, but wearing a T-shirt saying they were in the show, go out and hand out flyers and do some street-theater excerpts from the show," recalls Wager, who adapted and directed Yvonne Latty's book of the same title. "One actress handed a guy a flyer, and he crumpled it up and threw it back at her. Another person took the flyer and put it on the ground; the actor picked it up and gave it to him again, and the man said, 'No, it really belongs on the ground.' One actor was literally spat on."

The play In Conflict, which ended up winning the Fringe First Award in Edinburgh and which opens Sept. 18 at the Culture Project, presents the stories of 15 Iraq war veterans, and the title refers to more than just the Iraq War but also to the contrasts among them and even the conflicts within themselves. The show began as a student project at Temple University in Pennsylvania, where Wager has taught theatre for a number of years and was recently named Artistic Director and head of the university's directing program. He'd read Latty's book and had an important realization about his students.

"It was not only a vital subject, but many of the characters in the book are college age," Wager says. This was more than just a practical casting advantage—it was also an opportunity to engage his students in a subject they hadn't thought much about.

"I was drafted during the Vietnam War, and I think that lottery is what ultimately put an end to that war—it woke us up. In contrast, I found out my students knew very little about the Iraq War and were pretty apathetic about it."

By now, many of the students have gotten to know, and even correspond with, the veterans whose interviews they're bringing to life onstage. Kelly Doherty, whose story is represented in the play, is now the executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and she and the actress who plays her are in frequent touch. Many of the actors have also become involved with the Wounded Warrior Project, a volunteer organization helping veterans with basic needs. These are teaching lessons may be more important, ultimately, than any acting class.

"I tell them, 'What you're learning as actors has a purpose well beyond whether you can on a TV show. You all know there are really steep odds against that ever happening, so what are you doing studying acting? Well, there are a lot of things you can do with it, very profound things. You can think of yourself as citizen artists and take your skills as a healing force into the world.' "

The show has had precisely that effect on the veterans and veterans' families who have seen it.

"It was pretty overwhelming," Wager says of the first performance in which veterans portrayed in the play came to watch it. "The vets have just been so grateful that their stories are being heard. It's the same thing that happens at a wake; by witnessing and speaking what we've been holding inside, we somehow reconnect."

For non-veteran audiences, the show may have an even more profound effect.

"I've had people come see the show, the people I call 'Starbuck liberals,' who wanna sit and debate the war," Wager says. "And they come up to me afterward and say, 'This is a whole other side of the issue, and this piece questions my own disengagement as a human being from other human beings.' If you come into this show thinking that you know exactly what your point of view about this is, this will change it.

"I'm not saying it will swing you one way or the other, but it will throw you back into the sea of humanity, and remind you: These are people killing people, people fighting an un-uniformed army, people being asked to do things that are unclear and very dangerous and they don't understand. And when they come back, instead of the vilification that Vietnam vets were met with, they're greeted with a sort of benign indifference, which is in some ways worse."

To create the show, Wager used an "audio immersion" technique he'd observed Anna Deavere Smith use in creating her docu-theatre pieces (Fires in the Mirror, Twilight: Los Angeles 1992). Rather than starting with text, the actors began their work recreating the audio of Latty's original interviews, and then building a theatrical performance around that.

"It becomes an aural, physical channeling of a person," Wager says.

Among the people channeled by the show is the author, Latty, who goes on her own journey through the telling of these veterans' stories.

"I discovered when I met her that Yvonne's life had changed as a result of doing this book," Wager says. "She didn't know it when she started, but talking to these veterans changed her."

Hearing these stories, the creators of In Conflict hope, may work a similar change on audiences.

Click here for more information about In Conflict.