Early in 2017, TheatreWorks Florida was interested in a new focus group for their highly successful community outreach program, TheatreCares. Through a quick internet search of “arts,” “health,” and “military,” I fell down a rabbit hole of information that led to an incredible year and a half journey of discovery to combine theatre arts with military veteran health needs. The outcome is our outstanding arts and health in the military program called Vet Voices.
Vet Voices was developed through our attendance at workshops offered at the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military Summit in nearby Tampa, at local VA hospitals, and from days of research and hours of labor. In February 2018, TheatreWorks Florida received a $10,000 grant for Vet Voices from the National Endowment for the Arts (Challenge America) that would finally bring the program to life.
Vet Voices is a free theatre arts program for military war veterans, their families, and caregivers that enlists therapeutic arts through active participation in workshops and events. The program provides veterans an opportunity for positive self-awareness and self-discovery in a creative “safe space” environment and allows veterans affected by war to explore the theatre arts and ultimately find healing through creativity.
The performance-based program combines theatre professionals with veterans on stage in a fully produced original musical play, developed by the veterans themselves, incorporating creative writing, music, songs, and visual art generated from the workshops.
The first session of Vet Voices was held July 14, 2018. The launch session was only supposed to be an orientation to the program and getting to know one another better. The experience, however, went far beyond a “Day 1 get together.”
After introductions, our vets were more than eager to share their stories about how and why each got into the military, their career paths, and where they are now. Then I asked, “Why have YOU come to Vet Voices?” The answers were amazing. Most all of them said, “To express my feelings that are pent up from my war experiences.” I was surprised to find that as the hours ticked by, the vets opened up even more and were very vocal about their war time. Each found that creative writing seemed to have found its way into their lives as a means of expressing emotion since many times a “soldier” isn’t allowed to express their emotions openly in the work place.
Identifying where each participating vet will land in the Vet Voices program and what he or she will end up contributing is going to take some time because they are all very new to theatre as a medium. However, all of the vets were clear on one thing: they want to tell the civilian public their stories. They all felt that theatre is the perfect medium to create a world that might actually be understandable to civilians—an audience who really can’t begin to understand what soldiers go through to protect our country on a daily basis in service.
I personally was astounded at how open the vets were once we showed them they were in a “safe space” to communicate. The military culture usually remains cordial but closed when talking to the normal civilian about their military life. That barrier broke down very quickly, and I believe it was because there were multiple vets in the room communicating together. I let them talk as I observed. It was a fascinating revelation into a world I really knew nothing about. The excitement of watching and listening to what their world entailed, and to think about how we were going to create it on stage, was exhilarating!
I can’t wait to get even more veterans involved along the way. It is important to understand that Vet Voices is not a project but an ongoing “arts and health” program. Our enrollment is open all year long and I hope more and more veterans take advantage of the wonderful, healing environment we are creating.
“Our veterans’ stories are of the highest importance and we are going to tell them. One step at a time.”
The Vet Voices program is completely free of charge to military veterans of war (Active, Retired, Reserve, and National Guard), their families, and their caregivers in the Central Florida region and meets Saturdays at the TheatreWorks Florida Theatre in Davenport, FL.
Everything you ever wanted to know about Vet Voices, including signing up, can be found on the TheatreWorks/TheatreCares Florida’s website.
Contact us at Vetvoices@theatreworksfl.org or (407) 340-0473.
TheatreWorks Florida is a 501(c)(3) professional Central Florida-based theatre company. Formed in 2007, TheatreWorks offers some of the finest theatrical musicals available today as well as produces new, original works from area artists and artists from around the country. For more information, visit Theatreworksfl.org.