Real Life Stuff with Director Debbie Levin
Ellipse Theatre Community is quickly becoming known for building a supportive and artistically aware community through blending performing arts and education. This November, the local Central Oregon production company debuts the PTSD Awareness Project, centering around the powerful play Craig Fox Had a Wife. This is a true story of one's personal challenges learning to live with grief and post-traumatic stress disorder. Playwright Beverly Allen dissects the impact that war-related PTSD has on soldiers and their families often left behind in the aftermath. Ultimately delivering the message that we are not alone, this production also poses a raw human inquiry— is there hope for our healing?
Debbie Levin, a former program manager for IBM, and current ETC director for Craig Fox Had a Wife considers the question while waiting for her tea to finish steeping. Twenty years after she helped build a New York theater company from the ground up, Debbie found herself in Bend, Oregon. A passionate stage director and producer, she has an unwavering love for all things theater. This show in particular resonated with her. “The circumstances are remarkable. It’s a real-life story”. A story that takes the audience along for a ride through several decades as main character Emily, battles with grief after losing her new husband to the Vietnam war. Years later she journeys to where her husband was serving while they were married, hoping to make peace with their past cut short. "After losing her husband in the war so many years prior, she is finally able to leave the soldier behind and bring back the person she loved", finding solace in the recognition that his identity is greater than the job he has lost his life accomplishing.
Fascinated by the impact that war and PTSD have on survivors, Debbie Levin was drawn to the show by the strong narratives, lying behind each character’s personal battle, inspired by playwright Beverly Allen’s bravery in recounting this beautiful and often times painful set of memories for us to peer into. “The lovely thing about this production is that we get to work with Allen directly", Levin explains. "Beverly gets to talk to the actors one-on-one, teaching them the mannerisms of herself and the people she knew", who the actors bring to life in a recounted tale of resiliency and survivor’s guilt. By displaying photographs of the actual faces behind the story, the show acts as a sort of visitation into the memory bank of Allen’s mind.
In discussion with Beverley Allen for over a year, Levin describes the back-and-forth conversations as a process that filled in the blanks to her understanding of the story, noting how important it was to hear Beverley Allen recall the simplest moments of a life once lived with Craig. The actors felt privileged to schedule interviews with Allen, gaining insight into her experience so they could accurately portray the girl she was, the man she lost and the vet who served with Craig whom she connects with. “I want people to gain insight into how they can start a conversation with a vet about their experience. People don’t always know what to say, or they are self-conscious about asking what the war was like”.
So how do we broach the subject? How does someone gently open the channel of communication that allows supportive space for a vet’s experience to be recounted?
We start by showing up. “Be brave and ask”. We need to expand “the awareness of what they go through. You never know when you could be sitting next to a vet, and what ‘s informing their decisions and behaviors.” Always ask yourself, “how can I understand where this person is coming from?”
November 12th & 19th shows offer panel discussions with the audience, entitled, "Connecting with Our Military Communities". These panels intend to provide conversational education in hopes of decreasing the hesitancy of opening dialogue, and increasing the lines of communication between a vet and a listener. Throughout the halls of Open Space from November 11th-19th, a stunning array of art work is displayed, greeting play-goers with a few of the bold images that live inside the minds of war & PTSD survivors.
With a cast made up of three veterans, Levin has been able to create the production in an authentic way. How a solider salutes, folds a flag or adjusts to home life after war were all thoroughly discussed, creating genuine personalities for each character. “Something I love about my cast is not only do I have these three veterans, but there are also other cast members that offer perspectives on the impacts of war and PTSD. Everyone has a relationship to trauma.”
Either having personally fought or felt the consequences of their family members in active duty, the show is in the hands of a group of individuals who deeply understand the message they are spreading. Dedicated to education and community outreach under the informed direction of ETC, this production is a way of reaching out to a population that needs us. "We hope it speaks to all vets by saying, Come play with us. You’re welcome here. We will embrace you.”