Jonathan Wei at a rehearsal for “Telling: Austin”

Jonathan Wei at a rehearsal for “Telling: Austin”

Arts & Humanities

Theatre of War

Jonathan Wei ’88 helps military veterans tell their stories.

By Robyn Ross  | December 1, 2013

As an army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Steve Metze wasn’t supposed to show emotion in front of other service members. He definitely wasn’t supposed to cry.

But standing on stage in his final performance in “Telling: Austin,” Metze broke the code. He delivered his closing lines—about his belief that everyone should serve in the military—then paused. A sense of impending loss, a feeling he’d kept at bay throughout the performance, overcame him. He’d spent months preparing for the show with his 12 fellow cast and crew members. This was the last night they would be together.

More importantly, in his 24-year military career, these were the first people he’d talked to about his experiences. Even his wife hadn’t heard these stories.

So Metze went off script—totally off script—and began to tell each member of the troupe what he admired most about them. “None of it was planned,” he said later. “There were tears for most of the people there. But I was glad I said those things, because those other seven people and those five crew members were the only people I’d ever really talked to about those things, and the only people I felt really wanted to listen.”

Metze’s catharsis was a surprise to his fellow performers, but less so to Jonathan Wei ’88. For the past six years, Wei has staged the Telling Project in 15 cities, including Portland, Baltimore, and Des Moines. The project is a theatrical performance drawn from the real stories of local veterans and their families. It’s presented to a local audience with the intention of closing the gap between those with and without military experience.

“People in the show will talk about things they don’t talk about otherwise,” Wei says. “I’ve seen spontaneous stories told during the show that people have never told, but on stage, in that sacred space, they can do it. The format and ritual of theatre allows people to speak, and audiences to listen.”

They do more than listen. The response to Telling has been overwhelming. Audiences laugh, weep, and give standing ovations. Critics write about feeling simultaneously enlightened by and grateful for the performance. “The stories are raw and funny and moving,” the Washington Post’s Michael Rosenwald said of a 2012 Baltimore performance. “Go see this play.”

“This is a brave, powerful undertaking,” wrote Diana Nollen in the Cedar Rapids Gazette about a Telling performance in Iowa City. “If I hadn’t been so busy writing, observing and evaluating, I would have been crying, like so many others around me.”

The project has been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution. It’s been featured on NPR, Fox News, and CNN. Both Michelle Obama and Jill Biden have seen it.

The acclaim is even more impressive when you consider that the performers are not actors, but veterans—most of whom have never been onstage before.

Telling was born in Eugene, where Wei was working as a student adviser at the University of Oregon while his wife was in graduate school. One of his responsibilities was advising a veterans’ student organization that held outreach events but wasn’t attracting its intended audience: people with strong opinions about the military and war but with little exposure to either.

A writer by trade, Wei woke up one morning with an epiphany: he’d write a play that would allow veterans to tell their stories onstage. Working with a cowriter, a director, and performers from the student group, he created a play that was performed nine months later in Eugene.

In each Telling city, Wei works with local veterans’ organizations to recruit participants and then gathers their stories via interviews usually lasting between 2 and 4 hours (the longest went for 12). He then invites anyone who’s interviewed to perform. Local cowriters help him shape excerpts from the interviews into a script, and a local director coaches the cast in basic performance technique to help everyone feel more comfortable onstage.

Steve Metze graduated from West Point in 1989. A lieutenant colonel in the Texas Army National Guard, he served in the Gulf War, Bosnia, and Iraq, and now works as a manager in the semiconductor industry in Austin. Unlike most of the cast, he had a bit of performance experience from a season doing improv at a Renaissance festival. This background is most evident when it combines with Metze’s dry sense of humor in act one, relating to the cast’s misadventures before and during basic training.

“You’ve got me trying to get in shape by running around in dress shoes,” he says, explaining that he trained by jogging around his hometown in shorts and black oxfords. He’d seen a photo of West Point cadets in a similar ensemble and thought that’s what was worn for physical training. “You’ve got me continuing to look at the cadet who was yelling at me not to look at him; me demonstrating ways to screw up at the dinner table at West Point.”

But in act two, the tone shifts. The cast goes into details about their deployments and the more difficult situations they faced. Metze speaks about the stress his deployments put on his relationships and about moments of violence in Iraq. One haunting image was the ring finger of an Iraqi insurgent who had blown himself up in Tikrit. When Metze investigated the scene, he saw the dead man’s finger lying in an unnatural—and unforgettable—way, bent back against his hand. 

In act three, Metze talks about his experiences coming back home. How he had recurrent nightmares about being attacked by zombies (apparently not uncommon among combat veterans). And about one nightmare in particular where “the lead zombie in front only had one arm—and it was that guy.”  

Telling is a conversation starter meant to bridge the gap between civilians and military. Only 1% of the U.S. population has ever served in the armed forces. “So that means 99% gets all their information about the military from television or the movies,” Metze says. “This show is a way for the audience to hear stories and points of view that they will never hear anywhere else.”

Of course civilians can easily find statistics and news stories about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, PTSD, the VA, and emotional and psychological trauma. But Wei is quick to point out the deficiencies of such a theoretical approach to understanding the military. 

“We have a ton of access to information and opinion about the military, but very little actual access to how that’s impacting us directly and how it’s touching our communities. What we see are these ideas and historical events, and not these individuals who actually live with us. [The show] is a way of listening to the world and feeling our own integration with it, rather than picking up a newspaper.”

One current issue that has taken a human face in Telling is military sexual trauma, or MST. The Austin show closed days before the Pentagon’s release of a survey estimating that 26,000 people in the armed forces were sexually assaulted in 2012. The Austin production included two accounts of MST: the stories of Lance Corporal Regina Vasquez, who had been raped by two of her fellow Marines at motor transport school, and Senior Airman Jenn Hassin, who had been harassed and groped by her instructor at basic training.

Hassin, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, had reported the instructor once she finished basic training. He was court-martialed and sentenced to prison. Vasquez, on the other hand, had been threatened with death if she reported the rapes. She’d kept them a secret throughout her deployment to Okinawa, where she’d endured further discrimination and harassment. Only in 2010—after more than 11 years of silence —did she begin to talk about the assaults and process the experience through art, writing, a documentary, and advocating for changes to prevent and improve response to sexual assault in the military. But repeating the story night after night, in front of a live audience, took a different kind of courage than being interviewed for the documentary.

“It’s very therapeutic to be able to come out and educate the community on behalf of what we experienced,” Vasquez said after the show. “It’s therapeutic for everybody, including whoever watches the show, because in one form or another they’re all connected, audience and cast.”

That sense of connection is what drives Wei’s work. Too often, he says, returning service members are expected to process their experiences on their own, or in therapy—settings that shield the public from knowledge of what they endured. Like it or not, all Americans are implicated in the work the military does overseas; the least we can do, Wei says, is listen. “When we ask [the military] to do something for us, we should absorb that, because it’s our experience as well as theirs,” he says. “It allows a community to adapt and to expand its understanding of what we’ve asked these people to do.”

Forums for that conversation are limited. Many civilians are curious about what it’s like to serve in the military, but have no idea of how to ask. Veterans, on the other hand, are wary of opening themselves up to misdirected criticism of military policies.

The resulting silence is partly a product of Americans’ tendency to self-segregate based on political orientation. “Neither the typical leftward-leaning or rightward-leaning response to the war has anything to do with war,” Wei says. “You’re either antiwar, which is a tiny response to a massive situation, or you’re prowar, which is the same. Neither of those deals with the complexity of the situation.”

The tension between military and civilian life is as old as war itself. Through “Telling: Austin,” Wei met University of Texas classics professor Paul Woodruff, a Vietnam veteran, who organizes readings of ancient Greek texts dealing with war and soldiers’ transition back to civilian life. Hearing the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Oresteia at Woodruff’s Memorial Day reading for veterans transported Wei back to Humanities 110 at Reed.

“It was really fascinating to go back to those texts after working with Telling these last six years,” Wei says. “As a Reed student, I’d read them in historical and literary contexts, but they’re really experiential. The passages we were reading talked about the experiences of these soldiers coming back, in a really visceral way.”

Wei grew up in Northfield, Minnesota, where his father worked at Carleton College. An uninspired student in high school, he took a year off before applying to Reed. He quickly grew to love Reed’s combination of intellectual and social life that centered on the library, where most nights he’d settle in to study in the smoking lounge for five or six hours.

Professors like Dieter Paetzold [German 1963–86] and Ellen Keck Stauder [English 1983–2012] made a lasting impression. “They’re smart and deeply read, but most of all they were just patient,” he says. “There are plenty of brilliant people out there who don’t have time for other people—and these folks devoted their lives to having time for other people. It’s an amazing thing.”

After graduating from Reed with a degree in English, Wei—along with classmate Whit Draper ’87—played guitar and bass with the band Back Porch Blues, which opened for the likes of B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. He dabbled in photography and painting before deciding to commit to writing and an MFA at Sarah Lawrence. The fiction-writing years were fruitful: he won the Glimmer Train Fiction Open in 2002 and has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. His work has been published in the North American Review and the Iowa Review, among others.

For now, Wei has concluded he’s better suited to the work of the Telling Project than the comparatively solitary life of a fiction writer. Yet to explain that conclusion, he still uses the language of an English major. “I’ve been working with veterans for eight years—six years on this project—because I feel like this is the most important story that’s happening in our country right now. We are at war, and I don’t see another thing that’s going to have an impact on our soul as a nation in the same way.”

The infinite shades of that story were what resonated with Metze and what led to his closing-night catharsis. “The biggest thing I learned was how varied the experiences in the military are,” he says. “I’ve been in the army 24 years, and I’ve done three deployments, and none of those seven people’s stories were stories I’d expected to hear or had heard before. I was really shocked about how much I did not know about the military.”

The collective curiosity of both cast and audience is the force that powers Telling. That desire to know will bring the project to five more cities, including New York and Washington, D.C., this fall. It’s a desire that Wei can trace in his own life, all the way back to his undergraduate years.

“At Reed you learn to follow your curiosity, and you learn that the more passion you put into that, the more reward you receive in return,” he says. “I fell into Reed, and I fell into this Telling thing. It was by accident that I started working with veterans at the University of Oregon. But having discovered this kind of kernel of my own ignorance—and curiosity—I was going to follow it. Of course I was going to follow it! That’s what I learned how to do at Reed.”

Robyn Ross is a freelance writer in Austin. This is her first article for Reed.

Tags: Performing Arts, Alumni, Service