by Fin Coe
I was somewhat taken aback when I read the email from our Director (Dani Snyder-Young) informing us that Halcyon had invited a war correspondent to come and talk to us and answer questions about his profession, which plays a prominent role in our play, The War Zone is My Bed. We were told to prepare some questions to ask, and I dutifully scribbled down some nuts and bolts shoptalk things to ask about, particularly things I thought might help me more accurately portray my own character, the Bosnian-born journalist Tony. I headed to rehearsal that evening excited to hear what our guest had to share with us.
"Usual versus Unusual."
I knew very little about our guest, save his name, and wondered if he was getting off the train with me. I kept my eyes peeled for anyone looking for Halcyon's rehearsal space, in the hopes that I could help. But he was already at our space when I arrived, talking with Dani and with our Director of Education and Community Engagement (Jenn Adams), as the last of the cast and crew trickled in. We all got settled, sat down, and listened as Jenn introduced Tim McNulty. He started off by telling us a little about his work now and in recent years; teaching, editing, working with grants and foundations, helping young journalists cover political and diplomatic beats, with particular focus on civil liberties and national security (and, as he wryly remarked, the uneasy balance between the two of them). A fascinating look behind the curtain, certainly, but I did feel myself re-assess the evening. Ah, I thought, this really will be useful. Someone who can dispel the romanticism, someone who's here to tell us it's not all bang bang photography and field assignments, it's about the hard work of writing and hitting deadlines and doing your research. This is my character Tony all over; this isn't quite what I expected from a "war journalist", but this will be instructive and useful.
Then, after he covered what he'd been doing in the past decade or so, living in the States, he went further back, and my "expectations" got kind of blown out of the water.
"A journalistic bubble."
He briefly listed some of the locations he'd been posted in, assignments in Beijingand Jerusalem and Beirut. Jenn suggested we all go around and introduce ourselves as well, but he had read the play, and took a shot at guessing which actors were playing which roles. It was a pretty good shot. Having already adjusted my expectations twice now, I gave up on trying to guess what would happen next. He used our script as a jumping off point to talk about his personal experiences, and I crossed out most of my questions and just started writing down snippets of the specific instances and broader ramifications of what it was like to be there, to "bear witness", to chronicle great change and great atrocity. He referred to thecharacters of Dahlia (played by Laura Stephenson) and Peter (Brendan Murphy), who come in to document conflicts they are not direct participants in, and face peril, certainly, but whom fall into the same trap he himself observed, of having "fooled ourselves into thinking nothing would affect us." For him, he said, every exotic new posting immediately became just the place he was in before his next posting, and very often the only real fear he could feel was of "getting between two opposing forces". It was a bit chilling to have it brought home how quickly danger and normal standards of self-preservation become impossible to endure, and how deeply we can be changed to do things we should be too terrified to rationally attempt.
"There should have been birds."
On the subject of Denise Hoeflich's character, Susan, he ruminated on the experience of his own wife, and told us that while the character of Susan was left home in the US in our story, his own wife, and three children, lived with him in his postings abroad, a revelation which floored all of us to hear. As he told us about the death and horror he saw in a Palestinian refugee camp and in the baffling terror of Jonestown (yes, that Jonestown), he reflected on how "usual versus unusual" lost their meaning, echoing the exchange between Laila (Rasika Ranganathan) and Ash (Sameehan Patel) as Laila talks about "the new normal" in the wake of violent cultural upheaval. Towards the end, he shared a particularly odd anecdote about an attempted kidnapping in the lobby of the hotel he was staying in, where the would-be victim outright refused to be kidnapped, even after being shot. There was a dog and an unexpected ending to that story, which if you ever get the chance to ask Mr. McNulty about, I recommend you do so. I won't mangle his story in the retelling.
"The rest of us drank a lot."
I couldn't believe how much he'd shared with us when his hour ended. Had that all been only an hour's time? But also, was that really all we got to hear from him? With time for one more question, I looked down at what I'd prepared. Most of it had either been answered, or felt pretty useless to ask now. I did raise my hand and ask, "as we get ready to portray war journalists, are there any myths you'd care to dispel, any records you want set straight?"
After giving the question some consideration, he told us he'd read up on the background of the playwright, Yasmine Beverly Rana, and had been impressed with the homework and interviewing research she'd done with other actual journalists and foreign correspondents. She'd gotten a lot of it right, he said, but he advised us to look beyond the language of the play. "People connect a lot through silence," he said. As we thanked him and said our goodbyes, his final piece of advice knocked around in my head for a while. We're looking for ways to keep the play moving, and the violent action of the play certainly moves things along too. But as we try and take the air out from between the cues, I think he's right that we should also find where the silences are between these characters that dwell in violence, and in a play about intimacy and vulnerability, how loud and meaningful those silences are.
I am incredibly grateful for this piece of dramaturgy for our show, and Tim, if you read this: thank you for bringing us your perspective with sagacity and with humour, and you were way more helpful than Tom Friedman would have been.