The War Zone is My Bed

Respectful Necessity, and the Necessity of Respect

by Fin Coe

After last night’s performance of The War Zone is my Bed, we had the honor of having the playwright on hand for a talkback after the show. Although all of the actors were onstage to take questions alongside Yasmine Beverly Rana (said playwright) and Dani Snyder-Young (our director), I just kept my mouth shut and listened. I wanted to hear about the genesis of the show, and what the person who wrote the script had to say about her work.

The first question, from the talkback’s moderator Jenn Adams, inquired about the inspiration for the piece, which was years in the writing. I was surprised when Yasmine told us that while real life events had inspired the first iteration of the show, her desire to explore and portray identity also informed the script. She talked about growing up biracial, with a name people found difficult to pronounce, and how being the product of different cultures influenced the interplay of identity within this show.

I can relate. I am an American actor of Irish and Chinese ancestry, living in Chicago. People have mispronounced my name on occasion, and I don’t often see my particular genetic combination in the ethnic breakdowns of audition listings. Plays that explore identity speak to me, especially stories of love across cultural divides. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for one such story.

This is all fine and dandy. A biracial writer’s play happens to be performed by a company and cast by a director who are comfortable casting an actor who happens to be biracial himself. Not tremendously important—yet. But then we had another question, from an audience member (Helen Young, who has herself worked with Halcyon several times), who asked Yasmine about the idea of appropriation presented in the play, and the danger of telling the stories of others to one’s own gain, and not that of the original subjects. Yasmine replied that these questions were conscious ones raised by the script, based on first-hand experiences with people treading the very thin line between appropriation and exploitation. And that is indeed a seamy current that runs through the show; a two-sided coin of resentment and guilt, for stories stolen and stories coaxed away. The journalist characters of War Zone tell themselves that they are bringing national attention, and bearing witness, and following noble intentions. But time makes them question themselves, and their guilt grows stronger with their cynicism. It gets complicated; as Yasmine said, when an audience member asked if Yasmine herself had ever returned to the place that inspired this story; “No. I never went back.”

And that’s what’s been on my mind since this project started. How do we tell this story without taking advantage of it? How do we do this justice to this piece?

I think the first question that needs to be answered is: Should we be doing this piece? A lot of gauche theatrical faux pas can probably be avoided if that’s the first question asked: “Should we do The Mikado?” “Should we do this minstrel show?” “Should we really do The Merchant of Venice without any Jewish actors at all?” In this particular case, for this piece, I feel that the answer is an emphatic “Yes.” You can read the Director’s Note about why Dani chose this script, but the short answer is this: it’s an important story. It’s topical, it asks tough questions, it’s well-written, and it will open some eyes, some hearts, and some minds.

Ok. So it’s a story that should be told, but how to do so respectfully? For our production, we did everything we could. We cast a wide net for audition listings, with accurate ethnic and age range breakdowns, in a casting process that spanned months. We had an incredible suite of support staff, providing us with in-depth dramaturgical resources, as well as designers that did serious homework in order to clothe us and place us in settings that did not caricature or distort, but rather honored the people whose stories we tell. We had a dialect coach at almost every rehearsal, and met with her one-on-one so that anyone who was speaking with an accent other than their own could do so with fluency and with accuracy.

I am an American actor of Irish and Taiwanese descent. I am playing a Bosnian journalist. I am doing so because I too feel that this story needs to be told; and I am doing so with the respect that the role deserves. I don’t go onstage to tell my own story; I hope that my own story, my own background, helps me tell this story, the story of these things that happened in Sarajevo and Kabul, and in Rwanda andBaghdad and at Foxconn, in Gaza and in Ferguson. We must tell this story, so we will tell it as best, and as honorably, as we can.

Special thanks to Yasmine for her beautiful work, and Kendra, Tristan, Celeste, Antonio, Tony, and everyone else who is helping us to tell this story as authentically and as respectfully as we are.

"Any Way" - On a Cast/Crew Q&A with Tim McNulty

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.

Director's Note for The War Zone is My Bed

by Dani Snyder-Young

Gaza. Syria. The Ukraine. We live in a time of violence. This summer, I have returned nightly from rehearsing The War Zone is My Bed to watch powerlessly as global tragedies play out across my television screen. I engage with them as a spectator and as a voyeur, sipping a cool drink and eating a small meal in my comfortable family room in my quiet and safe-feeling home a few blocks from here. I have the luxury of turning off the television or changing the channel when the horror of the images gets to be too much.

This play tells the interweaving stories of three couples whose lives are intertwined with the act of representing trauma in times of war. Tragedy may surround them, but they steal moments of pleasure and affirm their humanity; they love and laugh and find joy in being alive together. But a fundamental imbalance of geopolitical power is embedded in each scene—someone has the power to leave and tell the story and someone does not. What does it mean to have the privilege to tell the story?

The goal of this production is to open up a productive conversation about the way we, contemporary American audiences, engage with global traumas as spectators, watching the horrors of war from the safe distance of our television screens, interacting with them as we choose to click on internet links or play out fictionalized narratives in war games. I ask you to look at this work as a provocation, thinking critically about ways we, as the privileged ones who get to watch, are complicit in these characters’ struggles.

That Little Bit of Hope in the Rubble

by Laura Stephenson

Approaching this project was daunting. There is so much going on, so many layers. First though, I have to say-- It’s crazy how relevant the script is. As fortunate as we are to live here, it’s hard for us to comprehend what is actually happening in Ukraine or Gaza, right? There’s just no possible way to know what that fear, what the kind of daily life is truly like. There is a completely different mentality when you are living in a war zone. Every day things, normal boring stuff is thrown into extreme levels of danger. There is the chance that any moment can be utterly blow apart in an instant.

When you first meet my character, Dahlia, the Bosnian war is still going on literally right outside her window. There’s a large possibility that her entire family has been killed, her hometown destroyed— that she has very, very little left. And during that same moment, the man she loves is going back home to America. Back home, to be with his wife. He’s going back to safety and comfort, after having robbed her of a life she can hold on to. I mean, YIKES. That’s some pretty intense shit that I’ve certainly never been through.

So, where exactly do I begin? – I’m playing a character whose entire historical background and life alone I can barely even grasp. As an actor, my imagination has to be my greatest tool. I exercise it often, but with this show, it is hard to know if I am truly doing justice to what that must have been like. Even with research and being alive during both the Bosnian War and Invasion of Afghanistan— I watched from a television screen, or an internet media outlet. I was very distant and very safe.

We were incredibly lucky to have a Q&A session with an actual war zone reporter, Timothy McNulty. Hearing his stories sounded like something straight out of the movies. There’s no real way to comprehend the magnitude of what he saw and lived through, unless you had been there too. I left rehearsal that night thinking about what an incredible life this man has had so far, and how brave and intelligent he is— and how I could never do anything like that. I am a complete wimp! It genuinely blows my mind that he is excited about going to Israel in a couple of months. WITH his journalism students.

Not that I’m a total square, but I’m certainly not about to throw myself into a war zone.

And yet, that is exactly what my character does. Well, first Dahlia was born into the Bosnian War- but she chose to stay, write and find the humanity where there was little to none to be found.

And that… that is where I was able to find some common ground when playing Dahlia. I completely understand wanting to be a voice for those who can’t be heard. Trying to find that little bit of hope in the rubble, to feel it and bring it out into the open- that is something that makes us want to see stories like this one. I took a lot from this idea, and it created further life for the character.

I will also say that this play focuses so much on the personal relationships of these people- which is a fantastic gift to the actors. Relationships. There’s something I can understand. Maybe not all the specific layers included in this show- but it’s much easier to play make believe when you get at least 50% of what your character is going through. And those relationships really are at the center of this story. Despite the desperate circumstances surrounding it, the story is very personal and very grounded in human connection. It can be hard to understand the ways in which a person visits, or attempts to even live in a war zone. But we can access the soul of these characters because of how very human they are.

I am incredibly proud to be part of such a remarkable show. These stories feel real. These people could have actually lived. And when I watch the other scenes, I am genuinely moved by the vibrant lives and the sheer will these characters have to come alive. I only hope the audience will enjoy the journey as much as I have.