Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Ancient play brought to new fronts

Chris Henry Coffey_1498325307624.JPG

A play 2,500 years old connects to Green Bay and South Korea and Baileys Harbor by way of a present-day actor.

Amid the giant loop is Chris Henry Coffey, a Green Bay area native now of New York City. Among his acting adventures is “Theater of War,” a project through which the U.S. Department of Defense shows its concern for post-traumatic stress and the high suicide rate among American service members.

This is theater with a cause.

It has been “life-changing for me in a way,” Coffey says.

A recent tour was particularly meaningful. Coffey joined professional acting colleagues Reg E. Cathey (TV’s “House of Cards”) and Linda Powell (TV’s “Chicago Fire,” etc., and Broadway) in 14 performances on eight military bases throughout South Korea. Erratic actions of North Korean president Kim Jong-un electrify the posting.

Project snapshot

Theater of War Productions has presented more than 300 performances of Sophocles’ “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” for military and civilian audiences in the United States and abroad. Each reading is followed by a town-hall style audience discussion. The goals are “to de-stigmatize psychological injury, increase awareness of post-deployment psychological health issues, disseminate information regarding resources and foster greater family, community and troop resilience.”

Coffey snapshot

Chris Henry Coffey is a graduate of West De Pere High School (1985), the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the Yale School of Drama. A few of his acting credits: The play “Resurrection Blues” with famed playwright Arthur Miller participating, the film “Trust” directed by David Schwimmer and the Broadway play “Bronx Bombers” (playing New York Yankees great Joe DiMaggio) written by “Lombardi” playwright Eric Simonson. For this feature, Coffey was interviewed following a performance at the Simonson-founded Door Kinetic Arts Festival at Bjorklunden lodge in Door County.

Point of entry

Coffey: My history with “Theater of War” goes back to 2010. I was shooting the movie “Trust” with David Schwimmer in Los Angeles and Jennifer Mudge, my now-wife – my girlfriend at the time – was involved with “Theater of War” as an actor. She was performing on bases around Hawaii – Pearl Harbor and those bases around there. I decided to go just for a visit, to see her there.

I saw a presentation on one of the bases, and I was moved to tears multiple times. It was just one of those powerful presentations that I had no idea what I was walking into. All I knew is that they were using Sophocles as a way to open up a conversation to the troops about post-traumatic stress and suicide prevention.

I heard that it was a really impactful program and the company itself had a pretty great history. It had been around for two or three years and was really starting to gain some traction.

I just approached Brian Doerries, who is the founder and was there at the time. I said, “If there is in any way I can get involved I would just love to be a part of this.”

I couldn’t get any more civilian if you tried. I’m as textbook as they come. I have no history with the military or connection to it. So in some ways it’s really a wonderful opportunity for me to serve in my own way. And I do feel like that. I feel like I am giving an immediate service in a way that is impactful and important.

Going to South Korea

Coffey had been involved with “Theater of War” in presentations in the United States before the May 2-12, 2017, tour of South Korea came up. The locales: Camp Bonifas, Camp Casey, Camp Humphreys, Osan AB, Kunsan AB, Chinhae NB, Camp Walker and Yongsan Garrison.

Coffey: When we got to some of these bases, you felt the energy in a certain way in that you felt like “This is a good time to be here. This is good. We’re doing something that’s immediate, helpful, impactful and important.”

And the feedback that we got across the board was really supportive, all the way from the top down.

It did feel like, “These are kids, and they’re being picked up from Kansas or wherever and being planted in the middle of nowhere in a country they wouldn’t possibly have found themselves in in any other capacities.”

And then to be dealing with the reality of what’s being pointed at them. Seoul is 30 miles from the border, and they’ve (North Korea has) got an arsenal.

Vetted

Coffey says the performers were “officially contactors under entertainment” – Armed Forces Entertainment. He says paychecks were from the Department of Defense, which means there were background checks.

Coffey: One of the great champions of “Theater of War” from very early stage was at the time a one-star general by the name of Vincent Brooks, who is now a four-star general in charge of Asian forces. He was the one who was instrumental in coordinating with Brian Doerries and bringing “Theater of War” to all the bases. So it all came down from the top.

General Brooks came in and saw the performance at one point. He flew in on his Blackhawks and gave a great presentation in introduction and really set the tone beautifully for his troops to open. He started talking about himself and what he identified with the play. He’s just an incredible ambassador for the program as well. Just a very charismatic, great leader who is also well liked. You can see that first hand.

The “show”

Coffey: A lot of the performances (in the project overall) are community organized. In terms of South Korea specifically, it was probably 95 percent active duty members who were more or less voluntold to be there, as they say.

A number of people told me specifically that they were there just out of curiosity. They have a lot of these programs available to them in various ways. Some of them were, “I thought I was seeing a movie. I don’t know what I’m doing here.” Suddenly, they’re crying and talking about really delicate, sensitive subjects.

Their minds just get blown 45 minutes after they sit down in these seats thinking they’re seeing, in our case, Reg Cathey, the Emmy Award-winning actor from “House of Cards,” and Linda Powell, who is (former Secretary of State) Colin Powell’s daughter, in addition to me. You start there.

It’s very simple – three great actors – and beyond that, you strip away all of it.

And the great thing about Reg and Linda is they were Army brats. Reg grew up on Okinawa and in Germany, and he has stories upon stories of growing up. And Linda lived everywhere.

I was the quintessential civilian. They had all kinds of formalities. They had rituals all over the place. As we know, the military loves rituals. I had no vocabulary for any of that, so it was a real education from that standpoint.

The dress

Coffey: Brian Doerries has a really great approach to this. He strips away all theatricality from it – intentionally – because a lot of these soldiers have never stepped into a theater. They don’t know what theater is. With a lot of them, you’ll get something like, “Are you a real actor?” They never met an actor face to face. It’s like, “Ahh, yes, I’m a real person who is an actor by trade.” But it makes total sense – they just don’t have that crossover accessibility to people in the arts, especially professional ones.

So we wear our street clothes, and we keep the house lights up. It’s really just basic tables and chairs. We try to not use a podium. We don’t want anything in the way between just keeping it about a real town-hall quality to it right from the beginning. There’s a lightness, but at the same time there’s a huge impact because of the subject.

The crux

Coffey: The “Theater of War” organization has grown. Brian Doerries, who normally facilitates the presentations, now is sort of expanding in the way that he is bringing other facilitators in (as Coffey in South Korea). So now not only do I act in the play, but I also run the most important part of it, which is the town-hall discussion that happens after the play. It really tries to engage the audience. With an audience being active duty service members, it’s not an easy thing.

The culture of the military, as we know, is not one of theater. And to open up and deal with wounds, invisible wounds, is kind of a deal breaker in some ways, or has been up until recently.

So it’s a very delicate process of use the play. That’s one third of the program.

The second third of the program is bringing a few members of their community up on stage, replacing the actors and giving their own sense of how they respond to the play.

The third part of it is to try engage the audience in conversation. This is really beautifully approached. Brian has distilled it wonderfully.

Brian contextualizes Sophocles as a general in the Greek army who wrote these plays specifically for his soldiers for very specific reasons and presented a play called “Ajax,” the story of a great, respected warrior who kills himself on the battlefield down center stage with the generals in the front and the cadets in the back and everyone shoulder-to-shoulder sort of facing their own issues that they’re dealing with.

This idea is something that’s rare in today’s world. We just don’t have those outlets for people to deal with that and open it up for conversation and manage it as a community. There’s less than one percent serving (one percent of the U.S. population in military service), so you just don’t have that kind of citizen soldier community that deals with things collectively the way they did back then. The Greek army had been at war – during the Trojan War – 80 years in a century. These guys had been away on tours of duty for 10 years or more.

When the soldiers start understanding the military relationship – Sophocles and these plays – then you start these scenes that are excerpts from a larger play but really just use the two (scenes) to give the full impact of the play. In the interest of time, Brian has distilled it.

He comes from a classical background. He’s a Greek scholar, and he has translated these plays himself. It’s really his baby. He’s a great ambassador for the program.

I felt so honored in South Korea to sort of fill his shoes for the time being. It was a really, really incredible opportunity to be with the troops in a place in the world right now where obviously it’s a hotbed and tensions are high.

The dynamics are really tricky, but there’s also a great connection between the Korean army and the U.S. forces there. It was very interesting to bring them into the fold as well for some of these programs.

Points of impact

Coffey: Reg Cathey, who played Ajax for that entire tour, has it down. He’s a phenomenal actor in the big picture, but in terms of Ajax, he embodies that character – that warrior, that larger-than-life, vicious, powerful man who turns on himself. You can feel that in the audience for sure. You could hear a pin drop in that audience every time.

That’s a testimony to the acting, that’s also a testimony to Brian Doerries’ ability to distill the play and keep it interesting and also setting it up before it begins, couching it from a military standpoint.

All of that stuff leads to that point where Ajax kills himself, and people are just shattered.

Opening up

Coffey: You get a lot of information from a lot of people. I feel very responsible and very honored to be a part of that conversation because it is a delicate thing.

These are real people’s lives at stake. In a lot of cases, it’s an extremely delicate situation. They’re in the midst of it as they’re talking. It’s not something they’re harkening from some past experience. They’re dealing with post-traumatic stress, they’re dealing with suicide.

The spouses are dealing with it. Their families are dealing with it. Their communities also deal with it in their own way. We also get a lot of spouses who are there in support their husband or wife who’s dealing with these issues.

That’s the other thing; as a civilian, you see the images, you read the articles, you see the movies, and you sort of understand it from a certain point of view. But you can’t possibly understand what these guys are going through – what they’ve seen and what they’ve done and what they’ve lived through.

Using that play to bring some of this out – it’s so powerful and moving from a civilian standpoint.

Again, it goes back to feeling in a way it’s my own way of giving back, it’s my own way of serving, it’s my own way of being part of the conversation – bridging that gap between the civilian and the military community that is really far away from each other in America today.

Being there

Coffey: It was a really great, fascinating experience to be in that part of the world. Leading up to the trip, there was a lot of conversation about whether or not we should even go because of all of the stuff going on – the daily headlines of what was happening in the peninsula, and at that point ships were being re-directed to that area. There was a lot of lead-up, but once you got there you understood that these guys are always ready. Their slogan is “Fight Tonight.”

And they’re so on point. And these are all kids – early 20s.

It sounds cliché, but it really gave me a whole new respect for all of the service members who serve. I shouldn’t say this… (Coffey took a moment to compose himself). We had service members who said, “I hate being thanked for my service. I’d rather them say, ‘I’m sorry for your service.’” It’s an interesting take on that idea.

So short of saying I thank them, I have such an appreciation for what they go through and what they’re dealing with and the level of intensity that they work with on a daily basis. They know what it’s like to deal with life and death and deal with massive issues that most people can kind of understand up here (the head) but not in their whole being.

Audiences home and abroad

Coffey: In, the States, there’s much more opportunity for the community to engage. And they advertise for the community – it’s a free event, and anyone who is able can come. So you have a very interesting cross-section of people who are affected personally and through family or any number of avenues.

But it’s a different thing when you start a conversation from a civilian standpoint and have that dialogue and try to orchestrate that.

It’s a very different scenario when you’re dealing with an entire audience of active duty members (as in South Korea). It’s a different intensity.

Guests of note

Coffey: We toured every major military base in South Korea, including the DMZ. And so it was a very interesting cross section of energies around the country.

A great thing while we were over there is – they called us distinguished guests – we got incredible access to presentations. They did things like K-9 attack dog presentations for us. They let us fire 50-calibre machine guns. They took us on tours of a lot of very sensitive material. We couldn’t take pictures in a lot of places that we went.

They really, really went out of their way to make us feel welcome on all of those bases. I can’t say enough about how generous, open and inviting they were for all of us. It was a really great experience that way.

Again, not coming from a military background, to have a window into that, meet these people, really get face-to-face with them and get a sense of what they’re bringing to the table – it’s kind of life-changing for me in a way.

In the works

Coffey: They’re preparing another project. They’re working with “Antigone,” and it’s called “Antigone in Ferguson.”

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My new books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words),” are available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.

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