When the cast of "Telling: San Antonio" took their final bow at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on October 5, there were a lot of hugs and tears. After weeks of rehearsals and a six show run, the cast had gone from a group of strangers to a family—sharing happy moments and painful memories, laughing alongside and offering support and encouragement when needed.
What makes Telling different is, instead of actors, the cast was made up of local veterans and military families who shared their experiences in the military, in their own words, before a live audience. Playwright Jonathan Wei, founder and Executive Director of The Telling Project, created the performance back in 2008 to provide a platform for those who serve to share their stories and to give civilians a chance to listen.
“Our understanding is that war is inhuman, but war is perhaps the most human of our endeavors and what veterans show us is that it can be funny, mundane, tender and intimate — and also traumatic, hurtful and violent...We need to understand why as humans we go to war, not just put it somewhere over in the corner,” said Wei.
Local veterans in 20 cities around the United States have had the chance to participate in The Telling Project, but it had never been to San Antonio. The local public television station, KLRN, approached Wei last December about bringing the project to Military City USA. Earlier this year, KLRN launched a multi-year initiative to serve transitioning military, veterans and their families called VETERANS VOICES. San Antonio has one of the highest concentrations of active duty and retired military in the country. With the coming drawdown of the troops, many more are expected to settle in the region. Statistics show that 40% of those who transition out of one of the city’s three bases end up calling San Antonio home.
“The military does a wonderful job of helping service members adapt to military life,” says Julie Coan, Chief Operating Officer at KLRN and the lead for VETERANS VOICES. “As a community, we need to make sure we’re as thoughtful and supportive of veterans when they transition back to civilian life. One way we can do that is by listening to their stories.”
Coan feels public media is uniquely positioned to help because, as she puts it, “When you get right down to it, what public media does so well, is we tell stories in service to the public good, so a project like Telling fits perfectly with our mission.”
KLRN partnered with Wei, who interviewed the veterans and then masterfully crafted a three act play, interweaving their stories about enlistment, boot camp, deployment and returning home. A local director worked with the cast for several weeks at rehearsals hosted at KLRN. What resulted was a performance that was funny, moving, thought-provoking and profound. The newly opened Tobin Center for the Performing Arts donated the space and Telling: San Antonio premiered to critical acclaim with features in online publications, newspapers, on radio and even a story on the local news.
After each performance, the cast participated in a talk-back with the audience giving them a chance to ask questions and learn more.
“As powerful as the performance was, I looked forward to the talk-back each night because as a public media organization, we’re always looking for meaningful ways to engage our audience around relevant issues and this experience was a bull’s-eye all the way around,” said Coan.
“Civilians were coming up to me saying ‘this was the best theater experience they ever had.’ Veterans in the audience were pointing to cast members sharing, ‘I heard my story in you, and in you and in you,’” said Coan.
“I’ve been in public television for 18 years and this was by far the most profound and meaningful project I’ve ever been involved in. Healing happened in that theater night after night. It was magical,” she added.
In Telling: San Antonio , cast member and Iraq War veteran, CarrieAnn Grayson shared a harrowing story of fighting off a sexual assault only to suffer retaliation which ended her military career.
“I have been able to grow so much in the past months and my healing seems to be just beginning…You encouraged us to face our demons when it was hard for us to even get words out of our mouth. It's hard each time, but each time I cry less,” she said.
Thanks to a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as part of their Veterans Coming Home initiative, KLRN recorded and will broadcast Telling: San Antonio. It’s also available online and the station plans on offering an OVEE screening in the near future.
Watch the full performance below: