Vet Night of the Arts with Martin McClendon
By Madison Kobe ’18
Vet Night of the Arts is one of the newest events at Carthage, but Professor Martin McClendon already has big plans for the future of the event. The event is not only an opportunity for conversation between veterans and civilians, but it also allows for crowdfunding for a great cause such as Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin, which assist homeless veterans in Southeast Wisconsin. I was able to talk to Professor McClendon about the event and how he hopes to establish a tradition with the event.
How long has Vet Night of the Arts been a tradition at Carthage?
This is going to be our second year. It’s still pretty new.
What type projects have been performed for this event on the past?
Last year had a great variety of acts, and a lot of them were homegrown. We had a reading by Wisconsin author and veteran Matthew Hefti of his new novel A Hard and Heavy Thing. We had two dance pieces; one was by veteran choreographer Edwin Olvera who did a solo dance piece; and we had Stacy Pottinger, our dance director at Carthage, restage a piece she came up with in graduate school called “The Things They Carried,” which is about the Vietnam War and veterans of the war. We also had staged readings from Afghanistan/Wisconsin, as well as readings from See Me For Who I Am, which is a book of essays written by my collaborator on the event, David Chrisinger, who is a veteran transition specialist at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He and his veteran students wrote essays about what it was like to be a veteran coming back into society; we had our actors at Carthage read those essays in the character of the veterans. We have a couple video clips from the reading thanks to Colleen Ochab ’18, who was making a documentary about Herschel Kruger’s great-uncle who landed on the beaches of Normandy and had just been awarded a medal by the governor of France. Then at the end we had a Q and A session with the veterans involved in the project, where they answered questions from the crowd about what they had seen that night.
This year, we are looking at two events. The first one is called Ajax, which is about a warrior who comes back from battle and commits suicide. Lawrence Gums ’18 and Melody Abbott ’18 have been working all summer with a short grant to translate this ancient Greek play about PTSD, essentially, or at least what PTSD was in the ancient world. We’ll be doing a reading of part of Ajax. Then for the second event, we have New York actor and activist Stephan Wolfert performing his one man show “Cry Havoc!” which is his journey going from being a veteran at the bottom of society and completely lost, and how he rebuilt his life through art, theatre, and Shakespeare. The following day, the theatre department is having a workshop with him where he is going to go through his technique with a select group of people.
Why do you think it is important to continue this tradition?
First of all, we are 17 years into America’s longest war and President Trump just authorized 3000 more troops to go to Afghanistan; it feels like there is no end in sight and there is going to continue to be a need to understand the veteran population. We can’t afford to stereotype our veterans as unstable due to PTSD and we can’t continue to shun them. We need to work with them and to make sure we integrate them back into society. They are just like us, except they took this amazing vow to go serve and have these experiences; but they are people, they are citizens and voters, and they are tomorrow’s business leaders and government leaders. I think art is a really interesting way to knit back together a life, and we have seen it work with Afghanistan/Wisconsin and the responses to the last Vet Night. We know everyone deals with their experiences differently whether it is building drag racing cars, or hunting, or creating something like with visual and performing arts.
We also want to get other students, such as Art and English majors, connected and involved in the event, so a few days before we are going to bring in these students and local veterans. The veterans are going to talk about their experiences and the artists are going to come back on Vet Night with pieces they created in response to what they heard. Those pieces will be unveiled in the lobby.
So that need to understand veterans; is that why you decided to start this tradition?
We actually started it because I got interested in the war in Afghanistan and how little we hear about it. So, I created the verbatim play Afghanistan/ Wisconsin. But after doing Afghanistan/Wisconsin and working with our student veterans, we realized we had to do more. After I took Afghanistan/Wisconsin to David Chrisinger’s class at UW-Stevens Point, he and I talked about ways we could keep the event going on a yearly basis to develop the response and reactions to veteran service and political questions. And I think with so many people involved in the war, both directly and indirectly, we are going to continue to be a resource for our veterans on campus as well as the surrounding area.
How do the Kenosha and Carthage communities benefit from this event? How do the students involved in the performance benefit?
Our mission is to foster communication between veterans and nonveterans. I’m hoping the nights that we have the talkbacks and Q & A’s allow for a better connection, instead of just saying thank you to someone you see wearing an Iraq War baseball cap; it doesn’t’ allow you to get into a conversation about how that manner of experience affect how veterans work with nonveterans, and veterans and civilians are both not trusting of the other. The second part of the mission is to give voice to the untold stores. A lot of the times veterans go under the radar and don’t want to deal with the reactions and uninformed questions people ask out of ignorance, so they prefer to stay silent. But we want to hear those stories since it is important for us as citizens to know what is going on and what our military is actually being asked to do.
What challenge(s), if any, have you faced in preparing for this event?
The veteran community is a little more reclusive so it is hard to get them to come out to these events sometimes. It’s also difficult because art isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when people think of what will help them deal with traumatic experiences. We are not in any way trying to preach to them and tell them art is the answer to all of their problems, or force them to participate in the event; we always try to keep performances devoid of political messages and let the audience draw whatever conclusion they get from what the veterans are saying. We want people to just listen.
We have had great experiences with people coming forward to participate in the event and work with us, and we always have a great time, but we want more people in the seats, veterans and nonveterans.
What is a highlight of working on Vet Night of the Arts?
We are always eager to work with diverse faculty and departments, so it has been nice to get a variety of people involved. The response and growth since last year has been great to see. It shows Carthage is here for the community, and is able to do these events that bigger universities are not always able to do.
What would you like to see for the future of the event?
More people in the seats; we want more veterans involved and more nonveterans interested in what is going on with our military. I would like even more outreach, like community members submitting pieces from their own experience as veterans, and more development in the conversation between veterans and nonveterans. I also want to continue to see corporate sponsorship so the event can continue on its own even with our limited budget, and it would be nice to see these corporate entities involved in the communication. All the funds raised go to Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin, which is building a tiny village for homeless veterans in Racine so they can get back on their feet.
Vet Night of the Arts will take place Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017 at 7:30 p.m. in Wartburg Theate. Tickets are free, but required. Get your tickets 24/7 at carthage.edu/tickets