EchoTheaterSuitcase project bridges the divide between military veterans and the civilian public, bringing together mixed ensembles of veterans and non-veterans to create original performances based on their own stories.
Conceived and directed by Krista DeNio, ETS brings people together to exchange stories of military and civilian life. Through a process of trust-building, skill sharing and theater making, ensembles of veterans and non-veterans [professional performers and non-professionals] create interactive performances and host accompanying educational and advocacy events. Through the vital and vibrant tradition of theater, we invite performers and audience members to engage collectively with narratives of personal and family lineage, intergenerational trauma, and the return home.
The ETS project model is founded on respect for all viewpoints and experiences in the room. From here we create powerful, honest and inclusive theater exchanges. Our work process is based on values that we find in common between veterans and theater-makers, including: rigorous physical work, honesty, bravery and a commitment to the success of the whole company | team | ensemble. Through story sharing and relationship building we work toward healing and transformation through better civilian allies, a more inclusive society, and a more nuanced dialogue about contemporary U.S. conflicts and our involvement abroad and at home.
“But the war doesn’t end when the wheels touch down on home soil. It’s a lifelong process sometimes wrought with difficulty, due to a sizable gap between civilians and the military. Once we become Veterans, it’s up to regular folks to accept us back into the community. How can two groups of people, separated by a canyon, come together? The answer is simple. They both build bridges.”
-Alex Horton, “The Civilian-Veteran Survival Field Manual,” US Dept of Veterans Affairs blog
What we do
The ETS Project Model:
Each project is based in a particular community, created by and for local veterans and non-veteran allies. ETS involves a rigorous performance training model, led and co-created by professional theater, dance and vocal artists, designers, psychologists, art therapists, veterans of war and military service and non-veterans, drawing on the strengths, skill sets and knowledge base of all involved. Anyone may come to the project without prior experience in theater or performance. Central to our concept is that everyone is sharing and representing their own story. ETS projects do not represent the stories of anyone who is not in the room, unless given explicit permission by those individuals.
The key points of our process are:
- Locating our ensemble: We hold OPEN and FREE public workshops to share our process with anyone interested, as a “mutual audition” to learn whether or not we’re interested in working together. Depending on the community and project director, some ensemble members may be invited ahead of time based on their training, experiences, or interest.
- Trust Building: In order to enter this sensitive conversation we build a strong foundation of mutual trust and respect. Some ways we do this include: civilian ally training, creating group agreements at the beginning of the rehearsal process, personal writing, sharing our experiences, asking questions and making requests. Sharing personal experiences and different points of view can be challenging and building trust takes time. It isn’t always easy but this is the work and we build trust through this commitment.
- Skill building: As we enter the training process, all participants are encouraged to bring their own skills to the table. Physical and vocal training, along with theater composition, is the foundation of our training process–to develop performative strength, clarity and performance-making capability. We encourage each individual to step into leadership by bringing their own physical practices, skills, and approaches to creativity to the group. In addition to theater and dance practices and trainings, military exercises like Drill, provide excellent ensemble training, engaging group listening, attention, choreographic and physical precision, and team building.
- Theater making: Once there is trust and a shared vocabulary established, theater techniques are introduced to the ensemble to begin creating work for the stage. We use a variety of methodologies for ensemble-based devising: creating theater pieces based on the stories of the ensemble members. Throughout the process, the director follows the interests of the participants. We find emerging themes and create material that feels essential to share and which will be engaging to an audience.
- Community Building: The ultimate result of this process is an audience-interactive theater experience, site-responsive to the location where it is performed, and showcasing the group’s creative material. We hold community events surrounding the performances in order to further engage the public in the dialogue about the veteran experience, what it is like to re-integrate into civilian life, and to encourage relationship-building that can continue long after the event. This may include post-show discussions, panels featuring veterans, support experts, and advocates, film screenings, and other opportunities for education, healing and further action.
- Impact/Evaluation: Evaluation happens throughout and at the conclusion of each process and performance. During the process we engage in feedback and dialogue structures influenced by Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. Final evaluation processes are engaged with ensemble members, audience participants and partner organizations.
Project Partners: The model incorporates the leadership of a project director, designers, therapeutic support and several partner organizations and an ensemble of local veterans and non-veterans from that community. We create partnerships with local arts and cultural organizations, academic institutions, and veterans organizations.
Project Staff: In addition to bringing together the creative team, we strive to support each ensemble process and participants by bringing in psychotherapists, veteran experts and advocates and others skilled in working with trauma and intense experiences. Our commitment is to create a safe environment for delving into our personal stories and bringing them to light.
Why we do it
Goals and Intentions for our work:
- Create dialogue, connection and understanding between veterans and non-veterans
- Share the vital and vibrant means of expression that theater technologies offer, enabling everyone share their personal voice and story
- Cultivate teamwork, camaraderie, joint leadership, mutual respect, rigorous training, trust building, honesty, hard work, vulnerability and humor!
- Create more responsible and aware civilian allies, who have more awareness of the veteran experience and a willingness share the burden that those who have served are carrying
- Engage collectively with individual, intergenerational and societal trauma, bringing about healing and transformation through story sharing
- Engage a more sophisticated public narrative regarding our contemporary military structures and U.S. conflicts abroad
- Address a societal disregard for those who have suffered trauma due to combat or other moral injury, suffered in conflicts; to stop the displacement of this portion of our population
Why the name?
During one of our ensemble processes, David, a veteran working with us, created a moment he called Echo Tango Suitcase. The non-veterans asked him for more details. We learned that in the military ETS stands for End Time of Service, (or Echo Tango Sierra in NATO phonetic alphabet code). But it’s often referred to as Echo Tango Suitcase, by those returning home.
As we thought about an appropriate title for this ongoing project, we landed on EchoTheaterSuitcase project.
Echo: listening/reflecting back to one another our stories
Theater: the sharing of that process from page to stage, transforming it from individual to societal
Suitcase: what we carry: tools, histories, experiences. what we unpack: stories, choreography, dialogue, performances. what we re-pack: carrying forward new skills and new ways of being in our communities.
EchoTheaterSuitcase project has been formed and shaped by a variety of influences from personal interests and family histories, to the reality of the U.S wars in the Middle East, to artistic investigations and questions about how artists can offer new approaches to societal issues, along with many veteran, non-veteran, and artistic collaborators. With an arts practice grounded in cultural investigation, social justice, and community activism, founder Krista DeNio had spent years investigating questions about human/animal instincts, territory, survival and our relationships with violence.
In 2008 while listening to testimonials from returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans through Winter Soldier and Iraq Veterans Against the War, Krista came to realize that she knew very little about the realities of war, of military service, of U.S. conflicts abroad or even about the experiences of her own family members who were veterans.
Through further investigation she met Lovella Calica, the incredible director of Warrior Writers and other veterans, writers, and artists. DeNio began her “civilian ally” training with Warrior Writers, which provided foundational education for her and profoundly informed her ongoing approach to this work.
In 2011 while serving as the executive director of Earthdance, Krista was introduced to Matt Mitchell and his 100 Faces of War Experience by way of Artists In Context, an organization that assembles “artists and other creative thinkers across disciplines to conceptualize new ways of representing and acting upon the critical issues of our time.” Mitchell’s and DeNio’s collaboration resulted in a performance installation, CONTACT, which premiered in western Massachusetts in 2011. Several veterans who were portrayed in Mitchell’s portraits, performed along with an intergenerational group of non-veteran civilians, alongside the first 50 of Mitchell’s portraits, in the beautiful and historic Canal Gallery, Holyoke Massachusetts. This work explored questions such as: How do we see one another? What do we have in common? What are our differences? How can we learn together about war and our relationships to it?
The second iteration of the CONTACT project, took place through the CounterPulse Artist Residency Commissioning Program (ARC) in 2013-14. In this phase we worked specifically on further development of all aspects of the project model, including: initial outreach and relationship building; ensemble training, community building pre-performance, performance/production, post-performance community dialogue and evaluation.
In 2015 the project was retitled to EchoTheaterSuitcase, in order to more specifically reflect various aspects of the project.
In 2015, several iterations of ETS were developed: DeNio directed a workshop production in collaboration with The Arts at C.I.I.S. [California Institute of Integral Studies ] and Veterans Book Project. Daniel Bear Davis, a core project collaborator, directed an iteration at UC Davis/Yolo County. The project and developing local Bay Area ensemble performed in several other venues and events, including CounterPulse’s MayDay at the Tenderloin National Forest, and we had the opportunity to collaborate with the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at Yerba Buena Gardens, as a part of the Bay Area Bold festival in September 2015. The project continues to refine its working model in collaboration with each community and ensemble, with the intention of becoming a resource for communities across the nation.
2.4 million men and women have served in the U.S. military since 9/11.
Of that number, 1.5 million have left the military, and are re-integrating into civilian life.