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Playwrights tell stories from female veterans

  • Actors Virginia Ogden, left, Katie Kitchel, and Geany Masai read from the play "Deployed" at Northern Stage on Monday, March 25, 2019. Nicola Smith, right, of Tunbridge, Vt., co-author of the play looks on. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • At Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., actors do a reading of "Deployed" on Monday, March 25, 2019. The play was co-authored by Nicola Smith, of Tunbridge, Vt., and Samantha Lazar, of Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • An actor follows the script during a reading of "Deployed" at Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, March 25, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Nicola Smith, left, of Tunbridge, Vt., and Samantha Lazar, of Lebanon, N.H. have co-authored "Deployed" a play about female veterans in the military. The women were listening during a reading at Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, March 25, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 27, 2019

When women join the military, they often sign up for battles on multiple fronts. Outside the theater of traditional warfare, they face attacks and struggles their male counterparts probably won’t see.

Nicola Smith is bringing these lesser known conflicts to the stage. Her new play, Deployed, co-written with Samantha Lazar, tells the stories of female veterans from Vermont and New Hampshire, highlighting both the life-and-death moments audiences tend to associate with war and the quieter dramas that color the experiences of women in the armed services.

After a week of workshops at Northern Stage, the documentary-style play comes to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction for a free staged reading on Saturday at 1 p.m.

“Until recently, the military experience was the male experience,” said Smith, 58, a freelance writer and former staff writer for the Valley News. “I hope … that people can become more aware of the contributions of women in the military, and also what they’ve had to endure.”

Smith, who had never written a piece for the stage before, embarked on the project in 2016, after writing an article for the Valley News about a book club for women veterans.

“It was a way for the veterans to talk about their experiences, but filtered through literature,” Smith said in an interview last week at Northern Stage, which is hosting the workshops and producing the play. “I remember being really amazed by some of the stories I heard ... I had this little thing go off in my head. I thought, ‘I wonder if this could be made into a play.’ ”

Smith approached Carey Russ, women veterans program manager at the VA, who connected her with 10 to 15 veterans from the area.

“To my surprise, almost all of them were willing to talk with me,” said Smith, who lives in Tunbridge with her husband, Valley News photo editor Geoff Hansen, and their teenage daughter.

Over the next several months, Smith met with seven women, ranging in age from late 20s to 70, representing all branches of the military, who had served in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and non-combat arenas.

“When I listened to them, the way they talked about what they had experienced was very compelling to me,” recalled Smith, who received grants from the Vermont Arts Council, the Vermont Community Foundation and the Byrne Foundation in Hanover to write the play.

So, too, were the stories themselves. An army nurse who served in Vietnam told about tending to soldiers in agony with severe burns. A veteran who served in Afghanistan told about pulling her weapon on a suspected suicide bomber approaching their base and wondering if she was going to have to kill him.

Some of the women shared stories they’d never told before, except perhaps in therapy.

All but one of the women talked about sexual assault or harassment. Some said they’d reported the incidents to no avail. Others said they didn’t report it, fearing the professional consequences.

Smith had heard that sexual assault was common for women in the military — according to statistics from the VA, one in four women in the military experience it — but she was still troubled to hear about it firsthand and surprised that so many of the women she talked to had endured it.

“It struck me that women in the military who have experienced sexual assault, it’s a different war,” Smith said. “I think they all said that when you go into the military, the unit is paramount ... for them to be assaulted and then have it dismissed, it comes as a real betrayal.”

Another theme that emerged as the women told their stories was the struggle to be seen and heard in a world that still tends to associate the military with men.

The play, which is presented as loosely connected conversations around different topics, opens with stories of women being overlooked or disbelieved.

“Jackie,” an Army veteran in her late 50s, recalls being called “Mr. Pruitt” by the VA technician calling her in for her appointment.

“Do I look like a Mr. to you?” she responds to the technician. “Look at the first name on the chart, that’s a female name. You know there are female veterans who come up to this hospital.”

“Nina,” a retired Air Force veteran in her early 60s, talks about giving a cashier a check printed with the words “Capt. United States Air Force, retired.”

“What’s this? A joke?” the cashier replies.

These stories are what drew Smith’s co-writer, Lazar, to the project.

“When I first met her, I was expecting that she was going to give an overview of the project ... instead, she just kept reeling off these emotional stories, one after the other,” said Lazar, a Yale-trained dramaturge who got involved after Smith approached Northern Stage for assistance in bringing the play to fruition. “They all had such strong emotional impact.”

In addition, Lazar, who lives in Lebanon, was struck by how fresh and relevant the stories felt. “These are not stories that we have heard a lot,” she said. “I thought, ‘wow, this is important material. People should hear these stories.’ ”

Lazar, 34, worked with Smith to turn the material from the interviews into dialogues built around different themes. The pair then worked with Amanda Rafuse, director of artistic outreach for Northern Stage, to prepare the play for the stage.

“Our job is to make sure that what she put on the page is being told in the most effective way possible,” said Rafuse, who also helped Smith secure funding, connected her to Lazar, handled logistical matters, such as preparing the space at the VA, and hired the actors — a mix of New York imports and local talent — to portray the seven veterans.

Rafuse was attracted to the material for its theatrical potential. “I feel like just in general, it’s an incredible piece of documentary theater,” she said.

Like Lazar, she was also drawn to the play for its value in bringing little known issues to light. “I don’t think these stories have been heard, particularly stories of Vermont female veterans,” she said.

There are about 3,800 women veterans in Vermont and about 8,500 in New Hampshire, according to Sarah Bohnson, women veterans program coordinator for the VA. These women face many of the same issues men face, she said, but they often face them in the shadows.

Bohnson is pleased that the play will get its first reading at the VA hospital, where it can have an impact not just on the public but on veterans themselves.

“One of the nice things about this staged reading is that at the end of the play there will be an opportunity for veterans to share their own stories,” she said.

Knowing the play’s audience, the writers and director have researched things like military protocol and consulted with VA staff members to ensure that everything is presented authentically and respectfully.

“I hope (the veterans) will recognize truth in the stories that are being told,” Lazar said. “The positive stories of pride in service ... but mostly I hope that it will make these women feel like their stories are heard, if they don’t feel that already.”

A big part of making the stories heard, said Smith, was getting out of the way. “Part of me feels awkward talking for these women. I just view myself as the conduit for them.”

Smith also hopes the play will find additional and larger audiences around the region. “I was just really impressed by all of the women,” she said. “I hope that this does them some justice.”

A free reading of Deployed will take place in the William A. Yasinski Research and Education Building at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction on Saturday at 1 p.m. Tickets can be booked through Northern Stage: boxoffice@northernstage.org or 802-296-7000.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com and 603-727-3268.