‘Great Game’ gets en­core, with Pen­tagon’s ap­plause

Play re­counts cy­cle of in­ter­ven­tion in Afghanistan

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY PETER MARKS

It’s not ev­ery day that the artis­tic di­rec­tor of a theater com­pany is in­vited to a high-level meet­ing at the Pen­tagon. On this oc­ca­sion, though, the ob­jec­tives of a small Bri­tish troupe and the world’s might­i­est war ma­chine were re­mark­ably in sync: Both wanted mem­bers of the U.S. armed forces to be im­mersed in a day of plays, to ex­pe­ri­ence through the ar­ti­fice of the stage some of the harsh truths about fight­ing a war in a for­bid­ding Asian coun­try.

That break­fast get-to­gether in Oc­to­ber has re­sulted in one of the more ex­tra­or­di­nary theater book­ings Washington has seen: the brief re­turn here next month of “The Great Game: Afghanistan,” Tri­cy­cle The­atre’s three-part, 71/ 2hour sur­vey of for­eign in­ter­ven­tion over the cen­turies in Afghanistan. The dozen playlets that form the pro­duc­tion are a chron­i­cle of the con­flicts waged by su­per­pow­ers in Afghanistan from 1842 to the present. What makes it unique is that the day-long spe­cial per­for­mances Feb. 10 and 11 will be of­fered free to an au­di­ence con­sist­ing en­tirely of sol­diers, wounded vet­er­ans and govern­ment of­fi­cials, all with some ur­gent con­nec­tion to the war.

“All of the ac­tors are very com­mit­ted, and ev­ery­one leapt at the chance to do this,” says Nicolas Kent, who runs the Lon­don­based com­pany. “In the theater, it’s won­der­ful when you get to do some­thing that in­ter­ests or in­flu­ences the pol­i­cy­mak­ers.”

“ The Great Game” was pre­sented for two weeks in Septem­ber at

the Shake­speare The­atre Com­pany’s Sid­ney Harman Hall on F Street NW, and sub­se­quently toured sev­eral Amer­i­can cities. Bring­ing the elab­o­rate show back to the United States — it con­sists of 12 orig­i­nal half-hour plays deal­ing in chrono­log­i­cal or­der with the Bri­tish, Rus­sian and Amer­i­can in­va­sions of the south­cen­tral Asian coun­try — would re­quire a lot of plan­ning and about $175,000.

But be­cause the Pen­tagon did not want to use tax­payer money for the event, those in­volved in the ne­go­ti­a­tions say, other means had to be de­vised to fi­nance it. That’s when the Bob Woodruff Foun­da­tion stepped in. The or­ga­ni­za­tion, es­tab­lished by the ABC news­man, who was se­verely in­jured while cov­er­ing the war in Iraq, seeks to ad­vo­cate for wounded and re­turn­ing sol­diers. It con­trib­uted $100,000 for the re­mount­ing in Washington, and the rest was raised from other pri­vate and non­profit sources.

“ The pro­duc­tion re­ally strikes at the heart of what our ser­vice mem­bers are fac­ing ev­ery day in Afghanistan,” says Rene Bar­dorf, the foun­da­tion’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. The think­ing was, she adds, “ that if you bet­ter un­der­stand the cul­tural in­flu­ences in Afghanistan, we’ll be bet­ter able to sup­port our war­riors who are now re­turn­ing.”

Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Perry, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says in­ter­est in the pro­duc­tion was sparked by sev­eral of­fi­cers, in­clud­ing Brig. Gen. John Ni­chol­son, who at­tended “ The Great Game” in Septem­ber. “ They came back and talked it up,” Perry says. “ They were struck by the play and felt it could serve as a learn­ing tool for any­one want­ing to gain a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of Afghanistan.”

Al­though de­fense of­fi­cials at first wanted the pro­duc­tion to be staged at the Pen­tagon, Kent says the mas­sive build­ing’s “ theater” is in ac­tu­al­ity an un­suit­able lec­ture hall in a sub­base­ment. “ To get all the scenery in and all the ac­tors in would be pretty much a night­mare,” he ex­plains. As a re­sult, the Shake­speare The­atre Com­pany agreed to do­nate Harman Hall for the two ad­di­tional per­for­mances.

Chris Jen­nings, the Shake­speare’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, says the troupe had to jug­gle its sched­ule slightly to ac­com­mo­date Tri­cy­cle’s re­turn, but that the ef­fort was given high pri­or­ity. “ The goal with theater al­ways is to find the peo­ple the work speaks most to,” he says. “It’s a home run to have the di­rect con­nec­tion of that com­mu­nity and this piece of work.”

It’s un­usual for the mil­i­tary to so whole­heart­edly em­brace a piece of theater. But some of those work­ing to in­clude the armed forces more ac­tively in the arts say the re­sponse re­flects a more en­light­ened kind of think­ing in the Pen­tagon and some of its al­lies about how to en­gage the pub­lic and sen­si­tize ser­vice men and women to the com­plex­i­ties of world his­tory and cul­ture.

“For me, it’s a hall­mark of the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship these days,” says Simon Gam­mell, who served as a bro­ker of sorts for the re­mount and also heads up arts ini­tia­tives

“The pro­duc­tion re­ally strikes at the heart of what our ser­vice mem­bers are fac­ing ev­ery day in Afghanistan.”

— Rene Bar­dorf, Bob Woodruff Foun­da­tion ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor

in the United States for the Bri­tish Coun­cil, a global non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­motes Bri­tish ed­u­ca­tional and artis­tic en­deav­ors. “ The rea­son that theater ex­isted in Western so­ci­ety is be­cause it’s a place for the com­mu­nity to come to­gether and talk about big things.”

Bryan Do­er­ries has found a sim­i­larly evolv­ing spirit in his deal­ings with the De­fense Depart­ment, through which he has a con­tract to stage ex­cerpts of Greek plays on mil­i­tary bases in the United States and over­seas. His Theater of War project, which started in 2008, in­cludes read­ings of Sopho­cles’ “Ajax” and “Philoctetes,” an­cient dra­mas that of­ten set off deeply emo­tional re­ac­tions in his au­di­ences of sol­diers and fam­ily mem­bers, many of whom have lit­tle or no prior knowl­edge of clas­si­cal theater. Each of the read­ings is aug­mented by a fo­rum that en­cour­ages au­di­ence mem­bers to talk about their re­sponses.

“It is ac­tu­ally not that spe­cial that we find the mil­i­tary open to in­no­va­tive and ground­break­ing ap­proaches, whether it’s in the area of pub­lic health, or technology,” says Do­er­ries, a trans­la­tor and di­rec­tor by train­ing. In this case, he adds, “ the ques­tion is how do we re-hu­man­ize those who have lost touch with their hu­man­ity. And theater is ob­vi­ously an an­swer.”

Theater of War is also pre­sent­ing its work in the­aters, and the re­sponse there has been pow­er­ful, too. An evening at the Woolly Mam­moth The­atre Com­pany in Septem­ber that brought to­gether a civil­ian and mil­i­tary au­di­ence was so suc­cess­ful that it is be­ing re­peated on Feb. 22. “It was just dev­as­tat­ing,” says Miriam We­is­feld, Woolly’s di­rec­tor of artis­tic devel­op­ment. “It re­ally taught us a lot about who our neigh­bors are.”

The re­turn of “ The Great Game” was in part in­spired by a suc­cess­ful pre­sen­ta­tion of the show last sum­mer to the Bri­tish mil­i­tary, an event that was pub­licly praised by a top Bri­tish of­fi­cial, Gen. David Richards. Ac­cord­ing to Kent and oth­ers, Gen. David H. Pe­traeus, com­man­der ofU.S. forces in Afghanistan, af­ter hear­ing fa­vor­able re­ports about the show, asked through the of­fice of Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), for a video of the pro­duc­tion. (Through a spokesman, Harman de­clined to com­ment.)

Tri­cy­cle has de­vel­oped a spe­cial affin­ity for theater of up-tothe-minute topi­cal­ity: Its play, “Guan­tanamo: Honor Bound to De­fend Free­dom,” was based on letters, recorded tes­ti­mony and other doc­u­ments re­lat­ing to Guan­tanamo Bay de­tainees and was pro­duced lo­cally in 2005 by Stu­dio The­atre. That piece took a far more ide­o­log­i­cal ap­proach than does “ The Great Game,” whose playlets, by mostly Bri­tish and Amer­i­can writ­ers, ex­plore the frus­trated ef­fort by world pow­ers to ex­ert last­ing mil­i­tary con­trol in Afghanistan. While many of the pieces deal with diplo­macy and war­fare, oth­ers de­pict the lives of Afghan lead­ers and or­di­nary cit­i­zens.

“Quite a lot of our work has had an ef­fect on na­tional pol­icy,” Kent says, adding that he has been grat­i­fied by the open­ness of the Pen­tagon.

“I think that why they’ve re­sponded is be­cause a lot of very young peo­ple are go­ing to a com­pletely new cul­ture in Afghanistan, a very tribal nation, and they know very lit­tle about the his­tory,” Kent says. “ There­fore, this is a very good tool for that ex­pe­ri­ence.”

“ The Great Game” is also be­ing used, ap­par­ently, to help those who’ve been in com­bat process what they’ve been through. Ac­com­mo­da­tions are be­ing made in Harman Hall to han­dle more than the nor­mally ex­pected num­ber of dis­abled the­ater­go­ers.

“We’ve talked a lot about that with the Depart­ment of De­fense. We’re go­ing to ex­tend in­vi­ta­tions to those hos­pi­tal­ized and re­ceiv­ing out­pa­tient treat­ment at Wal­ter Reed,” the Woodruff Foun­da­tion’s Bar­dorf says, re­fer­ring to those re­cu­per­at­ing at Wal­ter Reed Army Med­i­cal Cen­ter. “For the young war­rior, cer­tain parts of the play would make very good sense.”

PHO­TOS BY ASTRID RIECKEN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Ac­tors re­hearsed for a pro­duc­tion of “ The Great Game: Afghanistan” last year at Sid­neyHar­manHall in the District. The play chron­i­cles for­eign in­ter­ven­tion in the coun­try from 1842 to the present.

“ The Great Game” by London’s Tri­cy­cle The­atre has been de­scribed as a learn­ing tool for peo­ple seek­ing to un­der­stand Afghanistan.

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