Liz Lerman is the sort of artist who constantly finds herself fascinated. The veteran choreographer and MacArthur “Genius” has conceived and choreographed dance productions for nearly forty years, yet she still gets excited when discussing how movement can tell a story. Her new choreographic work, Healing Wars, is a prime example.
The dance-theater hybrid that explores medicine and recovery in the Civil War makes its world-premiere at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater this June after years of dedicated research, development, and rehearsal. More than an independent production, Healing Wars is the launch pad for the National Civil War Project – a multi-city, multi-year, multi-disciplinary event series to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, coordinated by four American universities on the east coast and four theatre companies.
Lerman’s interest in the Civil War took hold during her tenure as an artist-in-residence at Harvard in 2011. Initially focused on researching the role of women in the war, she became intrigued by the contributions of nurses like Clara Barton. Lerman had learned about Barton in grade school but never realized the magnitude of her work, in particular how she delivered medical supplies to soldiers directly on the battlefield.
What struck Lerman, as she continued her research, was that “the medical world wasn’t up to speed with what was happening to people.” While the achievements of war physicians were significant, they barely kept up with the high toll of death and injury. With these ideas in mind, Lerman began to form the questions that would become central to Healing Wars: “Who’s absorbing the damages that wars make? What happens afterward? What happens to the bodies, who cares for them?”
One of the great ironies of medicine in wartime is that the high volume of deaths and the high caseload of injuries are precisely what enable great medical advancements and life-saving inventions. The urgency foments new initiatives that have led (in numerous eras) to profound innovations. The concept, for example, of triage, where emergency room doctors receive patients and assess which ones need medical attention most immediately, became routine during the Civil War when medical practitioners faced unprecedented amounts of battle trauma. The practice of amputating a limb to save a life, and the use of anesthesia in surgery were also honed in those years.
“They had to push themselves to find better answers,” Lerman remarks. “And the reason was that they had the sheer volume of bodies which you only get in wartime or in great epidemics.”
Lerman has never been one to shy away from complex or difficult subject matter. As the artistic director of Dance Exchange (later named “Liz Lerman Dance Exchange”) from 1976 until 2011, she has tackled an array of topics from the Nuremberg Trials to the atomic bomb. Now working on her own, she leads a company of hand-selected performers whom she chose specifically for this project. One such performer is Tamara Hurwitz Pullman, a veteran dancer and frequent collaborator, who will play Clara Barton among other roles. Lerman also recognized the need for speaking parts and approached Tamara’s husband, actor Bill Pullman (Independence Day, 1600 Penn), to join the company.
The biggest challenge for Lerman has been making all of the disparate elements of Healing Wars come together. In its current form, the work is a blend of dance, theater and video imagery, focusing on the Civil War while drawing lines of connection to America’s recent war in Iraq. Including the Iraq War was not Lerman’s initial intent, but she found that the mirroring of two American eras felt increasingly apt. “Every generation comes upon this and has to address it,” she explains. “We’re not taking into account what we ask people to do in our name and then what happens to them when they get back.” Just as soldiers returning home from the Civil War found a near absence of veteran care facilities, soldiers returning home from the Iraq War found a dearth of resources for treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a medical condition.
“I think about my dad coming home from World War II,” Lerman reflects. “I wasn’t born yet, but I think his early behavior [when I was young] was a form of PTSD. Of course, nobody did anything about it.” In those days, PTSD went by other names like “shell-shock” or “battle fatigue”. Not until the past decade has the US government acknowledged the need to substantially fund the treatment of soldiers and veterans struggling with it.
The show makes a point of including PTSD alongside other maladies of war and demonstrates that mental anguish is not unique to modern times. In fact, much of the show aims to connect the historical to the modern, introducing characters from each era to one another. The show’s dialogue, a blend of scripted text, veteran testimonials, and transcripts from the Civil War archives, shifts from one war to the other and back again until the lines between the two have blurred.
“My hope is that it won’t matter where we are,” Lerman says. “I’ll give the audience enough clues so long as they need them, but I think there’s a point where they won’t.”
June 6 – 29, 2014
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Tickets: $99 – $109
Tuesdays thru Sundays
This fluid structure might suggest to an audience that the two wars are interchangeable, that we as a country haven’t progressed over the past century and a half. Lerman asserts that significant changes have occurred, particularly in medicine, but what lingers, and what she aims to evoke in her work, is how the wounds from war – no matter which one – endure and metastasize. Much of that condition results from American soldiers feeling removed and ostracized when they return home to their communities. “They want to be acknowledged for the fact that they sacrificed, but they know there’s not a lot behind the ‘you’re a hero’ bit,” she says. The breach between Americans who fight wars and Americans who get their war coverage from news sources is ever widening, and Lerman posits that it only delays our understanding of their experience.
“I want to implicate the civilians, us, me,” Lerman says about one of the central concepts behind Healing Wars. “I know that’s a complicated idea, but I do want us to ask ourselves, what’s our part in this? Because we want the government to solve it and for everyone to get healed, but the veteran community and the civilian community are pretty isolated from each other.”
One way that Lerman plans to bridge that gap is by immersing viewers in the soldiers’ experience. Before taking their seats in Arena’s Kogod Cradle, audience members will be led backstage to a live gallery space where performers move about as their characters – a soldier, a mother, a physician. Lerman thinks of it as “an animated program note”, a close-up window into their lives, physical states, and environments.
The concept of healing is prevalent throughout the program, even as the characters acknowledge how vague it is, and how difficult to measure. Placing the civilian in the same physical space as the veteran is a step in the right direction, says Lerman. “I feel civilians have to be involved. Because veterans can’t do this on their own.”
Lonnie Firestone is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.
She blogs about theatre at Everybodyrise.net.
Lonnie Firestone is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.