Veterans act through trauma with Feast of Crispian

By Vicky Wedig

SLN staff

      A Milwaukee theater group was a saving grace for area veteran Raymond Hubbard as he underwent treatment for opiate addiction after getting hooked on painkillers when he was injured in Iraq.

      “They saved my life,” said Hubbard, 39, of Pell Lake, about Bill Watson, Nancy Smith Watson and Jim Tasse, who operate Feast of Crispian, a theater group that engages veterans in performances to share their stories.

      The group has multiple purposes, said Tasse, a senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Vietnam-era veteran. Telling their stories behind the facade of a character helps veterans come to terms with their trauma, and hearing their stories helps family members and the general public better understand war-time trials, he said.

      “First of all, we are very clear that we are not therapists, we are actors and artists,” Tasse said.

      However, he said, the group, formed six years ago, has therapeutic effects on the veterans, who are prompted to think about their experiences as they create scenes in a play based on acts from Shakespeare.

      Tasse said the veterans discover things about themselves or their experiences that they can take back to their therapists, and acting the experiences out gives them a sense of living it.

      “The actor’s way of expression is experience,” he said. “The pain is never going to go away but it’s possible to come to a different relationship with the pain.”

Rough road to stage

      Feast of Crispian discovered Hubbard, as it does many of its actor veterans, at the Milwaukee domiciliary – a section of the Milwaukee Veterans Administration Medical Center that treats veterans for substance abuse, psychiatric rehabilitation and post-traumatic stress disorder.

      Hubbard ended up in the domiciliary in 2015 after overdosing on heroin around 2013.

      Hubbard said he became addicted to painkillers while recovering from injuries sustained in a bomb blast in Iraq in 2006. When he returned home to the Delavan area, the addiction turned to heroin, and Hubbard overdosed, he said.

      He faced five felony charges as a result of the overdose incident, but attended a voluntary rehabilitation program through the Madison Veterans Administration Hospital and was told the offenses wouldn’t be charged if he did so, Hubbard said.

      “I went through the program, learned a lot about myself, a lot about addiction and came out a better man for it,” he said.

      About a year later, as the charging deadline for the felony offenses approached, Hubbard was involved in a car crash and was found with marijuana in his vehicle. At that point, he said, the District Attorney’s Office decided to pursue the pending charges, and officers knocked on the door of his home in Allens Grove with a bench warrant from the incident nearly a year earlier and took Hubbard to jail.

      “I thought that was well behind me,” he said.

      Hubbard’s attorney, Frank Lettenberger, of Delavan, was able to get Hubbard accepted into a veterans court program in Racine County, which sent Hubbard to the Milwaukee domiciliary for a 48-day stay.

Veterans Carissa DiPietro and Raymond Hubbard perform in “And Comes Safe Home” presented by Feast of Crispian at The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in fall of 2016.

      While at the domiciliary, Hubbard saw a flyer for the Feast of Crispian, a non-profit organization that helps veterans dealing with PTSD through play-acting, specifically scenes from William Shakespeare’s works.

      At first, Hubbard saw it as an opportunity get away from the rehab unit for a day.

      “One of the things about being in rehab is you can’t leave rehab,” he said. “But this thing let you leave rehab for a day to go play act with these people, so I do.”

      Bill and Nancy Watson and Tasse spend “weekend intensives” with veterans who are hospitalized at the VA and get many of their actor veterans that way, Tasse said.

      Most of the participants in the Feast of Crispian are from the Milwaukee area, he said. Hubbard lives the farthest away in Pell Lake.

      “He’s a very talented young man,” Tasse said.

      Hubbard said he hadn’t acted since he was a teenager, and the desire returned immediately.

      “The bug bites back,” he said.

      Hubbard along with about a dozen other veterans – and William Shakespeare, he notes – wrote a play, “And Come Safe Home,” that blends their war stories with scenes from Shakespeare’s plays.

      In a scene from “Julius Caesar” when Cassius says, “I am a soldier. I,” for example, the actors are given prompts that help them think about their experiences, Tasse said.

      “Were you a good solider? Were you proud?” actors are asked, Tasse said.

      The prompts help the veterans “get below your thinking brain and have a way to express that,” he said.

      Particularly when dealing with trauma, Tasse said, words can’t adequately describe the experience but acting through them can put them back in a safe place. Tasse called the prompts a “live fire exercise for the soul.”

      “You use your own story, but you have the mask of Cassius to hide behind,” he said.

      The veterans wrote and performed “And Come Home Safe” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee four times in 2016.

      The play will be rewritten for presentation next spring at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and next fall at UW-Milwaukee, Tasse said.

      About a dozen veterans, including Hubbard again, act in the production. It will was presented May 23 in Milwaukee and will have a Wednesday through Sunday run at the end of October at UW-Milwaukee, Tasse said.

      For Hubbard, his involvement in the production opened the next chapter in his life.

      “What I got out of it is my second purpose, my second calling for the next 40 years of my life,” he said. “… And I make people laugh.”


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