San Diego veterans are among the cast of actors telling their stories (and the stories of their fellow veterans) in a new La Jolla Playhouse-commissioned play, playing at the Challenged Athletes Foundation this month as part of the theater's Without Walls series.
The play, written by Naomi Iizuka, head of the UC San Diego MFA Playwriting Program, follows an idealistic but inexperienced acting coach after she gets paired with a group of veterans as part of a drama therapy program. The piece is in association with Cornerstone Theater Company, a theater company that casts half actors and half community members.
Before Iizuka wrote "What Happens Next," she spent years and years doing research. She talked to dozens and dozens of veterans across Southern California about their experiences in the armed forces.
"I think it's a trial and error process of figuring out what rises to the surface, what stays vivid over time," Iizuka said about her process of gathering stories for the play.
In Del Mar, she attended a surf clinic and learned about veterans' struggles. At Camp Pendleton, she spoke with members of the military and veterans. She interviewed Blue Star Mothers. Slowly, the play began to take shape.
"The participation of these veterans brings a level of depth and root system and authenticity that is really, really unique. It's amazing to work with them and it's amazing to see them in the piece," Iizuka said.
Over time, Iizuka said, certain voices stuck with her. Certain stories resonated with her for months and months.
And several of the people who told Iizuka their stories are now starring in the play, telling parts of their stories. The characters in the play are composites of people Iizuka met while researching the piece, Iizuka said.
"It was pretty organic, I think, the way in which the community members in particular, what they brought to the table really shaped the characters, and in turn shaped how the voices were woven through the script," Iizuka said.
The resulting piece of theater is a more authentic and honest final result because the play is fueled, in large part, by who the veterans are and who they represent, Iizuka said.
"I would say what (the veterans) bring is both themselves and their histories and their stories, but also, to some degree, they are our standard bearers for a lot of stories," Iizuka said.
When audiences see the one-act play at the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) space in San Diego, they'll be sitting feet away from the actors -- a little like an immersive experience as they surround the stage.
In that way, the audience becomes a kind of character in the play, Iizuka said.
"They are inside of it. They're not watching a story in a black box however many feet away from the fourth wall. That's not the experience of seeing this place," Iizuka said.
Iizuka hopes she can do justice to the stories so many veterans shared with her.
"I hope the stories resonate because maybe my number one goal for this piece is to create a structure where stories that people were kind enough to tell me over the years and conversations that people had with me, that I bring them to performance in a way that is authentic and clear," she said.
Having veterans tell their stories on stage in the CAF space gives them ownership of their own stories, Iizuka said.
"There's something about how making theater and being able to be the person that tells your own story, not letting other people tell your story but shaping your own story and deciding what that story is, that's a power that theater allows for," she said.
"Theater is about crafting your own story, it's about crafting these narratives and telling them to people," Iizuka added. "Standing up and actually telling them to people, and maybe overcoming fears or whatever may be holding you back."
"What Happens Next" runs at the Challenged Athletes Foundation on Waples Street from April 19 - 29. The production benefits Operation Rebound, supported by the Challenged Athletes Foundation. To buy tickets, click here.