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Rebecca Johannsen: Women At War

By | Published on Thursday 22 June 2017

Plays about war are not a rare thing, especially not in Edinburgh, but when I heard about ‘Women In War’, it immediately piqued my interest, because of its focus on a different kind of active service, carried out by the US Army’s Female Engagement Team.
I spoke to the show’s creator, performer and academic Rebecca Johannsen, to find out more.

CM: Can you start by telling us what to expect from the show? Is it the story of one person or many? Is there an overarching narrative, or is it a collection of stories?
RJ: The play weaves together stories from interviews I conducted with three different women who, from 2012-2013, were all a part of the US Army’s Female Engagement Team, a unit whose mission was to enter into combat zones alongside platoons of male soldiers to build relationships and gather intelligence from the women in Afghanistan where they were deployed.

The very notion of this type of challenging operation piqued my interest, especially when the army had to gather intelligence yet they were operating in an environment where Afghan cultural norms dictates that males are prohibited from even looking at Afghani women let alone talking to them. Danger aside, this type of operation put females at the centre of war. My main thoughts were – What was the experience like? how did this type of engagement affect a woman’s psyche? and what about the Afghani women, how do they relate to other women coming from a world where, on balance, there is gender parity?

When I started conducting the interviews last year, I went in with a simple question of “what happens when women engage in conflict in this way?” I didn’t really have any other goal than to let these women tell me where the story should go. It was actually quite striking how quickly the narrative for Women at War developed from their experiences. The play combines the women’s stories into two characters and follows their journey in all its rawness from joining the military, to how they were treated by the men in the military, how they were treated by the men in Afghanistan, their relationships with the women they met there, and finally their struggles coming home.

CM: What wider themes does the play explore?
RJ: Although I started the project with a question, I honestly don’t think I’ve answered it with this piece, I think it has just raised more questions. I think it’s quite easy for people in the developed, largely secular world to see the overt misogyny represented by the Taliban, but the play forces audiences to explore the subtle, deeply entrenched forms of misogyny we women still experience; the echoes of the Taliban world view are clear in the experiences of the women during their training for the unit. I think it also shows that, in spite of the goal of war to dehumanise the other, we all strive for a connection. The women represented in this play all are trying to connect, some successfully, and others not. Their job was to connect with the women and children of Afghanistan and they formed lasting bonds that have re-shaped how some of them think about the world.

CM: Your press release mentions verbatim theatre, but also movement, poetry and visual art – how does this all blend together?
RJ: I’ve worked very closely with the playwright Erik Ehn, who uses real experiences (and often verbatim accounts) as the subjects of his plays, though he breaks the language apart and explores the visual imagery of the verbatim experience through fractured language. Though this piece is not nearly as abstract as his work (how these women told me their stories was often more revealing than the content, so I wanted to preserve that), the play still explores the nature of trauma. When a person suffers a trauma, they don’t just have a memory of it, the actually relive the experience visually and bodily, so the poetic, fractured language along with movement and visuals helps to reveal the trauma that the soldiers may or may not be willing to share with direct verbal communication.

CM: Who else has been involved in the creation of the project? Who has helped you bring it to the stage?
RJ: My first opportunity to present a piece of the play to the public was through the Young Vic’s Freshworks Programme, where I presented a 15 minute segment of the play for feedback from my fellow directors in the Young Vic’s Director’s Network. Since I wanted to focus more on developing the script rather than performing, I enlisted Rosa Hoskins to perform. She is very supportive of the piece and connected me with a friend who works as a movement director, Jodie Cole, who is now working with me to realise the play physically. She and I had an opportunity to further develop the piece in February when it was selected as a finalist for the LET Award, where we performed in the final showcase at the Greenwich Theatre. I also have a brilliant set and costume designer, Mayou Trikerioti on board, US-based sound designer Matt Warburton, and the projection designer Ash J Woodward is assisting with making the visual ideas a reality.

CM: How did you go about finding the stories?
RJ: I had been introduced to members of a FET unit in the Marine Corps several years ago and that ignited the drive to create this piece, though life got in the way for several years. I found the women I interviewed for the play through an organization called the Women’s Veterans Alliance. The first woman that contacted me after I posted the notice asking for interview subjects happened to be the non-commissioned officer for the unit, so once she spread the word to the unit, several of the women under her command reached out and agreed to be interviewed. For each subject, I met with them informally before we conducted an “on the record” interview so that they could ask me any questions about the project and gain their trust. The first interview subject burst into tears before I even asked the first question, hugged me, and thanked me for caring enough about what they did to share their story. I found with all of them, sharing their stories with me was incredibly therapeutic. They would often cry when sharing something particularly harrowing, though they would still remain calm and monotone in their voice. I’ve grown to care considerably for them and sharing their story honestly and with heart means a great deal. They are my heroes.

CM: Did you do any other research to create it? How long did it take to put the show together?
RJ: I grew up in San Diego, California, so the military was ever-present in my life. We have a Naval base, a Naval Air Field, and a major Marine Corps base within the city and we have a large veteran population, so everyone in the city is exposed to the military way of life. I did do quite a bit of outside research and I conducted interviews with other members of the military that gave me context for the play, though they aren’t a direct part of the narrative.

CM: What inspired you to create a show tackling this particular subject?
RJ: I am good friends with a retired Marine who worked closely with the FET in Iraq and he first told me about them and introduced me to one of the women he worked with. I was struck by the seeming conflict in their mission. They trained like the infantry to go into combat zones where survival is often dictated by dehumanising the other side, yet their mission was to engage on a personal level with the women in the villages in Iraq and Afghanistan, to humanize them again. Their job was to talk to people. That concept is what I really wanted to explore. These women are tough, but they ultimately approach conflict differently than men do. Their missions often did not succeed because the men in command didn’t give them all of the resources they needed to be successful. It was a new approach to conflict, and that met a lot of internal resistance.

CM: Why did do you decide to make this a one-person performance?
RJ: When I first conceived of the play several years ago, I really wanted a cast of actors to conduct the interviews and create the piece from those interviews together, but that proved incredibly challenging logistically and financially. I put the project on hold until recently, when I saw my friend Ali Kennedy Scott revive her solo piece called ‘The Day the Sky Turned Black’ about interviews she conducted in the aftermath of the massive fires in Australia. I realised I could do the piece as a solo piece. Eventually, I would like to expand it to a larger cast (in fact, I already have a version of the script completed for four actors) but at this phase of its development, I was the one who conducted the interviews, so I have a connection to the women that an outside actor won’t have.

CM: What made you decide to take the show to Edinburgh?
RJ: Edinburgh is one of the best festivals for new work in the world. I also love the city. I think it is my favourite city in Europe. And the city during the festival has such a vibrant, artistic energy that makes it a really thrilling place to discover new work. I think this play has something really vital to say and Edinburgh is a great testing ground for finding its voice. I am also really intrigued to discover the non-American response to the piece. There are some interesting perceptions of the American military that people in the UK have shared with me, so I’m interested to see how this play influences that perception.

CM: Have you performed at the Festival before?
RJ: I have only been as a spectator, so this will be a new experience for me. As a participant, I loved being able to see so many new plays, all of which were top quality. The energy of the city is just so vibrant and supportive of artists during the festival.

CM: You founded Stone Soup Theatre Company, which was dedicated to producing work that engages in societal change. How far do you think it’s possible to effect change through the arts?
RJ: There is always the challenge of preaching to the choir in the theatre. And I think we are more aware of that now more than we have in the past, as we’ve seen an increasing division between people in society. But I still firmly believe that the best way toward empathy and reducing conflict is by sharing stories. We might have to get more creative about how we share those stories and find ways to reach the audiences that might not normally attend, but if we can help people see the world from a new point of view, we work toward healing division.

CM: What drew you to a career in performance? What made you want to pursue the academic side?
RJ: I was mercilessly forced into acting classes by my mother when I was seven years old because I was petrifyingly shy. She thought it would help me overcome that shyness, which it did, but it also sparked a love for performing.

I’ve trained as an actor and have a Ph.D. in theatre. In the US there’s a very sharp division between academia and theatrical practice, but in my experience most academics are also brilliant actors, directors, and playwrights. One of the reasons I’m in London at the moment is because I don’t sense the same kind of division. My academic background informs my understanding of how to create a powerful piece. I hope to continue to merge the two in the future.

CM: What plans do you have for the future?
RJ: I want to continue to develop this play and share it with as many audiences as I can. I want to help shape the world, to make it a more understanding place, by sharing stories. I think the best way we can begin to empathise with others is to experience the world through their eyes, even for just a little while. Theatre can do that, we just have to figure out how to get them to come.

‘Women At War’ was performed at C cubed at Edinburgh Festival 2017.