Young Americans have lots of experience with war, right? I mean, we've lived (very remotely) through wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and we've got hard-hitting blockbusters like Battleship and Red Tails to learn from. We can even step into a soldier's shoes with video games like Call of Duty, Halo and Medal of Honor. We know the deal: guns, guts, blood, death, conquest, glory. War. Pretty basic stuff.
And actually pretty complicated. So this weekend, the American Place Theatre Literature to Life program will bring a one-man show, The Things They Carried, to the Lakewood Cultural Center. The character-intensive play focuses on Vietnam, and was adapted with the help of Tim O'Brien, the author of a book of short stories with the same name. See also: - Red Hot Patriot's kick-ass portrayal stays true to Molly Ivins - The last refugees: This family's roots are in Vietnam, but they're branching out
"I find very often, going around in pre- and post-show discussions, the young people really don't know much about Vietnam," says Billy Lyons, the production's sole actor, who has been performing this show around the country for over five years. "There's a great need in bringing that immediacy to the young people and to educating them, and to know your history. It's important to know your past and your history to prevent history from repeating itself."
The primary purpose of the Literature to Life program is education, and it was conceived with students in mind; Wynn Handman, one of the theater's founders, directed The Things They Carried. So the production includes both pre- and post-show discussions, giving the audience a chance to reflect on the show's heavy subject matter. This story "gets right to the core of some very difficult questions about war and conflict and what our governments send us to do in their name, and our trust in our government," Lyons says. "And then what these young men and women who give for their country have to carry with them for the rest of their lives. And that brings it back right to the nature of the material and the title, The Things They Carried."
The O'Brien book on whch the play is based is not so much a study of war itself as it is a study of the people involved and how they are affected. And the one-actor format not only works in this case, it enhances the experience. "You could do The Things They Carried with eight actors, each playing a different role, coming on stage and having a dialogue with one another," Lyons notes. "And that's not necessary, because with the one actor, that actor is making all of those characters exist and making the words exist. So the focus hones in from the audience's perspective on the words, on the language, on the journey of the character."
Lyons's father served in the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, coincidentally in the same region and at the same time as O'Brien. "When I was growing up, it was just not something that we talked that much about," says Lyons. "Since I've been doing this piece...it has certainly opened up much more of a dialogue about that period of time. And in addition, when I do this performance all over the country in adult audiences where there are veterans present, it is quite an experience because many of these Vietnam veterans have been carrying around with them so much for so long, and they haven't been given forums or opportunities to release some of that or talk about their experiences. So I think there's a great need for it."
This adaptation of The Things They Carried is a part of a larger push to bring life to important American works through the American Place Theatre's Literature to Life program. "You focus on where there's a need," says Lyons, "and more and more you have young people, students, adolescents, teenagers, using their cell phones, using their iPads, playing video games. The images are right there for them....We have a phrase at the theater that Wynn Handman, the co-founder of the theater, uses, which he created many years ago: 'Trying to bring voices worth hearing.' The way we do the adaptations, bringing in the first person, using one actor playing all the characters, making everything that's happening in the character's life really exist and bringing the book to life -- that's why we call it Literature to Life -- stimulates the students' or the audience's desire to want to read the book."
And then continue to read. "The books that are chosen as a part of the American Place Theatre Literature to Life are all voices worth hearing," Lyons adds.
And the voices come through in the bare-bones production. "We have a very minimal set," he continues. "There's no props or extravagant set design. It's very minimalist because the focus is on the acting, and when the acting is really alive, then everything that's happening for the character in the book really exists, and if it exists for the character, if it exists for the actor in the character, it will exist for the audience, and that's what we're wanting to do. One of the goals is to stimulate the imagination."
The richness of O'Brien's writing helps with that. "When you have a good writer like Tim O'Brien, it makes it very easy," says Lyons. "It's a delicious feeling to be able to get into character and say those words, because they're filled with so much."
There's just one performance of The Things They Carried, at 7:30 p.m. November 9 at the Lakewood Cultural Center. Tickets are available for $13 online or at 303-987-7845.
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