“This is scarier than getting shot at,” joked retired U.S. Army Col. Fred Johnson just before he stepped onstage for the first time as a member of Shakespeare with Veterans. Johnson, a combat veteran and four-time recipient of the Bronze Star, co-founded the group, whose purpose is to use the works of Shakespeare to help veterans connect with one another and process their experiences. Over time, Johnson and the other members of the troupe have grown more comfortable onstage and closer to one another in the process.
One member says, “This is the best therapy I’ve had since I left Vietnam,” while an Afghanistan veteran reports, “It’s been 13 years since I left the service and this is the first time a group has worked for me.”
In this essay, Johnson shares his story of the origin of Shakespeare with Veterans.
Kentucky Shakespeare’s Shakespeare with Veterans program is an acting ensemble and storytelling group made up of veterans from every conflict from Vietnam to our current wars. We have performed at the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival for three consecutive seasons and in locations throughout Louisville and southern Indiana.
I’ve often been asked what led me to co-found Shakespeare with Veterans with Matt Wallace, Kentucky Shakespeare’s producing and artistic director. The answer is that it came to me by way of a very winding and sometimes treacherous path that began in the ninth grade.
Ms. Polly Peterson was my freshman high school English teacher. Ms. Peterson was the kind of teacher who inspired complete and enduring respect, plus she scared the heck out of me.
Even now, four decades later, I still break into a sweat when I see some piece of writing that I’ve published with the wrong punctuation. I can hear her voice coming from the great beyond, “Mr. Johnson, you are such a disappointment.”
Like many teachers of that era, Ms. Peterson required her students to memorize lines from books we were required to read. One was a soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Macbeth that, in part, goes:
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all of our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.”
At the time I had no clue what it meant and really didn’t think about it until 40 years later.
On a muggy July evening in 2015, I had come to Old Louisville’s Central Park to watch Kentucky Shakespeare’s performance of Macbeth. Near the end of the play I sat on the edge of my wooden bench and listened to the actor playing Macbeth finishing the monologue I had learned in Ms. Peterson’s class:
“Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
I sat back on the bench and reflected on his words. Then, I got up and left the play before it ended and walked alone in the dark back behind the stage. I took a seat and leaned against a large oak tree, closed my eyes, and drifted back two years earlier to when I sat on another bench at a bar in Jeffersonville, Indiana.
From the bar, I looked out over the Ohio River at the Louisville skyline, contemplating snuffing out my own candle that had been dimming since returning from my fourth combat tour. I wanted to end a life that had become too difficult to bear. In my mind, my existence had become a “lighted fool that signified nothing.”
I considered the only way out of it was through a “dusty death,” but in my case it would be a watery one because I planned to drive my car into the Ohio River.
Serendipity changed those plans and I didn’t take that step into the “undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveler returns,” as Shakespeare says in Hamletduring the Prince of Denmark’s contemplation of suicide.
I then began to travel a long road to getting well.
The load I carried of the soul-shattering shame that drew me to suicide grew lighter over time, but was not completely lifted. Now and again, the darkness would cover me and it was difficult to dig my way out.
Something was missing and I couldn’t put my finger on it until that night watching Macbethin Central Park.
There, sweating and with the bark of the tree biting into my back, I realized my feelings of despair were universal and timeless. I knew that intuitively, but I had never actually felt it in the way the play allowed me to imagine it. And in some odd way, watching that play made all things right in my world.
Then, I thought: Can other words of Shakespeare evoke a similar emotional connection to the one I was having? And, if so, can they be used to help other veterans deal with PTSD and other challenges if played out in the company of other warriors who’ve had similar experiences?
I knew Matt Wallace had done similar work with prison inmates with a program called Shakespeare Behind Bars. I approached him and asked if he would consider sponsoring a veterans program if I raised the money and recruited the veterans. Matt agreed and the first session of Shakespeare with Veterans convened six months later in February 2016.
The author Brené Brown said, “Grace means that all your mistakes now serve a purpose instead of serving shame.”
My purpose and the ultimate redirection of my shame to that of grace was helping bringing about Shakespeare with Veterans. The significance of our program is best understood through the words of the Bard in Henry V:
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’re so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition; …”
Our band includes a few sisters as well. And we are led by Ms. Amy Attaway, Kentucky Shakespeare’s associate artistic director, who serves as our mentor and spiritual healer and guides us through our program each week.
Not in my wildest dreams did I think our experience would resemble so intimately what it was like to be a soldier again. Through our performances, we are once more a part of a team doing something bigger than ourselves. I never thought we would become so close that we’d refer to our group as “The Tribe.” We have seen a couple babies born, members hospitalized, our share of life crises and extreme joys.
Indeed, our condition has been gentled, together, because no one speaks more directly to the warrior’s heart and spirit than William Shakespeare.
You can see Shakespeare with Veterans in action here: