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Artistic Director explains adapting soldier letters to stage in 'Letters Home'

Soldier letters home
Soldier letters home

William Massolia's stage adaptation of soldier letters to loved ones back home, "Letters Home", has been touring for 7 or 8 years and is coming to Milwaukee's Marcus Center May16-18. Yesterday, May 10, Massolia took the time to share his thoughts on the project and explain the process of adapting real soldier letters into a theatrical production.

"Letters Home" looks specifically at letters from American soldiers in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When asked why he chose to focus on this particular group as opposed to a look across several wars, Adaptor/Artistic Director Massolia answered,

I thought it was important to look at the wars we're in right now because those two wars have really shaped a lot of where this country is at this point in time.

Massolia got his inspiration for "Letters Home" while watching an HBO documentary, "Last Letters Home". This documentary, along with the New York Times Op-Ed Article, "Things They Wrote", inspired the project with two particular stories sparking Massolia's interest in adapting the work.

I watched the documentary and I thought how beautiful the writing was and I thought, 'How would it be to take more letters like that from Iraq and Afghanistan and put them onstage in some kind of dramatic way' and so I started to do the research and found many many more letters.

One of these two stories that sparked his interest was that of Wisconsin Army National Guard Specialist Michelle M. Witmer, who was killed in action in 2004. And though it was one of the stories that inspired the project, Massolia says that the vast majority of the stories come from veterans who made it back home safely.

When sifting through the many letters, Massolia said it was important to find something unique in each letter that works to completely capture the soldier experience. In his own words,

There are letters in the piece that are very funny in terms of what the men or women were expressing to their loved one back home, some of them are, of course, much more serious. Some letters are to parents, some are to husbands or wives, some letters are to children. Some letters deal with losing a fellow service man or woman in combat, some letters deal with the mundane things that service men and women have to deal with when they're deployed. Some deal with the weather, some deal with PTSD, some deal with the very basic issues of why someone chose to join. They cover a really broad spectrum of the soldier experience.

Each actor reads three or four letters from an individual soldier, which also helps to cover the whole soldier experience, from enlisting to the end of their deployment. But there is also a focus on the family members back home. Massolia includes four letters from four mothers to their soldier children. He explained his reasoning saying,

In many ways [mothers] are really fighting the war as much as the person over in Iraq or Afghanistan so I thought it was important to have their voices in the piece as well.

What really makes this production unique is that, despite the political nature of war, "Letters Home" is not at all politicized and takes a fresh perspective into the life of a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. The letters aren't political, and the audience gets a genuine look into what matters most to soldiers. As Massolia explains,

You would be pretty hard pressed to find a political [letter]. I didn't find any because that's not really important to them. What's important to them is the connection they need to make with their loved ones back home so they write about other things that are, frankly, more important.

In this way, the broader political issues surrounding the war are removed and the lens is narrowed in on the personal aspect that people can actual witness and relate to (or not relate to, as the circumstances may be) in their daily lives. And yet, the audience can still take larger meaning and thoughts from personal letters to loved ones. Massolia commented saying,

I think that the play points out a lot of things that people can think about like, what does it mean to be patriotic today? What does sense of community mean? What does brotherhood mean? What does compassion for the enemy mean? It's all these things that we read about in history books or hear about in school or see in movies but then when you see it expressed by a 19-year-old in a letter to a parent or a family member, it takes on a whole other meaning.

These questions are not only relevant today, but throughout history. It is a rare opportunity to gain insight into these questions based on soldiers who find these issues so close to their daily lives. Massolia sums up the concept of "Letters Home" saying,

I think the play ultimately shines a light on the humanity that lies within the war as seen through the eyes of the men and women fighting it.

"Letters Home" runs at the Marcus Center's Vogel Hall from May 16-18. Tickets are available online or by calling 414-273-7206. Please visit the Marcus Center website for more information.

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