The Playgoer: Pentagon Playgoers

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Friday, March 04, 2011

Pentagon Playgoers

"There is an assumption that the arts and our men and women in uniform are from different planets. It's not the case. The arts can provide a means to discuss and explore and, in this case, learn about the history and culture of a very complicated country. It is tremendous food for thought."
- Douglas Wilson, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, US Department of Defense

The above is reported in Nicolas Kent's very inspiring article about presenting his company's epic The Great Game: Afghanistan in a command Washington performance for soldiers and officers from the Pentagon. This 9-hour cycle of plays about Afghanistan's history from the UK's Tricycle theatre had been touring last fall (stopping in NYC and Washington) when through some intermediaries it caught the attention of the "top brass."

We opened in Washington in September, and the production was warmly welcomed, but our fortnight's run was ignored by the Pentagon and Capitol Hill – until a few days before its end, when a congresswoman was asked by General Petraeus, in Kabul, to send him a tape of the plays. Then, on the last Saturday performance, General "Mick" Nicholson came. He was incredibly enthusiastic and asked to meet the cast. He was about to be posted to Kabul as head of operations for Petraeus, and thought it vital that more people from the Pentagon saw the plays.

Three weeks later, at 7.15 on a chilly October morning, I found myself standing outside the Pentagon, waiting for a military escort to take me to a meeting to discuss a special performance of The Great Game, to be hosted by the Pentagon. The original idea was to stage the plays in the Pentagon theatre – yes, it has a theatre, not to mention a drugstore, supermarket, a Blockbuster video store, and two shoeshine boys in its 17 miles of corridors. Sadly, the theatre was too small and, as it was located in the sub-basement, we couldn't have got our set down there anyway. What's more, it had taken me 20 minutes to penetrate security; the idea of getting the guns and explosives needed for the production through those doors seemed a challenge too far.
The Shakespeare theatre in downtown Washington came to our rescue, offering to host the plays for two days last month. The Pentagon were adamant that, though they wanted the production, they couldn't use taxpayers' money to fund it. The next few weeks were spent frantically trying to raise money. Finally, Bob Woodruff, a US reporter who was injured in Afghanistan, came to our aid with a grant from his foundation; the British Council kindly helped with most of the rest.
How's this for a cheerleading slogan for our artform: "If David Petraeus can huddle down in Kabul and watch a video of a play, you sure as hell can get your ass to the theatre!"

Also, by the way, how about that little Pentagon theatre space? Is it for rent???

Read the whole thing, it gives one hope. (For theatre, not necessarily for Afghanistan.) And while I'm always a little suspect of artists' biased accounts of their own audience's enthusiasm, Kent offers lots of compelling details of what it was like to perform for a full house of military personnel.

Also makes me sorry I missed The Great Game.

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