For most actors, becoming a character is a fully immersive experience and as one group of veterans from Milwaukee are also finding out, acting also gives us a chance to work through and express our own emotions about all sorts of things, all under the guise of a character.
In 2013, a group of actors based in the Milwaukee area started running a series of workshops for veterans, aimed at helping them deal with PTSD, mental health issues and reintegration issues by re-enacting emotionally heavy Shakespeare scenes.
Since the “Feast of Crispian” workshops began, more than 300 veterans have taken part in the program, where participants are fed lines so they can concentrate on portraying the emotions. This year, the efforts of the group have meant they are able to stage a full production of Julius Caesar, which will run from October 30 through November 1 at a Milwaukee theater.
Actress and project director Nancy Smith-Watson said of the program “One of the reasons that the Shakespeare works so well is … it’s this language that just holds big emotion. It elicits it but it also holds it, the metaphor just enables a lot of emotion to be put on them.”
Smith-Watson runs the project along with her husband Bill Watson and actor Jim Tasse after seeing the success of a similar venture set up to help juvenile offenders in Massachusetts. There are now 13 veterans in the group, spanning a wide variety of ages and backgrounds, with only one woman.
Carissa DePietro is an army veteran, and plays Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia and also Brutus’ wife, Portia. “It’s been life-changing,” she says of the experience. “It’s this character, I feel safe showing these emotions, showing these feelings because it’s Portia doing it and it doesn’t feel like it’s totally me — even though it is me.”
Mike Mitchells is playing Marc Anthony. After serving in the Army and losing his good friend in Iraq, he struggled with addiction. He’s now 6 months sober and credits the program with changing his outlook on life.
“I’ve been able to open up, I’ve been able to be myself,” he said. “I don’t feel rejected around these people. I don’t feel the need to hide certain things.”