Arts Q&A: Ajax in Iraq – Applying choreography to the Iraq War

In our arts column – In Review – Victoria Moy writes about plays, shows and films that focus on lives as lived by the different ethnicities of America. This week Moy interviews director John Farmanesh-Bocca and actor Aaron Hendry, who plays the title role in “Ajax in Iraq,” written by Ellen McLaughlin, at Greenway Court Theatre. Farmanesh-Bocca is the founding artistic director of NOT MAN APART Physical Theatre Ensemble and Hendry is its present co-artistic director. They discuss using dance, athleticism, and Greek mythology to address the Iraq War, PTSD, and rape.

Aaron Hendry in "Ajax in Iraq"

Can you talk about "Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble", the work you do, and why it's your mission to bring athleticism and physicality into theatrical performances?

John Farmanesh-Bocca: Movement and dance in storytelling is as ancient as storytelling itself. Ultimately all theatre and emotion is physical in my opinion. We are taking it to a fully committed extreme. I started Not Man Apart to do a few things, but bringing athleticism to theatre work was definitely in the top five. Here are three specific reasons why we like it a lot:

1.    To express the spirituality and ritualistic aspects of movement in a story.

2.   To bring the excitement and unpredictability of a sporting event to a theatrical experience.

3.   Finally, to express fully in a way that is most accessible to all backgrounds and beliefs of an audience. You can just watch the movement and get the whole thing, making for a near dreamlike experience, if nothing else.

Aaron Hendry: NMA seeks to push forward the form of theatre. To question the boundaries of what we think it means to “go see a play.” Often when something is billed as physical theatre it is either a dance show with a narrative element or a play that stops for a few dances along the way. We want to provide an experience in which the expression of the events is not just words and ideas but ALSO movement and dynamics.

What does your name, "Not Man Apart," mean?

JFB: I took our name from my favorite Robinson Jeffers Poem, “The Answer.” Here is a small excerpt:

Integrity is wholeness,

the greatest beauty is

Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, 

the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, 

Not Man Apart from that…

What Jeffers is exerting in the whole poem is how the only truly ugly thing is mankind severed from himself and the same things mankind is made of, which is quite literally everything. He exerts that there is a oneness between war and peace, love and hate, an arm and a leg, the mind and the heart, a crashing meteor and violence to each other, a volcano eruption and the birth of a child. To understand and love this is to understand and love one’s part in the whole scheme, but if we sever this, disconnect from the whole, look away from the violence, see anything outside of us as an ‘other,’ rely too deeply on Man alone and cloud our heads with the hopes of universal peace, we are destined to suffer.

The work we do at Not Man Apart is somewhat self-evident, we try to include the profane and the profound in our work, the whole body, song, dance, universal nature. Usually the lesson is “Do Not Look Away.” It hopefully leads back to something Life-affirming by connecting us to the whole. We aspire to a kind of holistic theatre experience that attempts to bring a bit of this sentiment to light. 

AH: I believe theatre offers discovery of who we are through community – we see ourselves deeply through others. In this day and time, I do not believe the “solutions” for the struggles of mankind will be found alone. They will be found together. Art reminds us of that.

Jason Barlaan in "Ajax in Iraq"

Are all your works related to Greek myths? If so, why?

JFB: Not all, but we have a few of those, some Roman, some Jungian, some Shakespeare. Mostly we deal with the Epic. Greek myth is therefore a natural for us. We have a 4 play series of our work (Titus Redux, Hercules Furens, Lysistrata Unbound, Ajax in Iraq) that we have dubbed ‘our War cycle.’

One Shakespeare, one Roman, one modern adaptation of a Greek play, one a wonderful intricate mash-up, which is Ajax. Each explores war from a different angle – The Warrior Coming Home, The Mother’s point of view, The Madness of War, then the Reasons and unseen Casualties of War. 

Earlier this year with the critically acclaimed premiere of Superhero and His Charming Wife, written and directed by Aaron Hendry, we are going in an exciting new direction while still firmly focused on The Epic. 

Was dance written into the script, or did you decide to infuse the play with movement?

JFB: Albeit, Ellen’s scripts lend themselves nicely to physicality, no, none of that is written in. I usually approach all our work whether Shakespeare or contemporary by figuring out the movement narrative – Where does it fit? Is there room? Can we bring more to it? Or would we be detracting from it? Can it be made into this interesting other thing entirely that is worth doing? I ask myself, “how can I push the story forward with movement?” If it doesn’t push the story forward, that movement simply does not make the cut.

Ellen’s fascination with our production was that we were going to approach her work from a physical theatre prospective; which she said interested her greatly. She has been so generous with us and we are grateful for her insight and participation with this Los Angeles premiere of her wonderful play. 

How does the intertwining of Greek myth and moments from history (like when the British redrew lines in the Middle East) with scenes of U.S. soldiers in Iraq help you communicate what you want to express to the audience? What is it that you'd like audience members to walk away with after the show?

JFB: Yeah, it’s fantastic actually. It brings into focus the much longer timeline of human events – we have been at this War thing for many millennia. The similarities and differences contrast and frame each other nicely. 

With the British Gertrude Bell section of the play we see how even the conflicts in the middle-east began with western meddling. The drawing of national borders through tribal areas, the colonial insistence of supremacy, the at-all-costs value of oil and natural resources, the inherit prejudices of both sides. Even in that small excerpt of the play, it explains our conflicts today very well I think.

The “walk away” we hope for with the audience goes back to the Not Looking Away goal we have. It helps to show that history really can and does repeat itself. That we are not so sophisticated to not make the same mistakes we have before, we just may make them that much more complicated and difficult because of our supposed sophistication. Ultimately, the pieces we create intend to have people start a conversation in the car home about the topic we have explored. Then have them remember partway through their thoughtful conversation – Oh yeah, that was a great play / performance / entertaining, whatever that was too.

Ensemble Member Olivia Trevino in "Ajax in Iraq"

The choreography, music, and set design were beautiful and striking. Can you talk about how some of these came about? 

JFB:  The Choreography is my signature style of rough and tumble lift and fall work I’ve done for years, and I draw often on the talents of my company too. 

The Music is also signature to my style of wall-to-wall soundscape. I choose what my heart leads me to and then take my choices and engineer and mix them with my dear friend Adam Phalen, who does a lot of the Sound Design work at The Kirk Douglas Theatre.

The Set was quasi designed by me. The large Hand and the two Half-Torsos are pieces inspired by actual things that sit on my desk at home. I wanted the hand and statues to be items that could work in all our War cycle pieces, something that felt like broken relics that would also incite the Gods. Also I like levels and pieces that people can use as launching pads. 

AH: There are a handful of seats on the stage itself and people are invited to sit directly on the left or the right of the action.  John was inspired to do this to break up the flat feeling of proscenium theatre.  Once we began experimenting with it I turned to him and said, "it makes the stage like a boxing ring!" Ultimately the effect is that it breaks the separation between audience and performer; it encourages your brain to recognize that this is a live and volatile event, happening in real time right in front of you.

This is a revival of a production you did two years ago. How has the script been revised and updated to reflect the current state of affairs in our country?

JFB: The revision was supposed to be even more updated; however, I think Ellen chose to merely cut about 12 pages and a few scenes that she felt didn’t work anymore rather than update to reflect anything in particular. Really she just streamlined it. I think the piece still firmly remains in the 2003/2004 time period and in essence is a period piece. I think that is a good thing. I often miss many of the cut sections, because they were really great scenes and lines that went away, but overall it gives the show more propulsion.

AH: Just to add, what is amazing to me about the actions of the Occupation in Iraq (the details, the headlines, the shock and awe campaign, the surge, the long-debated withdrawal, etc.) is that these things have that eerie effect of feeling like yesterday and a thousand years ago at the same time. So much has changed and yet the struggles are the same. To me the play feels like it happens in 2500 BC, 2005, and 2015 all at the same time.

 Ajax (Aaron Hendry) hugging A.J. (Courtney Munch) in "Ajax in Iraq"

Did the writer, director, and/or actors have a personal connection to the topics addressed in this play? Are some of them veterans?

JFB: Yes, we have three Iraq/Afghanistan War Veterans in the play, and a handful of folks who are related to military veterans including myself. Our female lead’s father served in Vietnam and has a very deep connection to the psychological tolls on a returning soldier.

AH: So often the civilian population respects the military population but thinks of them as “other”, some group that is different and we can’t relate to.  This experience has brought me to the recognition that these people, these issues, belong to us as a nation and as a humankind, and that it is my mistake if I hold myself separate from them.

How were veterans involved in the development of this production?

JFB: Ellen wrote this piece originally for the graduating class of A.R.T. and their entire process was derived from interviewing many Veterans from multiple wars. 

For the three separate times I directed this play we have had wildly different viewpoints come to us through the veterans who participated as actors in the various incarnations—plus the conversations that I have had with many of my close friends who are in the armed services. I have been fortunate to have friends through my life that were in the services and led a life of service. To draw on the insights of these fine folks has always been one of the best parts of remounting this piece and working on the entire NMA war cycle pieces.

Our current crew of Veteran/Actors Jason Barlaan, James Bane and Ronin Lee have been an invaluable resource this time around in mentoring their fellow cast mates about their experiences, catching us on discrepancies to real life deployment and service. We have had a wonderful experience with all of them.

AH: we will be hosting an after show panel including representatives from The Warrior Chorus, New Directions, and The Soldiers Project following the Sunday 8/7 performance.  These are all organizations that seek solutions to the various challenges of veterans returning to active civilian life. 

Jessica Carlsen, Olivia Trevino, Jolene Kim and Sydney Mason in "Ajax in Iraq"

What kind of audience members are you most trying to reach? Civilians? Veterans? How do you expect people who may have been sexually abused or who experience PTSD to react when they see this play? 

JFB: One of the handful of goals that means a lot to us is to bring the worlds of Veterans and Civilians closer together. To have more interaction and conversation with each other. To fight against the notion that each community is the ‘other.’

Civilians think what the armed services do is ‘unreal,’ but when you are serving on behalf of your country in a hostile environment with bullets and rockets whizzing by your head, dealing with the loss of life daily, it’s so ultra real, that returning to the U.S. after that, everything we obsess over and are focused on back home is completely ‘unreal’ to them. There is an inherent divide.

With regards to the latter question about how those who have deep trauma through war, rape, living with or around PTSD etc. and how they may be impacted. I believe it gives them a voice. Lets them know they are not alone. Permission to speak and to be understood, heard and accepted.

The Greek playwrights were all veterans of war. They mostly wrote about what they knew. Trauma was a big part of the discussion. Not something kept in the shadows, but spoken about in the town square, revealed in the Amphitheatre at night.  We are charged as artists to continue that conversation and bring it to the fore. In the face of how it sounds, we are dedicated to do it in an enthralling, passionate and captivating way, so that no matter how uncomfortable the subject may be on paper or in conversation, the medium of performance takes that jagged pill and makes it inescapable and captivating and safe and permissible to look at and try to comprehend.

Our program for the show lists a group of organizations that deal with Veteran’s trauma and victims of command rape, should the audience want to get more involved after the curtain falls.

AH: Yes the goal is this: a mutual space for civilians, veterans, warriors, moms, accountants, poets…. Where we can see one another, and recognize that the struggles in this play are our struggles together.  That we will recognize ourselves and be of best service when mankind finds a space together, NOT MAN APART.

“Ajax in Iraq” by Ellen McLaughlin

Presented and Produced by Not Man Apart in association with Greenway Arts Alliance

VenueGreenway Court Theatre544 North Fairfax AvenueLos Angeles CA 90036

323-655-7679

www.greenwayartsalliance.org

Performance TimesFridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm; Until Sunday, August 14.Ticket Information:Friday and Saturdays: General Admission: $30; Senior with ID: $20; Military and Student with ID: $15Sundays: General Admission: $20 and Senior with ID Military and Student with ID, $15

Victoria Moy is a New York-born, Los Angeles-based writer. She has an MFA from University of Southern California, where she studied playwriting and screenwriting, and has a B.A. from Dartmouth College in Theater. She is also the author of the book Fighting for the Dream.

Editor's note: The interviews were condensed and edited.

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