University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee associate theater professor Bill Watson had a notion that engaging with the works of William Shakespeare would help veterans cope with the problems they faced reintegrating into society, including PTSD. After all, in several of his plays, the Bard captured the conflicted, powerful feelings of warriors both in the midst of battle and after the fighting stopped.
So a year and a half ago, with the help of his professional actor wife, Nancy Smith-Watson, and Jim Tasse, an adjunct theater professor, Bill started Feast of Crispian, an organization that guides veterans in performing Shakespeare through methods uniquely tailored to their needs.
Feast of Crispian began working with veterans who were receiving treatment for substance abuse issues, PTSD and other problems at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center. So far, the group has held nine weekend-long workshops for veterans that start with the selection of selecting passages from Shakespeare that have roles for two veterans with plenty of conflict, vivid emotions, and only short lines of dialogue so not to trip up the beginning actors.
“We really get right into it Friday night,” Smith-Watson tells Meg Jones of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “creating a sense of group dynamic, asking them to connect with everyone else in the group really quickly. We’ve been floored at how much that works, that by the end of the first night we have 12 to 18 people who came in saying, ‘I came to check this out but I probably won’t be back tomorrow.’ Yet we rarely lose anyone. They give up a whole weekend to do the work.”
On Saturday and Sunday, they cast the scenes and professional actors work with the veterans to get them expressing the emotions Shakespeare wrote about 400 years ago, yet still speak to the vets’ experiences. The actors define archaic words and feed the veterans their lines as they perform so they don’t have to worry about memorizing. On Sunday afternoon, the vets give a performance that’s open to the public.
Jeff Peterson, a Navy veteran who played the role of Hector in “Troilus and Cressida” in the group’s most recent performance, tells Jones, “It’s an emotional experience like no other treatment. This is something I look forward to. I don’t want it to end.”
Marine Corps veteran John Buck, who portrayed Caliban in a scene from “The Tempest,” agrees. “I consider it theater therapy. It gets veterans to open up about their problems,” he says. “You see veterans slowly opening up throughout the weekend.”