Serving Soul Repair: Bringing our own hands to bear

by Krista DeNio

in Blue Star Theatres

Post image for Serving Soul Repair: Bringing our own hands to bear

(This post is a part of series highlighting the work of recipients of TCG’s Blue Star Theatres grant program. California Shakespeare Theater is the grant recipient of the following Blue Star Theatres project, Land Home Hero.)

Veterans know service; were trained for service; are of service.
Whatever one carried into the military, one comes out with a deep relationship with service.
Veterans share this with military brothers and sisters, and a powerful, often unspoken bond, based in both body and action.
This shared understanding carries between military veterans whether they have been in combat, or not.

I am not one for generalized statements about groups of people, but in my last (5) years of experience working with military veterans, these statements have consistently been true.

In the Land Home Hero project , we have been studying our hands.


[We] are: Chaplain Marianna Sempari (MA), myself, and twelve male veterans who have encountered homelessness, and are currently housed through the Grant Per Diem program at Berkeley Food and Housing Project.

In long discussions on the nature of service, realities of homelessness, moral injury, moving forward, carrying forward, carrying….this epiphany moment arrived: HANDS.
As Chaplain MA pointed out, our hands hold so many things for us, literally, metaphorically, historically, memorically.
As those who have served our country, and carried so many things from machinery, to paperwork, weapons, to fallen comrades, to their own children, often great heartache, burden, loss, [and most of things that most civilians carry too]—these men have profound relationships with their own hands.
What do these hands carry?  What have they done? Where have they been? Who have they served? What do they want to carry forward? What do they want to release?

From a few of the men:

Hands Love Jobs
Family Time.  My life

They talk, they gesture and communicate
They protect, guard and reassure.
They comfort, caress and nurture.
They give meaning to their owner’s feelings.

Blessing gift to have
Because why complain
when some have no
hands can be bad
hands can kill
hands can Heal
Hands can teach in Sign language
if you’re overseas and don’t know whats spoken to you
Some places life has a sign
So with my two fingers peace and
Live life

With our company of men, we discuss our themes: the nature of service, veterans’ commitment to service, how the project can serve the community through sharing personalized stories, that come with the faces and bodies who carry them. Faces and bodies that carry the paradox of having served ones country, then finding oneself homeless.  The irony of having joined a system to support it, and later being lost within the bureaucracy, struggling for basic support, care, services. Right. And then there are the ongoing consequences of Moral Injury, Physical Injuries, and the great need for Spiritual Care, as being provided by Chaplain MA.

Bridgette (case worker); MA, pastor; Krista, teacher; Alex, Robert Johnson (alto sax); Geary (Bay Area cap), George. Veterans and members of theatre group

Did you know that veterans make up 12% of the homeless population in this country, while making up only approximately 13% of the total U.S. Population?
51% of homeless veterans are over the age of 50.

As it turns out, veterans are also excellent dancers and choreographers.

They might laugh at me when they read this blog post.
(Which is alright by me.  We do a lot of laughing at ourselves in rehearsal.)
But what I have seen in our recent rehearsals has been remarkable.

Have you ever seen 6-8 pairs of hands, ages ranging from 38 to 70, moving together through a sequence of gestures?
This is where working in the moving body (with all its histories, capabilities, challenges and realities), in time and space, can sometimes create the most potent communication of all.
Never will I be able to communicate in words, the elegance, fortitude, strength, gentleness, hard labor, injury, expertise, stories untold…that these hands express, as they move through simple gestures together in the air.
Reaching in toward one another, to the shoulder on their left, landing one pair of hands into another.
Thriving in specificity, accuracy, and the search for meaning.
Slowly…gradually…allowing literal meaning to sometimes take a back seat, to the pleasure of simply moving with breath and steadiness, through the air.

Whether their military service was recent or decades ago, something all military members are taught is attention to detail, the importance of moving as a unit, the life or death importance of responding to the movement of others.

It’s beautiful to see these hands discover the power of their own poetic potential.

Bridgette (case worker); MA, pastor; Krista, teacher; Alex, Robert Johnson (alto sax); Geary (Bay Area cap), George. Veterans and members of theatre group

As we have worked, we considered many times over what forms might best serve the sharing of our processes with the community.  How to share specific pieces of personal narratives that the men are ready, wanting, willing or specifically driven to share, their own ongoing modes of artistic expression [poetry, music].

And how do we share with the community, the complex intersections of personal storytelling, education, and the powerful process of spiritual care?

Our final form: Audience interactive performance ritual, (in a church).

Here, with audience placed in the round, the men will lead everyone together in a gestural, flocking structure, using our hands, naming ways we relate to, share with, hold up, the community.  Here, in the round they will witness one another share testimony and be witnessed; If we’re lucky, Robert will play his saxophone, Mr. McGee will read his poetry, Alex will tell the tale of his amazing towel, (which has been with him now for decades and seen, done and been so many things)…and Joaquin will bring his voice and lyrics to the stage.

This group of veterans, from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan eras, from the South, North, East and West, will be seen as the artists they are, the heroes they are, the humans they are.

And our audience will be asked to join the conversation, to become the infrastructure of the storytelling space, and to participate in listening with their minds, hearts and hands.

Photo credit: Jessica Eve Rattner

Krista HeadshotKrista DeNio is an interdisciplinary choreographer, director, performer, writer and educator, committed to developing new forms of performance work and evolving interdisciplinary thinking and creation between the fields of dance and theater, among others. Her own work, as Artistic Director of KD/MovingGround, seeks to investigate the interrelationship between impactful socio-political issues and our intimate personal lives, while celebrating the wonder, mystery and humor of the​human condition. She has lived and worked in the Bay Area, California, New York City, New Mexico, Western Massachusetts, and Colorado. Krista directs directs EchoTheaterSuitcase project, bringing together mixed ensembles of military veterans and civilian non-veterans, to create original, site-specific, audience interactive performance work based on the stories in the room.  She is a lecturer with U.C. Berkeley’s Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, teaches dance and performance making throughout the Bay Area, is a member of the International Interdisciplinary Artists Consortium, and former Executive Artistic Director of Earthdance (2009-13). She received her BA in Dance/Dramatic Art and Interdisciplinary Studies Field MajorDevelopment and Human Rights from U.C. Berkeley and her MFA in Theater: Contemporary Performance from Naropa University.

Blue-Star-Theatres_headerTheatre Communications Group (TCG), the national organization for theatre, and Blue Star Families, the country’s largest chapter-based military families non-profit organization, are pleased to support the inaugural round of the Blue Star Theatres Grant Program. Through support from MetLife Foundation, the Grant Program funds efforts that deepen the relationship between participating Blue Star Theatres and their local military community: veterans, children of active duty military, military spouses and/or active duty military. Each theatre received $5,000 to support activities that could include talkbacks, outreach programs, sponsored tickets, performances, playwriting workshops, readings or workshops that focus on military themes and service.

  • Bible Thumper

    It is important — when discussing “the nature of service” — to question whether service (defined as “work performed for another” and usually referring to some useful function) is really being provided. I am getting tired of people mouthing “thank you for your service” when the last 25 years of our history have been marked by useless wars of choice staffed by rent-a-soldiers, many of them with no other career options and some of them unclear about their actual mission.