Johnson County Fairgrounds — opens Friday, Dec. 15
Long before the idea of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) entered the public lexicon in the 1970s, doctors studied a multitude of stress disorders, often found in soldiers returning from war. Perhaps the most familiar term among them is shell shock, coined in World War I to aggregate symptoms — both physical and psychological — of trauma caused by proximity to explosions. Janet Schlapkohl, founder of Combined Efforts Theatre, told Little Village in an email that her newest play was born of a talk that she presented on shell shock to the Society of Medicine in Iowa City. Combined Efforts — an inclusive theatre for actors of all developmental abilities — opens Shell Shocked on Friday, Dec. 15; it runs through the weekend. Tickets are $5-10.
Schlapkohl’s play is “an amalgam of several stories,” she said. The characters she created are fictional, but the plot is based in fact. When she started digging into the subject, her curiosity was piqued.
“As I researched the original documents about Shell Shock (using Hardin Medical Library and The Lancet medical journal’s online publications) I discovered a cover-up by the military.”
This became the central conceit of the show. From the synopsis: “A group of nurses and physicians in an expeditionary hospital in France in the winter of 1917-1918 come up against British military authorities agenda to hide the truth about brain damage caused by blast forces.” The central character of Shell Shocked, Corporal John Leland, is under court martial for cowardice and desertion — if the condition can be proven to result from blast force injuries, then it is the fault of the enemy; if it is fear and emotional trauma, then the military can classify it as a weakness or intentional dereliction of the soldier.
Schlapkohl’s attraction to the subject is personal as well as professional. The connection began in her family.
“My great-grandfather served in the German army during WWI,” Schlapkohl said, “and suffered mild TBI [traumatic brain injury] from blast force injuries due to shell exposure near Terrest, Belgium.”
Shell Shocked is not Schlapkohl’s first time using theatre in an interdisciplinary fashion. She has written plays for the Iowa Women’s Archives and for the Center for Worker Justice, a play about disability and World War II (My Sister) and, recently, a commission for the University of Iowa about German immigration in Iowa, called Here I’m Hank.
“It is something I enjoy,” she said. “You are more likely to write an authentic voice and perspective, when you have done research and select a perspective outside the mainstream.”
Director Rachael Lindhart, who is working with Combined Efforts for the first time, has a personal connection to the material, as well.
“I grew up very much in the shadow of WWII and the atmosphere of war seemed familiar to me right from the very beginning,” Lindhart wrote in an email. “My family on both sides had many young men (and a couple of women who were nurses) who were fighting in that war and I was aware of the worry and tension that was felt by many older members of the family. And I witnessed some behavior when they returned that (I can recall now) was certainly evidence of lives disrupted, if not actual shell shock.”
Lindhart took those memories and experiences into directing the play, and paired them with the benefits of working on a new piece, with the playwright close to hand. She said she was excited to return to that type of experience, having done several productions of new work in the ’80s and ’90s on staff at the University of Iowa Theatres.
“Janet is deeply involved with the production and has guided me as to her intentions in the writing,” said Lindhart. “It is wonderful to be able to learn about her intentions and to work to make what we do onstage reflect those intentions. The subject of WWI and its effects upon the 20th century and into the present one has interested me for years, and working so directly with the playwright has enriched my learning experience as I am directing … What will happen to these shell shock patients in the time to come, when the war is over, is a question which has a powerful hold on me as we work on the play.”
The Combined Efforts dance troupe, CE Dance Company, plays an important role in the show as well. Lindhart, who has never directed a musical or studied dance, said that it’s exciting to have them involved with this production.
“The dancers’ appearance is important to the narrative of the play because they are representing part of the civilian population who were displaced by the overwhelming demands of the war, and therefore part of the tragedy of it. But also in the narrative, they are part of a celebration that takes place at the end of the play and gives the characters heart to go on.”
Schlapkohl said of the dancers, who take on the roles of the inmates at an asylum, and the Combined Efforts Men’s Choir, who perform as the shell-shocked patients, that although “we should all have the chance to live in another’s skin and give expression to another’s voice … I do believe that the way we experience the world helps us make honest choices in expressing a particular character onstage.”
Having actors with disabilities portray characters with disabilities is important, she said, because “our actors are aware of their own history, of the marginalization and institutionalization of people with similar and different disabilities. I think it is their right to be able to perform their own history.”