Dr. Max Rayneard, Former HI Community Sabbatical Grantee, Reevaluates the Relationship Between Telling a Story and Healing
“The key to being truly informed about the implications of war is learning what it means to really listen,” says Max Rayneard, Senior Writer/Producer and Director of Research and Outcomes of The Telling Project, a non-profit organization that seeks to bridge the divide between veterans and civilians through live theater performances.
Dr. Rayneard was a 2015 Humanities Institute Community Sabbatical Research Grantee. Like The Humanities Institute, The Telling Project is committed to facilitating dialogue. While HI has done so through our Difficult Dialogues program and our Controversy & Conversation film series, The Telling Project engages military veterans and civilians in conversation across the United States.
The Telling Project records and transcribes interviews with veterans and related populations—military families, interpreters, and refugees of war, for example. Together, they then shape the interviews into a performance script, weaving together multiple voices. After collaborative editing of the scripts, The Telling Project provides performance training and rehearsal. Then, veterans and related populations step onto stages to tell their stories directly to the communities where they live.
Understanding multiple experiences and histories of war is essential to understanding American culture. The Vietnam War, for example, is multivalent and complicated. American men enlisted or were drafted—some went to war; some stayed in offices. Other young men objected and were sent into non-combat positions in the line of fire. Then there are Vietnamese refugees, survivors, many of whom fought on behalf of the U.S., and who are now its citizens. These are stories about what it means to be American: accepted stories, unexpected stories, and unheard stories.
For veterans of war, coming home is not always simple. During his time as an HI Community Sabbatical Research Grantee, Dr. Rayneard read applied theatre theory about the social and psychological implications of “telling your story.” The prevailing idea, he said, is that “telling your story is healing. But in our experience, people’s experiences are so varied. Sometimes it is, yes, healing. Sometimes, it hurts. Sometimes it’s neither or both.”
Dr. Rayneard’s Community Sabbatical research was based on a simple question: what does it mean to tell a story?
Dr. Rayneard worked with Dr. Megan Alrutz in the Department of Theater and Dance at the University of Texas. In conversation with Dr. Alrutz, Dr. Rayneard researched the work of scholars who question the assumption that applied theater’s primary goal should be to “heal” its performers. Rather, Dr. Rayneard observed, we have much to learn from those who society thinks of as “broken.”
“Vets come home from war and are required to assimilate to a civilian society," Dr. Rayneard says, "but that civilian society is built on a history of violence that is the history of America. Instead of looking at veterans as aberrant, one could look at them as, in fact, picking up on and responding to the violence inherent to civilian society. What if we understand their experiences as insightful rather than uncomfortable.”
Dr. Alrutz pointed Dr. Rayneard to the scholarship of Helen Nicholson and James Thompson, who argue that applied theater is not transformational but transportational. That is, applied theater does not fix broken people (veterans and civilians alike) so much as ask them to momentarily give in to a new kind of culture: one in which civilians make themselves vulnerable to veterans who tell their stories in good faith. Civilians who do that, he says, engage in listening that is generative, imaginative, and empathetic. Given this kind of listening, Dr. Rayneard suggests, “transformation may happen, but it’s not the only valuable thing. Sometimes it’s enough to quiet ourselves and listen. Sometimes transportation is an end in itself.”
“This is the value of the humanities—it is a place to stop and breathe, to step outside of your everyday, to rethink yourself, to make sure you engaging the world ethically and smartly,” says Dr. Rayneard.
The Telling Project is working on a number of projects across the country. They are developing a production at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, MN which examines the experiences of female veterans in combat scenarios. They’re also working on a piece about Vietnam veterans and refugees in St. Paul, MN in collaboration with Twin City Public Television. The production is being produced in anticipation of Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary. “Watching these stories unfold on television is one thing,” Dr. Rayneard says, “It’s another thing entirely to sit in the same room as someone laying themselves on the line. The very least one can do in such a circumstance is listen.”
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