EDGEWATER — You can add "combat soldier" to the list of careers relegated as "women’s work," said Tara Mallen, Artistic Director of Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s “Women At War.”
The New York-to-Lincoln Square transplant said she has dedicated the past eight years of her life to better understanding the unique experiences of female soldiers and veterans. Now the culmination of her work during those years is on display at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave., performed by an all-woman cast and written by Megan Carney.
Charli Williams, who portrays Army Pvt. Samantha Harris, said she hopes to give back to her mother, a real-life career Army veteran, through the play.
“It brought up issues of being an Army brat that I didn’t realize,” Williams said.
While Mallen said she feels like she, too, is a better person now for having the opportunity to connect with so many local veterans than before the show, her journey to this point has been long and challenging but always rewarding.
“I was just allowing it to become someone else’s problem," she said.
Mallen said once she’d secured a $50,000 grant from the Chicago Community Trust in 2010, it took her a year for any female vets to begin opening up about their experiences.
“Finding them and then gaining validity and trust within that community took a lot longer than I thought,” she said.
But her journey began four years prior in 2008 when Rivendell performed Roger’s Park resident Anne McGravie’s “WRENS (Women’s Royal Navy Servicewomen),” based on her own life and service during World War II. That production, Mallen says, was a turning point.
“I just got really ashamed of myself as a citizen and how I was just allowing [going to war] to become someone else’s problem,” she said.
Next, she directed “Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue” based on the Pulitzer-Prize nominated book by Quiara Alegria Hudes about the legacy of war on a family. It was then, Mallen said, she began to gain entrance into the tightly-knit veterans community, slowly getting access to the stories and experiences she’d been hoping for.
“Even though we were doing this play about the war, and we were in the middle of the Iraq conflict, it was like I felt somebody ripped the bandages off my eyes to the fact that we were at war for the first time,” Mallen said.
So she began to set her sights on what modern theater pieces were available that could accurately speak to the military experience through a woman’s lens. She said she wasn’t surprised once she quickly realized there were none.
“When you think an M-16, really does a woman’s image really pop into your head?” Mallen said.
It was during this time of theatrical research she started hitting the books hard. Rivendell dedicated an entire season to female military-themed works, connecting with local and national veteran organizations and workshopping ideas through a DePaul production of Helen Benedict’s “The Lonely Soldier.”
But even while working with young women who were portraying the real-life struggles of female vets, she could tell there was a disconnect. That, she said, kept her motivated.
“I thought ‘Wow, this is a problem,’” Mallen said. “‘If, as an actor, you can’t imagine how you would end up [enlisting] how can you ever be supportive and empathetic to them when they come home?’”
Treating veterans as assets
Mallen said looking back at her experience, her goals for “Women At War” have changed.
From initially hoping to bring awareness to the sacrifices of our female veterans, Mallen says she now wants to start a dialog among active military, veterans and civilians on how to better serve our troops once they return.
“We’re not interested in pointing fingers at ‘the man,’’ she said. “We are interested in looking both at the modern world historically and how we navigate it, and how our experiences differ and what that means.”
Mallen said her strategy is working, too. She said she hopes this experience will help her become a better parent, citizen and advocate for women. Although she feels good about the performance, Mallen said there is still work to be done by asking how we can make the military an incredible and safe experience for women.
“This whole discussion and argument we’re having in our country over whether or not women should serve on the front lines is kind of null and void because we’re there, and we’re not leaving anytime soon,” Mallen said.
Rivendell hopes to take the performance on tour in the new year to college campuses, community centers and more around the country.
“Women At War” plays now until Dec. 6 at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, 5779 N. Ridge Ave., with discounts for military, veterans, groups and a limited number of “pay what you can” tickets available.
“If we all give a little bit more,” Mallen said, “some people won’t have to give so much.”
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