The Telling Project: Veterans tell their stories of war experiences

Given that only 1 percent of the U.S. population has served in the military over the last dozen years of war, it may be hard for many to understand or relate to the experiences and struggles many veterans encounter. The Florida Humanities Council, based in St. Petersburg, and Tampa’s WEDU PBS TV are working to change this.

“Veterans: The Telling Project” is the result. It’s a TV documentary that follows six Tampa Bay area veterans and one military spouse who participated in an innovative theater project, providing intimate insight into individual challenges.

The documentary, which debuted last week in Tampa, will air again on Veteran’s Day, Wednesday, November 11, at 8 p.m. on WEDU+ which corresponds to Channel 605 on Brighthouse/476 Verizon/203 Comcast -- and throughout the week on other Florida PBS channels. Check your local TV listings. The program will air nationwide beginning in January.

“Veterans are coming back with injuries and issues and are feeling isolated because the general population is unaware,” says Barbara O’Reilley, Communications Director of the Florida Humanities Council. The Tampa Bay Telling Project, she says “is a way to bridge the communication gap between veterans and the population at large – tell their experiences directly to the communities.”

The Telling Project is a national performing arts nonprofit that “employs theater to deepen our understanding of the military and veterans’ experience.” Founded in 2008 by Jonathan Wei, the project was brought to Florida by the Florida Humanities Council (FHC), which hopes to expand the project to several cities in the state. Pensacola, which is home to a large veteran population, was picked for a second performance, which is currently underway.

Through an intensive interview process, Wei extracts the veterans’ stories and crafts a scripted play using their own words; the veterans also serve as the actors. The result is a deeply personal account of their military experiences and ongoing struggles, laid all the more bare because none of the Tampa Bay area veterans had ever performed on stage before. The Tampa Bay Telling Project plays took place this past spring around the region and included talk-back sessions afterward. 

Unique to the Tampa project is that FHC was able to partner with WEDU and chronicle the process of the project -- from creating the story to building performers -- in documentary form, accessible to all via public television.

Though FHC is a statewide organization, O’Reilley says they piloted the program locally  “so we could really be hands on.” She notes that the Tampa Bay region was ideal for the project with Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, a huge multi-generational veterans community and access to “great stage theater venues” in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

“Every single one [of the performances] received standing ovations,” says O’Reilley. She notes that the talk-back sessions were often as powerful, oftentimes with members of the audience saying, " 'I am a veteran and that happened to me, too, and it makes me feel better that I am not alone'.'' 

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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