Center Stage: 'Healing Wars' confronts mental health in the military

The show about mental health, PTSD and the veteran experience, features a rare collaboration between ASU musicians, dancers and actors

Content warning: This podcast contains mentions of suicide, PTSD and self-harm.

Reporter Peter Vezeau chats with actors from "Healing Wars," a show that brings attention to the struggles that veterans face after returning home.


Peter Vezeau

Hello. My name is Peter Vezeau and welcome to State Press Center Stage, the podcast where we highlight performing artists and creative minds here at Arizona State University. My guests today are Matthew and Alex, two ASU students who recently worked on a project that discusses PTSD and mental health across veterans in every war in American history. They discuss the challenges of tackling difficult topics and adjusting to the subject matter of the show and reflecting on current events in the new project, "Healing Wars."

Matthew Griesgraber

My name is Matt Griesgraber and I am a sophomore theatre major and I was young soldier in "Healing Wars." 

Alex Parra

My name is Alex Parra. I am a senior theatre major in the acting concentration, and I played Lance Corporal Brown, as well as other ensemble.

Peter Vezeau

Thank you guys so much for being here. What we're here to talk about is the show "Healing Wars." This is a new show that you guys were a part of this past couple of weeks. And we just want to talk about some of the conversations that has been had about it, some of the storylines, and even some events that happened during the show, but let's get into, first, what got you into performing arts in general? Can you guys elaborate on what made you interested in being performers? 

Matthew Griesgraber

I grew up in a small town in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and not a lot of arts there, not a lot happening. But I found high school theater very intriguing. And that's when I really started was my freshman year and I started doing shows there and then realized through that process and through those four years that I wanted to keep doing it. So I did. I looked around for colleges. I knew I was going to be going out to Arizona. I toured U of A and Arizona State, saw Arizona State as a place that I really, really enjoyed, I enjoyed the programs and the opportunities. So, I came out here. 

Alex Parra

I was born in a small town in Mexico, Northern Mexico called Mexicali which is in the border of Mexico and California. So not a lot of arts there, just a lot of engineering or law it seems like a lot of the paths to take when studying in Mexico. And in 2013, I moved to Arizona and did all of high school here and I joined my high school speech and debate team. And I found that to be like the most artistically fulfilling thing I've ever done.

I did a lot of the acting events, a lot of the humorous and traumatic interpretation events, won a couple state championships, not to brag. But I never did high school theater. Maybe just like one or two senior director projects, but never like a show or anything like that. So when I came to ASU, I was like, "You know, I like being funny and entertaining people. So I'll just be a theatre major." It was that weird thing of having to figure out all of the theater terms and the production side of things when really, I just wanted to be a silly guy and be an actor and stuff.

Peter Vezeau

So can you guys tell me a little bit about "Healing Wars?" Can you tell me a little bit about the plot of the show? 

Matthew Griesgraber 

"Healing Wars," I would say, is a very subjective show, meaning that whoever goes to see it or watch it interprets it in their own ways. For my interpretation and how I've viewed it when reading through the script and obviously going through the whole process of putting the show together, I've found that it has to deal a lot with PTSD and the aftereffects of what war does to an individual. 

It's a way to bring a notice to what our veterans go through and what they experience. At the same time, it's also talking about current stuff. I've had multiple people come in and watch it, and they've all had different interpretations of the movements that we do throughout the piece.

But I think the common theme is definitely, yeah, that PTSD and bringing light to what people are experiencing. Because veterans do come home and they're just expected to fit back in and just become another normal member of society and I don't think that's the case, especially after what you experienced, when you go over. I think this does bring a great message with it and allows for the veterans to be heard and kind of open normal civilians' lives to what they experience. 

Alex Parra

Plot-wise, "Healing Wars" follows maybe four to five different characters in several different scenes. It follows young characters, like a young soldier, like Matt's character through a waiting room and through other situations sort of in a broader war perspective. Other characters, like one of our cast mates, Josh, pretty consistently plays like a medic or a war surgeon and the perspective of medicine during war and after war. Other characters, like our cast mate Maren's character, follows a therapist, psychologist sort of perspective, counseling returning soldiers. Another character, Ann, she plays Clara Barton and sort of motherly figures of the show. Clara Barton was like the founding member of the Red Cross. 

A lot of the plot of the show revolves around certain characters and how they relate to not only the Civil War, but also World War II, and also modern today wars and how the characters in all of these different time periods sort of relate to each other in this big picture that war really is. 

Matthew Griesgraber

It shows that even during different periods of war, there has been an advancement in medicine and technology, but the feeling doesn't change for those soldiers. The trauma that they experience is very similar. And I think that's really cool how, what Alex was saying, that they mix these characters from different time periods and put them together to show that, "Hey, it's not really that different. You're really experiencing the same thing." 

Peter Vezeau

It's very interesting how this show can incorporate something like mental health into different time periods. I feel like, with mental health becoming more in the public view, and be more talked about by higher-ups, it's very easy to think of it as a new thing that we are just discovering.

But from the conversations that you seem to want to invoke with the show, it seems like this is something that has happened for decades and centuries, but we may have not had a name for it. We may have not fully understood it. But the trauma is still there. All these soldiers still have to fight with that kind of trauma.

What is it like having to really understand these difficult situations that these soldiers are in? We have their mental health and with the world that they live in. How do you go about portraying that as people who have not gone through these situations yourselves? 

Alex Parra

We had a lot of conversations in the middle of our rehearsal processes because there were moments where we all kind of had to take a break because we were dealing with such heavy topics like mental health and, trigger warning, suicide and harming yourself. We had a lot of conversations with each other. We had a conversation with ASU therapists that was able to come over during rehearsals.

It's really difficult to talk about these types of topics because mental health is something that can affect anyone, but post-traumatic stress disorder, because of being in a war situation or just serving in general, can be a completely different like sub-category of PTSD. I'm really grateful for having three veterans in our cast that were able to share their insight about the topics and also bring like their experience to the art.

Matthew Griesgraber

To even jump off of what Alex is saying, is that I know for them, it's also hard to put themselves in that situation, but for a different reason. For us it's because we haven't really experienced that and the topics are really, really heavy. And they're hard to talk about. I mean, one of my fellow cast members, her name is Brianna Sieminski, she has this whole monologue in the piece where she is talking about how they had to basically (mutilate) a pig to keep it alive and keep that alive as it was being (mutilated). And like that type of monologue, that's not light for someone who hasn't ever experienced that or had to put themselves through that. You really have to go to a place as an actor to bring out that emotion realistically.

It is hard. It's been hard to kind of put yourself in that situation, but we have been able to do it. We've had counselors come in, we've talked to the veterans and the cast. We've talked to the directors and made sure we can really get the piece across exactly how we want it to make sure it's representing exactly what we want rather than it being misconstrued or seen as we are making fun of anything.

Peter Vezeau

So let's talk about the process of doing the show. You said that you had to talk to a lot of counselors, therapists and even the veterans within your own cast. One of the people associated with this show is Liz Lerman, who is well-known in the theater field for her methods with critical response processes. 

Matthew Griesgraber

She did create the show. Keith Thompson, the director of the piece, was in the original production they had. Because Liz Lerman had her dance company in New York and they decided to put this project together. Keith Thompson was originally in the piece. Putting the show together was really cool because he had seen the original product. He's worked with Liz Lerman very closely. They're really good friends. Having that perspective really made the directing process cool. And you could trust kind of everything as a performer because you know he's done the show before, he works really closely with the creator of the show. So the vision was really, really cool and seeing everything come together, especially near the end, the amount of people working on this made this experience all the more rewarding and fun. 

Peter Vezeau 

One thing that we touched on was that this is a collaboration piece between not only the people in the theater department, but also in music and dance, even though it isn't really a musical itself, that just kind of adds to the ambience. What has it been like incorporating these new elements for a piece this serious, but having it differ from experiences that you had in the past with theater without those elements. 

Alex Parra

I'll be honest. When I auditioned for the show and we had to do like a dance routine for the callback, I was like, "Ah, interesting. Are we-- what is this?" 

Matthew Griesgraber

Yeah.

Alex Parra

It was really fun to dance and to move. Our choreographer, David, he was very patient with me because I was really struggling and really not feeling great about it. And the more we got into the process of, you know, theater and dance mixing together to make one big thing, I think the more we learned about each other, the more we sort of respected what we each did. I know I have so much more respect for dancers because I don't know how they do what they do.

Matthew Griesgraber

Yeah. It's really tough. I have talked to some of the dancers about that aspect of the show and what I'm hearing from them is they're kind of just like, "Wow, you can act like that? Like, that's so crazy." And like, we're over here like, "Wow, they can dance like that? That's insane!" And it's really cool to have a lot of these worlds colliding because everyone, especially in the different departments, has their own process of how they're putting stuff together. 

Like with theater, it's a lot more scheduled. Like we have to leave at this time or we have to be at rehearsal at this time. There's no kind of leniency. Whereas like a lot of dance performances, they kind of, in their rehearsal process, they'll keep running it until it's good or it's done and it doesn't matter how late they go. Whereas like with theater, it's a very punctual and it's like, "OK, it's 10:30. We got to go." We're both taken out of our comfort zones in a good way.

Peter Vezeau

And one thing that I read about the show is that there's this 45 minute preamble. Can you guys tell me about what that experience is like for the audience? 

Matthew Griesgraber

There's a bunch of rooms is basically what it is. The audience is taken through and they are experiencing different characters. Like the first room is with Clara Barton and it's a lot about covering the notes that she sent to the families. I was portraying a character, obviously the young soldier who was going to go to war and that anxiousness and that anxiety. All these preamble rooms, all the characters that are in the preamble, who you see throughout the show, their rooms really truly represent what they are representing in the show.

So I think the preamble experience is really cool because it gets you in that mindset. It gets you ready to experience the show that "Healing Wars" is. 

Alex Parra

It's like a really cool actors museum exhibit. The only thing I can really compare it to is sort of like a haunted house where they have the actors and they each have like their one-time to be scary to the person that's walking by.

But for this, it's actors like you, Matt, and everyone else in the preamble, sort of showing what they represent in the show and hopefully the audience was able to understand what they represent in the show. And once they sit down and start watching it, they remember, "Oh yeah, Matt was sort of like this young soldier who's nervous. And yeah he's like, he's looking kind of nervous here!" 

Matthew Griesgraber

"On stage. Oh wow. He actually does kind of portray this." 

Peter Vezeau

One thing that you guys also mentioned was the fact that you not only touch on mental health and PTSD, but also touch on some current events during the performance. Can you guys elaborate on the current events that you are discussing in the show and what it was like presenting those to an audience? And have you noticed anything coming back that the audience might have responded saying that they might've agreed with some of the sentiment, maybe might have had a different take? 

Matthew Griesgraber

There's a scene at the end of the waiting room scene. In it, Lady Gaga's "Telephone" comes on and we just start dancing. There's a popular video out there of soldiers in Afghanistan, I believe, doing like a funny little dance to Lady Gaga's "Telephone." And what Keith did is he had us dance to that choreo. He made it a little cleaner, but it's basically representing the soldiers doing that choreo as a way to like lighten the mood.

It has a really weird spot in the show because it's between like the near-end and the end because the right after is the end of the show. And I think I got a lot of audience reactions, like, "Whoa, that was kind of out of nowhere. I don't understand why that was in the piece." Like, especially since it's so heavy, the whole show.

I don't know if that has anything to do with like current events, but like one of my friends, he was talking about how it kind of brings light to the culture that you kind of need to say attached to when you're overseas. It's a way for you to escape a little bit, and like dancing to something like Lady Gaga is a little funny thing that kinda takes out the harshness of war for you. It takes out the trauma a little bit or helps you kind of numb it.

There is a scene in the show called "Kermit's story," which is actually the guy, Kermit, who actually performs it. He is Lance Corporal Brown. He was in the Marine Corps as an elite gunner in real life. That was his job. He's talking about that trauma and how there really is no medication that can cure what he saw.

Alex Parra

A lot of what the show deals with, you know, the past, history and not even just like a hundred years ago, but also like recent pasts. Seeing a lot of the themes and the storylines revolving around someone's memory, or just sort of an introspective of history. The most modern thing that the show deals with is the fact that a lot of mental health issues are starting to become a lot more prevalent and OK to talk about, and I think it really helps a lot in that community to be able to share that story. 

Matthew Griesgraber

You shouldn't be expected to be normal. It's OK that you've -- I mean, it's not OK that you've had those experiences, but it's OK that you don't feel right about them because you shouldn't, because that's not OK. What people had to do over there, what people have had to do in wars, it's not something you can be happy about. It's not something you can be overjoyed about. So, it's that whole idea that you are being heard, you're being seen. No one's expecting you to be normal or be what the society deems as normal, but to be yourself and be you, and that it's OK. 

Peter Vezeau

Yes. Thank you, guys, so much for touching on all that. I know we covered a lot of ground with this podcast. I know we talked about a lot of very difficult topics, but I do want to touch on something a little bit more lighthearted to just end us out. On one of your Sunday shows -- it seems like Alex already knows what I'm about to ask. There was a fox on the field at ASU stadium, but apparently there was also one in the Galvin Playhouse.

Alex Parra

Yes.

Matthew Griesgraber

Yup.

Peter Vezeau

Would you mind talking about the situation?

Alex Parra

Saturday's ASU game, during family weekend, there was a fox on the field. And then the next day, there was a fox in one of the preamble spaces, the one preamble space that happens to be outdoors.

Matthew Griesgraber

Outside.

Alex Parra

The fox, or a fox -- I choose to believe that it was the same fox -- and it ran all the way from ASU field to the Nelson Fine Arts Center. And it just stayed there for a bit. 

Matthew Griesgraber

It just chilled out. Yeah. It was funny. We were all chilling in the green room and one of our assistant stage managers came out and he said, "So, we're going to start a little late. There is a fox in the courtyard. So we're going to try and move the room. Maybe?" 

Ten, fifteen minutes later, we got the fox out, but some of the cast members were like, "Can we go take pictures?"

Alex Parra

"Can we meet this fox?"

Matthew Griesgraber

Yeah. Right. Jess Overtoom, one of the other stage managers, she was like, "No!" 

Alex Parra

She was saying it like it was a bad thing. I just wanted to meet a fox.

Matthew Griesgraber

Right? I wanna go shake his hand.

Peter Vezeau

I wanna know his story. 

Matthew Griesgraber

Maybe go grab some coffee.

Alex Parra

How was the game?

Matthew Griesgraber

Definitely the most Arizona thing I've ever experienced here so far. 

Peter Vezeau

Well, thank you, guys, so much again for being here. I really appreciate you guys coming on. 

Alex Parra

Thank you. 

Matthew Griesgraber

Thank you. 

Peter Vezeau

My thanks again to Matt and Alex. Although the run of "Healing Wars" has ended, you can still keep up with new shows @asumusicdancetheatre on Instagram. For The State Press, I'm Peter Vezeau.


 Listen to the podcast on Spotify.

Reach the reporter at pvezeau@asu.edu or follow @PeterJad3 on Twitter

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