Back to basics: Simple production makes big impact in Grafenwoehr
December 24, 2013
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- Like many Soldiers currently serving, a surge of patriotic fervor following the events of 9/11 catapulted Adam Driver into the military. And though he's no longer a Marine, his service with the armed forces continues.
Driver is best known for his role as the commitment-phobe Adam on the HBO show "Girls," and also stars in the new Coen brothers' film "Inside Llewyn Davis," alongside Justin Timberlake and Oscar Isaac.
As founder and co-artistic director of Arts in the Armed Forces, Driver, along with 10 other actors, partnered with the Red Cross to give a free theater performance for Soldiers, civilians and family members, here, Dec. 18.
The Grafenwoehr Performing Arts Center was barren just before the show started.
The sound of scuffling shoes echoed across the linoleum floor as the actors entered stage left and sat in scattered folding chairs. They nearly outnumbered the audience.
Michael Chernus, Tracie Thoms, Desmin Borges and Elizabeth Rodriguez walked to the front of the stage and began to recite a scene from the play "Den of Thieves."
The audience seemed content with the opening performance piece, albeit a bit confused. They laughed nervously at the actors' delivery and shifted in their chairs, sitting up taller to make eye contact with the performers, who were only six feet away.
Because of the intimate nature of the show, the audience's initial apprehension was not only expected, but by design.
Everything in the show is stripped down the basics -- no costumes, no elaborate stage production. The house lights remain up, allowing the actors themselves to become part of the audience, attentive to the dialog of their fellow performers.
Driver explained it as "aggressive," but in a good way.
"You can't hide from anything," he said.
He also believes this type of environment fosters a more intimate experience for both actor and viewer.
"We want to make it as approachable as possible," said Driver. "We pick monologues from contemporary American plays that allow the audience to draw their own parallels, to have their own experiences with the material.
"Half of what the theater experience is includes what the audience brings to the table. That's the beauty of live theater."
And as the show progressed, so did the audience.
They relaxed, comfortably lounging in the folding chairs, laughing wholeheartedly as Gary Cole told a drunken tale of debauchery in a thick British accent, complete with some impressive air guitar moves. They sat on the edge of their seats as Raven Symone delivered a disturbing anecdote of a Peter Pan performance gone wrong.
Reed Birney's physical interpretation of bacon cooking in a pan garnered warranted applause. Birney laughed as much as the audience during his skit, which heightened the cursory nature of the show.
When Borges stepped center stage to deliver a monologue from Kristoffer Diaz's "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity," a comedy about television wrestling, Spc. Monique Moore, visual production specialist with the Armed Forces Network, Bavaria, fought back tears.
"You find your own way to connect," said Moore. "I watched this piece and it's about wrestling for some, but I took so much more out of it. For me, it was about the love of a grandfather. It was touching."
Driver knows his audience well and chooses material accordingly.
"We think about the overall human experience. We're not thinking of military or civilian," said Driver. "The audience … picks pieces that speak to them more. The military audience will hear it differently. They teach us a lot about what the material is about, since we're already taking it out of context."
As a veteran, Driver connects with the audience and understands that service is not something you simply leave behind. He said his military training significantly contributed to his current success, including his stage performances with the Arts in the Armed Forces.
"The things I learned in the military were some of the best acting training," said Driver. "You are isolated with a group of guys who are facing these heightened life- or-death stakes. Not only that, but the community, the camaraderie; you have a mission that is bigger than one individual."
"The discipline, the self-maintenance, all of that is applicable to acting. You have to be disciplined, and what better way to learn discipline than to be in the military," he said.
Driver's military career ended just shy of three years due to an injury sustained in a non-combat situation. He earned the rank of lance corporal while serving with the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, Weapons Company, 81st Platoon, at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
He believed he was still fit for deployment despite his injury, but his unit disagreed and he was medically discharged.
Marine to actor was an unlikely transition, and Driver said it wasn't easy. He had learned skills in the military that didn't parlay well into civilian life. In a sense, he had to start over.
After his discharge, he attended the University of Indianapolis for a year before transferring to Juilliard to study drama.
There, he met future wife, Joanne Tucker, and the two co-founded Arts in the Armed Forces.
"Performing theater for the military was an area that was completely untapped," said Tucker. "There is a diversity of audience, and as an actor in New York, that's something you're always looking for."
Along with Julliard alumni Laura Linney, Thoms and David Denman, Driver and Tucker presented the inaugural performance to a reluctant crowd at Camp Pendleton in 2006. But much like the audience in Grafenwoehr, the Camp Pendleton crowd soon warmed to the idea of live theater.
"After that first performance, we learned there was a real hunger for this type of art," said Tucker. "With the response we got, we thought 'we have to keep doing this.'"
Seven years later, Arts in the Armed Forces made its overseas debut with three shows in Germany, including Ramstein and Landstuhl. The makeshift theater in Grafenwoehr was the final stop on the tour.
Although nearly a decade has passed since he was a Marine, Driver still yearns to sustain that communal feeling of being in the military. And it's easy for him.
He's engaging and gregarious. He has shared experiences with military personnel, but is also curious about the nuances he's unfamiliar with.
Driver was rarely at a loss for words when conversing with audience members after the show, except when asked whether acting or serving in the military was more hazardous.
It was this moment Driver chose not to speak. Instead, he simply answered with a laugh.