VICENZA, Italy -- The lights dim. The music starts. The curtain opens. And some might think for a Soldier about to walk out on stage, the stress level would be sky high. But for volunteers here at Soldiers' Theatre, the stage can be an oasis in an otherwise stressful world.
The award-winning community theater program in Vicenza encourages service members, civilians and family members to take a break from their normal routines with productions of all sorts: comedies and dramas, singing and dancing, playing instruments and working backstage.
The most recent production at the theater is the Broadway musical comedy "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," by Steven Sondheim. This slapstick musical has characters running all over the stage in a race to find love, family and freedom.
Sergeant First Class Joseph Stone, who plays AFN Vicenza station manager by day and the character Senex onstage at night, said being involved with theater is a great way to work through the stresses of his normal work life.
"It allows you to focus on something that's larger than yourself that isn't life and death," Stone said. "Not everything we do is life and death, but so much of what we do has large implications, and the theater is somewhere you can go and immerse yourself in a show, and just let go of everything, not worry about your day. It's a great break from your routine."
Specialist John Valdespino, an audiovisual technician at AFN Vicenza, agrees.
"I've always had a tremendous appreciation for theater productions, especially musicals," said Valdespino. "When done well, a stage production is captivating and demands full attention and awe from the audience. A good theater performance is a beautiful experience from the stage and the seat."
Valdespino also said he appreciates how being involved in theater is a great escape from the stresses of military duty. For him, it just like taking a mini vacation.
"For a couple of hours at a time, you escape into the script. It's an absolutely intoxicating feeling."
That's exactly what the Army Entertainment Program is for, according to U.S. Army Europe Entertainment Director Dane Winters.
He says that Installation Management Command's support of programs like those offered here provide volunteers and community member unique ways to reduce isolation, stress and anxiety by being part of a supportive, nurturing and creative community.
"By being part of a theater program or even just watching a show, (people) become more active and invested in their communities," Winters said. "Community theaters offer positive alternatives to other activities that might lead to negative and destructive behaviors such as alcohol or drug abuse, gambling and other behaviors."
The medical community seems to agree. Maj. Osceola Evans, officer in charge of behavioral health at the Vicenza Health Care Center, says that while psychotherapy and medication are commonly used to treat conditions like post-traumatic stress or depression, other non-clinical outlets can be just as effective.
"It's important for people suffering from many behavioral health problems to initiate practices and activities that create quality experiences naturally," said Evans.
"When clients begin to engage in healthy activities and when they begin to habituate them as part of their everyday experience, we often see a considerable improvement in mood and relief from overall symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. It's not a cure-all, but it is certainly a great part of any quality treatment plan."
Winters added that such programs help participants increase resiliency and readiness by reducing everyday-- or even traumatic-- stress and anxiety.
He said that during rehearsals and performances, Soldiers, civilians and family members are taken out of the conflicts and stress of their everyday lives. Theater give them a creative goal to focus on.
"They have a chance to forget the stress of military duty, difficult deployments, separation from friends and family, work, school and other daily conflicts."
And for those in the cast, there's one additional benefit. They gain a new "family."
"I enjoy the camaraderie of the cast," said Stone. "I love the energy of the performances. It's a release for me."
"Soldiers don't always get to bring their families with them (to duty assignments), but the theater gives you the chance to create a new one that will help ease your burdens," said Valdespino.
The lights dim. The music starts. The curtain opens. And, many times, the stress fades away.