By Dane Winters, IMCOM-Europe Entertainment Program ManagerNovember 7, 2019
SEMBACH, Germany -- When I packed my bags to begin working with Army Europe Entertainment, fellow actors (and my agent in the States) first wondered what Army Entertainment was; then, what on earth would I being doing; and, finally, why would I do so.
As a callow young actor, I simply thought of it as a great way to take a short, needed break from acting and experience life in Europe. However, my "one-year" European adventure has become a 33-year career with a program I've grown to whole-heartedly believe in and fight for.
To answer the first question, Army Entertainment was founded in 1940 by the U.S. War Department, with Army Entertainment once spanning the globe. In 1976, The Washington Post named the program "the largest producing organization of music and theatre in the world," staging more than 25,000 performances annually, with a global audience of more than 2.5 million people.
As with the rest of the world, much has changed since then. Only seven entertainment programs remain today, located in Germany, Italy and Belgium. At each, one or two professionals run community theatre-style programs, supported by thousands of Soldier, family and civilian volunteers.
It remains the only Army Family, Morale, Welfare, and Recreation program that functions with volunteer support. Annually, more than 2,000 people provide hundreds of thousands of hours, putting on shows, which equates to over $3 million in volunteerism given to European military communities.
The mission and history of Army Entertainment can be found at www.ArmyEuropeEntertainment.com. I recommend checking it out; it is a fascinating story.
As for the second question, about what we do, we are simply doing theatre, but in a foreign land.
Producing theatre is very much like a military exercise. As Alan Buxkemper, the Stuttgart Theatre Center director in Germany and fellow 32-year entertainment vet puts it: "Auditions are our 'draft,' if you will. Rehearsals are 'basic training,' dress rehearsals are 'maneuver exercises," and performances are 'combat'."
A show brings together people with wildly different levels of experience, talent, skill and age in pursuit of a common goal -- or mission, said Buxkemper, adding: "You create a battle plan, train like crazy, and then pull it off seamlessly with no apparent effort. Sounds like theatre, doesn't it?"
As to concerned friends' (and my agent's) final question, "Why on earth" would I leave a career and stay 33 years? The reason my colleagues and I devote our professional lives to this program is because we have seen, first-hand, the impact that theatre has on soldiers, civilians, and family members, not to mention an entire community.
We have testimonials from Soldiers (some suffering from PTSD), emphatically stating the program helped to save their minds, careers, marriages, families and lives. Some of those Soldiers and family members have gone on to life-long theatre avocations or even professional careers, including a Tony Award-winner.
Vikki Hanrahan, a 30-years-plus entertainment director at Ansbach's Terrace Playhouse in Germany, says: "Soldiers find a safe, nurturing, and creative environment where they can briefly escape the daily stress of military service. They discover alternatives to negative behaviors like drinking, drugs and endless video games in the barracks. Their sense of isolation in a foreign country decreases. They find friends, and often 'families,' to take the place of the ones they left behind."
Among the biggest beneficiaries of Army Entertainment are youth and families. As Jerry Brees, director of the Soldiers Theatre in Vicenza, Italy, explains: "Parents, children, and often entire families develop new bonds and increase closeness by working on a show. Many U.S. military schools in Europe don't have theatre programs. Our theatres fill a vital gap in youths' education and experience. Kids interact with a wide variety of ages and backgrounds while growing stronger emotionally, and becoming more self-confident. And parents know they are in a safe place."
Brees emphasizes that "Soldiers and families can't simply walk off base and find an English-speaking theatre to visit or be part of. We provide something important they are each sacrificing in order to serve our country overseas."