By Paul Steven GhiringhelliApril 12, 2012
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- If you missed standing in their shoes last time around, the teenage children of 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers whose reality-based play toured Fort Drum's off-post community last year will bring their poignant stories of Army life back to area stages this month.
The Indian River High School Drama Department will present "In My Shoes," a docudrama by award-winning playwright Craig Thornton, at 7 p.m. April 30 at the Multipurpose Auditorium on post, the final stop in the production's "Month of the Military Child Tour."
The cast also will perform twice in Potsdam on April 25 and another show in Philadelphia on April 26. There is no admission fee for the Fort Drum and Potsdam performances; a suggested donation is requested for the Philadelphia show.
The play is based on the experiences of teen students whose parents are Soldiers assigned to the 10th Mountain Division (LI) -- one of the Army's most-deployed divisions.
In the dramatic re-enactment, as in life, the teens share many of the same struggles, such as unpredictable and frequent moves, a parent deployed to a war zone, and emotional or awkward reunions.
"I don't know that there has been any other platform for (military) teens to talk about their feelings," said Kristie Fuller, school drama teacher and "In My Shoes" director. "One of the things we've heard throughout the process is that a lot of the times, these kids don't talk about (deployments). They don't bring it up."
Not even with their parents, she said.
"Because the parent is so loved by their children, (children) don't want to show their fears and their concerns and worries, or even the joys that they experience while their parent is deployed," Fuller said. "They know there is already a lot of stress on the parent. There is stress on the spouse, too."
She went on to explain how theater plays a unique role, allowing parents to both see their child's uneasiness over a deployment while also understanding how proud the child is of his or her parent's Army service.
"We appreciate these Soldiers," Fuller said. "We know that they have a lot going on, especially when they are deploying."
The drama teacher said the tight-knit theater department at the school is like one big family, where students become best friends and wind up sharing very personal information.
Thornton, a North Country native whose plays have appeared in Los Angeles and New York City, said the whole purpose of theater, and this piece specifically, is getting people to listen and better understand one another.
"As a person who was writing it, I am not judging any of these stories, or any of their lives," Thornton said. "This is not about good stories or bad stories. It's not about pro-war or anti-war. Elements of (some) stories are dark and not pretty. We don't 'go there' because that's the story that we are trying to tell. We go there because it is the truth. We didn't censor anybody.
"Soldiers are in life-and-death situations," he said. "How much time and how much energy can they put into these faraway and distant relationships that are affected by the situation? We didn't feel that just because someone has a negative experience with a deployment that it isn't a story that should be told.
"A part of that experience (involves) the sacrifices that these kids make that we may not see," he added. "If there wasn't any suffering, there would be no sacrifice."
For its authenticity, Thornton said most Soldiers with teen children sympathize with the characters in the play, which was first performed last summer and followed up with three encore performances in November. After one show at Fort Drum, he said a distraught, intimidating-looking Soldier approached him.
"I didn't know if he wanted to punch me in the nose or give me a hug," Thornton said. "But he could barely articulate his feelings from seeing the play. He said he was still recovering from his last deployment and was still trying to repair his relationships with his children."
Although deployments are often difficult times for military teens, just having a parent make a genuine effort with their child really matters, according to Aurora Adams, a high school junior whose father, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mark Adams, retired at Fort Drum in December.
"I'm kind of like the opposite of everybody else because my dad worked very hard with me," she said. "He made it a point to still have a relationship with me, even though he spent a lot of my childhood gone and there really wasn't a need for (a relationship), because he wasn't there."
Adams said throughout production last year, memories of her father leaving for Iraq on his last deployment returned to her. She said exploring those emotions has been therapeutic.
"I get along with my father, and I respect him even more because of the sacrifices that he has made," she said. "Even though he has made those sacrifices, he's still at home when he is home."
On stage alongside Adams, the eight other students who share their stories of Army life are Loraly Borja, Robin Fifield, Tabethia Fifield, Kayla Hargan, Sierra Hicks, Garrett Kemple, Kaitlyn Kessler, Cassie Slough and Jeremy Thomas.
Fuller admitted that some stories are more positive than others. Throughout the process, she said some stories are still developing.
She pointed out one case in which a student was extremely nervous about her father coming to see her perform.
"Since the show, their relationship has healed tremendously," Fuller said. "It just opened up communication for them."
Thornton got involved with the Indian River drama students more than two years ago, while teaching a playwriting class at the school. He said his time with the teens -- many of whom are the children of Soldiers -- was the genesis for the project.
After some research during the summer of 2010, Thornton created a catalog of questions, which was combined into Fuller's curriculum that fall. Advanced placement theater students then interviewed their military peers, who in turn either tweaked and rewrote questions to better reflect reality or answered from personal experience.
Students transcribed the material, and Thornton said he worked closely with Fuller in trying to strike a balance in which nine stories were told.
In the spring of 2011, he pared down more than 200 pages of interviews, put each mini-monologue into dramatic form, wrote a prologue centered on 9/11, and created a military-style "Greek chorus" to help the play with transitions.
Indian River's ad hoc drama company held its first performance June 10.
Since then, the cast has performed throughout the North Country as well as Syracuse. Thornton said other installations like West Point and Fort Bragg, N.C., have expressed interest in seeing it and that even teens in Kenosha, Wis., are being cast in the play this Memorial Day weekend by a local theater company.
In addition, the play has been accepted into the 2013 American High School Theater Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Thornton said he believes the play is patriotic in the sense that each high schooler's story is the unvarnished truth of an Army Family's life behind closed doors.
Adams said she hopes the people who come out for the show take away one thing.
"You just need to listen," she said. "I think that what seems like the least important thing is what you need to listen to.
"An open mind to hear what your child has to say will make all the difference."
"In My Shoes" will appear in the Dunn Dance Theater at the State University of New York at Potsdam at 4 and 6 p.m. April 25. The next show will be at 7 p.m. April 26 at the Indian River Theatre of the Performing Arts at Indian River High School in Philadelphia. "Talk back" with cast members will follow the Philadelphia performance.