Shakespeare and War: Stephan Wolfert

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 81

In his one-man show Cry Havoc! actor Stephan Wolfert, a US Army veteran, draws together lines in Shakespeare’s plays spoken by soldiers and former soldiers—including Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III.

He puts those words to the task of explaining the toll that soldiering and war can take on the psyches of the men and women who volunteer for military duty. Wolfert also runs free weekly veterans-only acting classes aimed at helping them readjust to life as civilians.

He is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. 

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published September 5, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode, To the Battle Came He, was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Beth Emelson, Associate Artistic Producer of Folger Theatre; Eric Tucker, Artistic Director of Bedlam; Melissa Kuypers at NPR-West in Culver City, California; and from Ray Cruz at Hawaii Public Radio.

For more information on Cry Havoc!, or to find one of the acting classes Wolfert offers for veterans, visit decruit.org.

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Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: Shakespeare’s work is filled with harrowing scenes of war, but it’s fair to say you’ve never heard it presented like this.

[CLIP from a performance of Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!]

All right! Shoot back. Alpha team online, M60 on me. Lay down suppressive fire. Bravo team, bomb around the right flank and kill those [expletive]. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead!

WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. That is actor Stephan Wolfert performing his one man show, Cry Havoc! Wolfert, a U.S. army veteran, draws together lines in Shakespeare’s plays spoken by soldiers and former soldiers, including Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III. He puts those words to the task of explaining the toll that soldiering and war can take on the psyches of the men and women who volunteer for military duty. Audiences of veterans, their families, and others love this show. Many also love Stephan’s free weekly veterans-only acting classes aimed at helping them readjust to life as civilians. Stephan came into the studio to talk with us about the two labors of love that animate his life. We call this podcast, “To The Battle Came He.”

[CLIP from a performance of Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!]

Soft! I did but dream.

O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.

What do I fear? myself? there's none else by…

WITMORE: Stephan Wolfert is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

BARBARA BOGAEV: Whenever I hear the Saint Crispin day’s speech or if I see Julius Caesar or Macbeth or, you know, any of the scenes with soldiers and former soldiers in the plays, I always wonder how well Shakespeare, who never served in the military, conveyed what war is like and what is does to people who are caught up in it, what it feels like if you’re a soldier to watch Shakespeare. So, let’s start here. What marks do you give Shakespeare on that score, and what specifically does he get right about war and soldier’s lives?

STEPHAN WOLFERT: Well, you know, the thing that I think he gets so perfectly, even more than what it’s like in war… because there’re a limited number of speeches that are in war. I mean, even “Saint Crispin’s” is before combat. What I tend to focus on is the life after, the life trying to transition back and even redeploy. As we see with the Hotspur scene with his wife Kate. Hotspur who has just come from combat is about to leave the next morning. She comes in and gives the best description of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the English language, and it was written 400 years ago.

[CLIP from a performance of Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!]

O, my good lord, why are you thus alone?

Tell me, sweet lord, what is't that takes from thee

Thy stomach, pleasure and thy golden sleep?

Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth,

And start so often when thou sit'st alone?

WOLFERT: In fact, Jonathan Shay in his book Achilles in Vietnam takes a line of Shakespeare’s verse from Lady Percy’s speech and next to it puts symptoms out of the diagnostic manual on Post-Traumatic Stress disorder. New line of verse, new symptom, new line of verse, new symptom, right to the speech.

[CLIP from a performance of Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!]

And thou hast talk'd

Of prisoners' ransom and of soldiers slain,

And all the currents of a heady fight.

Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war

And thus hath so bestirr'd thee in thy sleep,

That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow

Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream;

And in thy face strange motions have appear'd,

Such as we see when men restrain their breath

On some great sudden hest. O, what portents are these?

Some heavy business hath my lord in hand,

And I must know it, else he loves me not.

WOLFERT: And he does this throughout his plays, I mean, it’s not just the tragedies and histories, but the comedies and romances. Shakespeare gets that so perfectly. There’s so many characters throughout all of his plays that are dealing with coming back from the military experience and the family members. He was surrounded by veterans. We know this from James Shapiro’s book 1599 to Steven Greenblatt’s book Will in the World, we see that Shakespeare was surrounded by veterans so he’s such a keen observer. I think he was grabbing that, personally.

BOGAEV: So it resonates, on and on. You know before we get to this work you do with veterans and Shakespeare, a lot of it hinges on your own experience in the military. So let me ask you, what led you to enlist in the army in the first place?

[CLIP from a performance of Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!]

My father, by this time, had become the kind of alcoholic that Eugene O'Neill would have been impressed with. Two-to-three glasses of vodka first thing when he woke up. Well he didn't wake up, so much as snap out of a drunken coma due to withdrawal symptoms, then drag his rebelling body to the cabinet under the kitchen sink where we stored the vodka. And by the early ‘80s, he was shaking so badly he couldn't even pour it for himself, so I, home from school, would limp over and pour it for him. What a pair we make, huh? Let's just say I want out of this asylum known as the Wolfert household. And I graduate high school. Now what? I dream of moving right here, to New York City, to become a dancer. But I am from La Crosse, Wisconsin. Specifically, the north side of La Crosse,  Wisconsin. Where I am from, in those days, this is for fags.

WOLFERT: I didn’t fit into my hometown. I wanted out. I didn’t have the financial means to escape from my hometown.

[CLIP from a performance of Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!]

I could go away to college, to one of those gorgeous campuses I saw in the catalogues with the perfectly manicured hedges, right? And the winding sidewalks covered in gorgeous college coeds. Pristine stone-cut buildings that are so gorgeous I am convinced I will become more intelligent just by walking through the door. But I am the youngest son of a working class family. They can’t afford that, and even if they could…

WOLFERT: You know, unpacking it when I went in I thought… yeah, I think I really wanted the military to be responsible for all the things that I felt were wrong with me, but it turns out I went in with a lot of trauma. I went in with a lot of, shall we say, issues, to be polite.

[CLIP from a performance of Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!]

Me, the youngest brother of Bob Wolfert, who once caught me doing ballet in the basement. “What are you doing?” Nothing. “What are you doing?” Screwing around, Bob. “What are you doing?” I’m dancing, all right. “Come here.” No. “Come here. [SMACK] Get up.” No. “Get up. I’ll beat your ass lying down or standing up, now get up.”  Why are you doing this, Bob? “Because, I don’t want you to be a homo.” So I…

WOLFERT: I’m from Wisconsin and I grew up in a town where being a man was defined by the alpha-male and construction and labor, that’s what real men, and intellectual stuff is for the elite and not us and, you know, men don’t cry or share their feelings or express themselves. You know, we do it through violence and football and martial arts, and… so yeah.

BOGAEV: Well, it is interesting you had kind of a unique story about your entry into the military. It was really touch-and-go whether you’d even get in, right? Because you had this serious wrestling injury in high school.

WOLFERT: Yes.

[CLIP from a performance of Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!]

I'm five foot one, ninety-five pounds. Nary a hair of manhood to be discovered on this body. I'm in top position over a sophomore about one hundred fifty five pounds. The coach blows the whistle. The guy grabs my head with one arm, grabs my legs with the other arm. Stands up, flexes me over his back like a rag doll. Jumps up in the air and body slams me on the mat. Tears my diaphragm. Contuses my spine in two spots. I'm paralyzed from the navel down.

WOLFERT: And then yeah, when I got… I had to camp out on the doorstep of what’s called the MEPP station, Military Entrance Personnel Processing center.

BOGAEV: Literally camp out?

WOLFERT: Well, I… no, I just sat in front in the lobby with my records waiting for them all day, and they had looked at them already and said, “No we can’t…” They didn’t deny it, but like, “Yeah, we don’t even want to mess with you. You’ve got… your medical history is too… [LAUGHS] Your file is literally too thick for us to even want to look at you.”

BOGAEV: Well, I think your mom, wasn’t she sending the records by fax and it just like tied up the landline?

WOLFERT: Yes, because this is ’86, right, so it’s all done through landline. It was that silver, like, film-paper that came through the fax machine and it was really slow. It was dot matrix plus facsimile, and it was so slow that, yeah, after… I think it was three days they just pulled me in and said, “Number one, could you please tell them to stop sending the fax, because you’re tying up our phones. We can’t use our phone lines.” And then they saw me and said, “Okay, you seem pretty persistent. What do you want?” I said I want to be an airborne ranger.

BOGAEV: So you get in and then, like every other soldier, you are trained to kill.

[CLIP from a performance of Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!]

Notice the words, the verbiage, the language: clear the objective. Not kill people, but rather terminate the enemy. For weeks and weeks we'd do this and by this time I'd become an infantry officer and I had my own team and I was convinced that in my first firefight I would be like one part Rambo and one part John Wayne.

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility,
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger:
Stiffen the sinews,  summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage,
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect,
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon, let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a gallèd rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base
Swilled with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth, and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English,
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof…

BOGAEV: And you got good at the job, but then during a live-fire training exercise something went horrifically wrong. Why don’t you tell us about that?

WOLFERT: Yeah, we were… I was actually not even supposed to be in the vehicle. My buddy was what’s called Observer Controller Vehicle where you just… they ride along and evaluate these Bradley fighting vehicles.

[CLIP from a performance of Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!]

[WOLFERT makes the sound of a radio break: CHHH] Zero one, zero three, permission to open all lanes. “Roger, all lanes are open.” Roger out. Driver, driver, driver, here we go. All lanes are open. I say again, all lanes are open. Commence firing. The pitch black night sky explodes with countless Bradley fighting vehicles firing their 35 millimeter tracer chain gun ammunition down range. [WOLFERT makes the sound of chain gun rounds: dubdubdubdub].

WOLFERT: And someone who was not qualified in a Bradley had become tank commander somehow, overtook the Commander override, and began firing.

[CLIP continues]

 [WOLFERT imitates the sound of his vehicle taking on fire: pumpumpum] On the right flank, one of the Bradleys mistakes our observer vehicle for a target, turns its turret, and begins firing. “Check fire, check fire, check fire, goddamnit!  Zero one, zero three, we’re taking friendly fire. Close the range. I say again, close the range!  Driver, back up off the bridge, that’s friendly fire you feel!” Now, this is a roughly ten ton homogenous steel vehicle, but it’s bouncing around like a Volkswagen Beetle being bashed with sledgehammers.

WOLFERT: Then one of the rounds punches through, at least one, and Marcus got hit with shrapnel right in the face. A hunk of metal went right into his head and, you know, I did…

BOGAEV: Marcus is…

WOLFERT: Oh, yeah, my friend. My friend who was the Observer Controller and…

[CLIP from a performance of Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!]

 “We have a casualty. Driver, back us up to the medic stand, to the onsite medic. Drop the hatch. Marcus is hit.”  He has a pulse, and I could tell he’s breathing because his chest is rising and falling, and all I can think is thank God because I couldn’t find his mouth to breath for him if I had to do CPR. His head is like an overinflated water balloon covered in flesh, being held together by my hands and the helmet, jiggling as we race to the onsite medic stand. We arrive, drops the hatch, all that spent gunpowder and diesel exhaust pours in. Medic shows up and freaks out. Can’t get the IV in, so he packages up Marcus while I put the IV in, and after what feels like a lifetime [rumbling: WOLFERT imitates the sound of a Medevac chopper] Medevac finally arrives. And as it lands, it pushes all of that idling diesel exhaust inside the track along with its own jet fuel exhaust. They grab him, load Marcus up on the bird and off he goes. Nothing but a disappearing strobe light in that pitch black night sky. So foul and fair a night I have not seen.

His heart beats for another few days, but by the end of the next week I’m handing a folded flag from his coffin to his weeping widow and two baby girls. “Madam, on behalf of the President of the United States of America and a grateful nation, I present you with this token of appreciation for your loved ones faithful and honorable service.”  But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.

BOGAEV: So you go AWOL after your friend gets killed in front of you, right, right next to you, virtually, in this exercise, and you describe this in the play that you’re actually riding a train out of town, AWOL. You’re on top of a train.

WOLFERT: Yeah. Yeah, I hopped on in Wisconsin and went back, saw my folks, and hopped on an Amtrak that was traveling west, and we were in Montana heading into the Rocky Mountains. It’s the wee hours of the morning but full moon so you could see perfectly, and the train’s moving so slow and I looked and thought, “God, we’re going so slow, what’s the worst that would happen? I’d fall off, it’d be fine.”  So, you know, I’m 20-something and think I’m invincible, so I crawled up in between the two passenger cars and sat on top of the train and just looked around and took this in. It was having just an absolute profound effect on me. I didn’t know that I was going through grief or any of that, you know, I’m just choking it down the way I was taught from childhood. Just choke that all down. So as soon as the train stopped at the next stop, which was Whitefish, Montana, I hopped off so that I wouldn’t have to lose that feeling. I was traveling around and somehow I wound up in a theater in Montana and saw Shakespeare’s Richard III. It rocked me, absolutely rocked me.

[CLIP from a performance of Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!]

I was transfixed. There I sat in the audience, yet there I stood there on stage. Like me, a soldier. Like me, conceived, gestated, born and raised at a time of national war. For me it was the American war in Vietnam. For Richard, the War of the Roses. Okay, sure, my family wasn’t murdering each other to become the king of England, but some days it felt like they might. Like me, deformed. He even had the same posture I had when I was paralyzed in high school; to the right and slightly back. And like me, in spite of our deformities, joining the military and excelling. And like me, finding that that military service is probably now over. And like me, wondering now what? Now what? Who am I now? Hearing this poetry, feeling this rhythm in my body, seeing a veteran on stage, I couldn’t sleep that night. Well, I rarely slept in those days anyways but that night it was because I had a mission. That mission was to be at the bookstore the instant that they opened so that I could buy the book Richard Eye-Eye-Eye. And I start reading it and I can’t understand a goddamn word. So I rent the movie!

WOLFERT: So just that opening speech alone rocked me.

BOGAEV: Wow, it sounds like you saw yourself and heard yourself on the stage.

WOLFERT: Absolutely. Absolutely.

BOGAEV: Had you been into Shakespeare before this?

WOLFERT: Not at all.

BOGAEV: Wow, so you have this Shakespeare epiphany and these words are resonating with you as a soldier and you’re sobbing in the theater, you’re AWOL, but you did go back to the army, right? So where did acting come in here?

WOLFERT: So it took about three years. I went back and reported to my unit and resigned my commission, and started taking acting classes and I just started obsessing.

BOGAEV: So I’m imagining you in these grad school classes, with your long background in the military at this point, but you’re studying with a whole lot of people who have never served, they’ve never known military life and probably don’t know many veterans. What was that like? Did you hear entirely different things in the plays than your fellow students and actors?

WOLFERT: I did, but I didn’t… again, good conditioning, I assumed I was wrong. They all had so much experience and they would, you know, so quickly refer to this play or that play and I’m scribbling… I have two sets of notes. The ones are for class and the second is, “Okay, Read this Tonight.” Read Three Sisters by some guy named… Chek-hov? I don’t know how to spell this. Right? And, you know, I’m trying to keep up with them but I was absolutely hearing it differently. To me it was much…

BOGAEV: For example?

WOLFERT: Well, for example the Henry V speech. Let’s just go to that one. I deliberately avoid the entire passage of, “Band of Brothers,” the Saint Crispin’s day speech in Cry Havoc! This is… and this is an instance where it came up. I said, you know, they’re doing it so romanticized, is the way I felt. Doing it, you know, “we few…” It was just the way it was this Hollywood-ized version of… I don’t even know how to describe it, it just didn’t sit well with me. I was much more, at this point, on the Falstaff side of things. Honor? Are you kidding me? What’s honor do? It doesn’t repair your arm, it doesn’t repair your leg, and who has it? The dead!  And that’s going through our heads, so how do you as a leader rally them? And it is a rallying speech but it’s more, “We’re going to die. We’re surrounded, we’re outnumbered, and how are we choosing to go out?”

BOGAEV: And I imagine that must come up in other ways too. Not just in the romantization of war but in how veterans speak to each other, how they relate. Do you have any examples of that?

WOLFERT: Yes. The scene that I use with the veterans is Othello, Iago, where Iago starts with, you know, “My noble lord… did Michael Cassio, / When you wooed my lady, know of your love?” Right, Iago is just asking the questions. So I’ve been using that scene for now… over 20 years, at this point with veterans, and never once—hundreds and hundreds of veterans—have I had the veterans ask, “Why does Othello believe Iago?”  And yet in every talkback I’ve been in with a production of it, which is six now, civilians ask, “Why does Othello believe Iago?”

BOGAEV: To this day, I don’t think I get it.

WOLFERT: And veterans just don’t even question it. It’s that camaraderie. Iago says in his speech that he served with Othello at Cyprus, Rhodes, and other grounds. They’ve been in combat together and even if Othello doesn’t like Iago, because you could say he doesn’t promote him so he doesn’t trust him, he trusts him enough to where he’s been in combat with him. He trusts him enough to where when that combat buddy says, “You know your younger wife who’s the daughter of your best friend, are you sure she’s faithful?” All he does is ask the question. Boom, veterans get it. So much so, that I’ll give you one example. I was doing a workshop in Boston. Two veterans, both Vietnam, had never met each other before, and didn’t serve together; different times, different branches even. And we’re working on Othello. They had zero experience with Shakespeare, never read it, never heard it, nothing. And we’re working on that scene of Othello/Iago, where Iago’s asking about Desdemona, and with each time through without giving them any of the background. Just say, read it, what do you get? What don’t you get? We go back and forth and they’re reading it several times, and eventually the one who’s playing Othello, he says, “Wait a minute, is he asking about my wife?” I said, “Yeah, yeah he is.” “And saying that she might be cheating on me?” I said, “Yeah,” and he goes, “And we served in combat together?” Yeah, you guys… “Oh, the bitch is dead.” [LAUGH] And seeing my face he goes, “What, what, what?” I said, “Well, let’s keep reading, you’ll see.” And again, he was mortified.

BOGAEV: Because his buddy always has his back?

WOLFERT: Yes! Because we get it.

BOGAEV: Well, the fact that you can come home from the army and still think like a soldier, that’s something that really has plagued you, it sounds like, from the work that you do.

[CLIP from a performance of Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!]

I can’t sleep. I can’t talk to my family and I can’t talk to my chain of command. What do I do? I know what I did before dawn, I drank. A lot. I preferred to call it self-medication. Because alcohol always helps me make better decisions, and it calms my fighting reflex right down. Because the best place for me in the middle of a post-traumatic-stress-disorder moment was a crowded bar with lots of alcohol, yeah? Loud noises…

WOLFERT: Again, I was, you know… Excuse me, so sorry. For the naysayers, it did a great deal of good but yeah, unfortunately, the traces that are unwanted behaviors are lifelong.

[CLIP from a performance of Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!]

Come home to his neighbor’s backyard barbecue on the Fourth of July with fireworks in every direction [Wolfert makes the sounds of fireworks launching into the air and people oohing-and-aahing: chh-puh-haah]. “Hey, Henry, how you doing?” Oh, pretty good. “Hey, you want a beer?” Yeah, yeah, please. “Hey, where you been, man?” France, actually. “Oh, yeah, what were you doing there?” There was a war on, actually. “Oh, yeah. Hey, tell me, were you in the [expletive]? Did you ever kill anyone?” You know, you should never ever actually ask a veteran that. “Oh, come on man, tell me. Come on. You defended democracy, you defended America, our freedoms!  You should be proud. Come on, did you ever kill anyone? Did you ever kill anyone? Come on.” [Expletive] off, all right? “Oh, real nice. Come to my party and talk like that. Saying the F-word in front of my kids? This is my party they’re right there. How dare you. Why can’t you guys just come back and get over it, huh?”

WOLFERT: I’m battling to rewire around the trauma and that’s a lifelong process but that’s where Shakespeare and theater comes in because it’s been the most effective tool in my life, and with the veterans I’ve been working with. They get around that hypervigilance, that insomnia, these traces of military behavior.

BOGAEV: And how does the hypervigilance show itself? What triggers it?

WOLFERT: For me, the smell of certain kinds of diesel exhaust, or jet fuel exhaust. It just would put my central nervous system absolutely on-edge and right into that fight or flight mode.

BOGAEV: And it does sound like one particular Fourth of July everything came to a head for you at a backyard barbecue.

[CLIP from a performance of Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!]

These gorgeous little four-, five-, and six-year-old girls are dressed in their Disney princess gowns and my job as a caterer is to bend over and pick up these saliva-strewn balls. And as I bent over to pick it up I saw my hand as it was when I served in the military. I saw the dirt and gun oil actually in the cracks of my hands, and I blinked and it was gone and I saw what I was doing. These hands that served this country, that held my best friend’s head together, handed several folded flags to weeping family members, called in air strikes, Medevacs, saluted people that were calling me sir and looking me in the eyes, and now I’m picking up… And as I knelt there for I don’t know how long… I might have been kneeling for three-tenths of a second, three minutes, I have no idea.

A little girl walked up, looked me right in the eyes. The first one all day to look me in the eyes and she threw her cake at me. And my body’s reaction, not my thought, my body’s impulse, was to crush her skull. I lurched at her, caught myself. I didn’t hit her. I caught myself. We locked eyes, horrified. She turned, ran screaming to her mother. More horrified I pulled myself up, ran to my Jeep in the parking ramp, drove home to my apartment in Venice, locked the door, pulled out my sawed-off shotgun, opened up the breach, jammed a shell in, closed the breach, rocked back the hammer…

To be or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

BOGAEV: And you pull all of these really and emotional and deeply-felt threads together in the story of what life is like for you after being trained to kill, after being wired to kill, and it seems as if when we started the conversation you talked about how the show really resonates with veterans, but I imagine you get responses all over the spectrum, because this is difficult stuff.

WOLFERT: Well, I’ll start with the minority, the smaller number of people, and work to the majority. The minority are people who have no veterans in their lives, at least that they’re aware of, and the word… it’s not what I’m trying to instill in them but the word that I kept hearing, overwhelmingly from civilians who have no veterans in their lives, is shame. The fact that they’ve been sort of passing through life without any of this knowledge or even seeking this knowledge to understand. And then we work up to family of vets and they come up and tell me consistently… the story I hear is, “I wish I had heard this sooner. I wish I knew this sooner because my brother was a Vietnam vet and I couldn’t figure out why he just wouldn’t get over it.” Or just really awful stories of, “My brother killed himself two years ago, I wish I’d heard this story sooner so I could have helped him.”

BOGAEV: What about vets who are still dealing with some of the things that you’re addressing in the piece?

WOLFERT: I get the full range, and the reason I sound like I’m almost snickering is because sometimes it’s uncomfortable and almost dangerous. The majority say, “Yes, thank you. Thank you for sharing.” And the other thing I get is I’ve had a number of vets be very angry afterwards, and say, “You should have warned us better.” And really what it was, is them having the experience that I had so many years ago of that—just that 10 gallons of emotions being forced through a one-ounce funnel. There are a few cases where I stood in front of them and just let my body go loose so that if they hit me, which I figured they probably would, it wouldn’t… I could just relax and take the hit and knew they wouldn’t kill me—they just needed to let it out. That’s how angry some of them were.

BOGAEV: And this is what you talk about with the vets who go to your show, but you also work with veterans using Shakespeare. So how do you use the text to work on what you call de-cruitment issues? Because obviously you get recruited into the army but what we’re missing is the de-cruiting, the re-entering into society.

WOLFERT: Exactly, the training to unwire all of that. The short version is as we talked about is he wrote about us and our experiences, especially the transition after so brilliantly that I’ve lifted about 35 of his monologues, edited them down in some cases, and associated them with symptoms, symptoms out of the diagnostic manual for post-traumatic stress. Some are ones that I find are unique to veterans and the veteran’s transitional experience. And the language then provides so many things. Number one, just a description of how they’re feeling, and then it’s in the natural human rhythm on top of it. So what is required to begin speaking Shakespeare are exactly the same techniques to interrupt an anxiety attack, or a post-traumatic-stress moment, or hypervigilance. It is that grounding and breathing in, grounding and breathing in. And then add to that being able to express ourselves rather than live in that moment and cycle through over and over again the emotion, to express it and let it out. They’re also preventing the re-traumatization that this re-experiencing can cause. That just the basic techniques that we use to act they’re using to calm their central nervous system. To speak this language that can create, or simulate rather, life and death circumstances. Language that’s taking them back to that memory that may even be traumatic, and yet the technique and the language is what carries them through.

BOGAEV: So you mean acting techniques such as a take a breath before each line, ground yourself in the breath, reground yourself, plant your feet?

WOLFERT: Yes, we start a ritual just like we did for… I model a lot of it after the way the military trained us, but I do it in a different environment, right? It’s still camaraderie-based but it’s a creative, apology-free zone. Plant, breathe in, speak a line of verse. Plant your feet again, breathe in, speak the next line, Quite literally, we go that slow, even slower until they get that routine down and low and behold the language starts sinking in. They go, “Oh my god, am I saying this? I think so.” Yeah, do it again and see. “Wow.” And these incredible catharses happen just first time reading speeches. It’s incredible. So with the DE-CRUIT program we’ve been doing not only psychological surveys, but heart coherence measurements as well as EEG measurements before they take the course, partway through the course, and then after the course. And the results are quite literally astounding. The person who’s been… Dr. Alisha Ali, who’s my partner in it, and her husband, Dr. Bruce Homer, who was actually wonderfully skeptical that it would actually work, both said that in their 33 years of doing this work they’ve not seen results this dramatic of improvement this early on. I also wrap around personal writings. They write their own little mini-Cry Havoc!, is what I’m guiding them towards. So they do prompted writings, interweave their own writings with a Shakespeare monologue that’s associated with that symptom. And that would seem like it’s enough, but then once we’ve worked on it in a safe room with people and are convinced that they can get from beginning to end, then we invite an audience.

BOGAEV: Maybe you can tell us about a vet that you have worked with in one of these workshops who you felt changed by Shakespeare in this way and by the training.

WOLFERT: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. There’s a brilliant, wonderful poet, Sarah Mess and she was in the medical core during Mogadishu and was actually in Mogadishu. She was extremely suicidal, battling suicide at the moment, and she wove in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.” So she goes seamlessly from her own story into “To be or not to be that is the [expletive] question.” She added her own poetry in with Shakespeare’s because she writes in verse. All of her stuff is in verse, so it’s so interwoven that when she got done not only are we both bawling, laughing, and applauding, just sharing all the exact same emotions she is, but one of the first things I do is, rather than… before they can do anything else I say, “Ground, breathe, and express how you feel right now in front of this room to this room.” And she said, “I feel like I had therapy, acupuncture, and a chiropractor appointment all at the same time.” And she said, “I thought I’d feel so heavy but I feel lighter. I actually feel lighter from this.”

BOGAEV: Well, that must be the speech that a lot of your vets relate to.

WOLFERT: Yeah, absolutely. There’s, unfortunately, I mean, the statistics bear this out that we’re… for males it’s two-to-three times more likely to commit suicide compared to a civilian. For women it’s four-to-six times more likely for veterans. So suicidal thoughts, unfortunately, have several different monologues. I get specific on where is that coming from. You know, is it shame, is it guilt, is it guilt over killing, is it guilt of not killing? You know, there’s just so many nuances to these feelings that the diagnostic manual doesn’t necessarily get into, but oh, Shakespeare gets right down into the particular.

BOGAEV: Well, Stephan, the show is great and I really am moved by the work that you do with these vets. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk today.

WOLFERT: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

WITMORE: Stephan Wolfert is the creator of the one-man show “Cry Havoc.” For more information on the show or to find one of the acting classes he offers for veterans you can go to decruit.org. That’s D-E-C-R-U-I-T.org. Stephan was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. “To the Battle Came He” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Beth Emelson, Associate Artistic Producer of Folger Theatre, Melissa Kuipers at NPR West at Culver City, California, and from Ray Cruz at Hawaii Public Radio. If you’ve been enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited, I hope you’ll consider reviewing the podcast on whatever platform you get the podcast from. It helps us to get the word out to people who haven’t heard it: people who might enjoy it. We really appreciate your help. Thanks.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.