Leigh Matthews Bock takes a selfie with veteran Paul Wilson. Wilson, one of the veterans whose experiences were featured in last year’s “Veterans’ Voices Project” at Corvallis’ Majestic Theatre. Dan Simmons, one of the playwrights involved in the project, pulled out his notes from last year’s production and crafted a new play based on Wilson’s experiences; the play is one of six that will be performed in this year’s production, which streams Wednesday, Nov. 11 and Wednesday, Nov. 18.
VOICES OF EXPERIENCE
By Mike McInally
Leigh Matthews Bock has accompanied veterans on more than a dozen Honor Flights, the excursions that whisk servicemen and women to Washington, D.C. for a weekend of visits to the nation’s war memorials and other sights.
On the flights, Bock noticed that the veterans, surrounded by the camaraderie of other men and women who shared similar experiences, often would offer memories of their times in the service – stories that in some cases they hadn’t shared with others, even family members.
“The stories that were shared with me, I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, the average person doesn’t get to hear these,'” Bock said.
Eventually, she found a similarly safe environment in which veterans could tell their stories — and it was a way that connected with her years of experience in theater. The result was the Majestic Theatre’s “Veterans’ Voices Project,” which returns for a second year at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11 — fittingly, Veterans Day.
WHAT: “Veterans’ Voices Project II”
WHEN: Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m., with an encore presentation on Wednesday, Nov. 18 at 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: The production is streaming on and tickets are available at the Majestic’s website, majestic.org.
HOW MUCH: Audience members can pay what they like, either $10, $15 or $20.
FYI: The production includes combat depictions, harsh language and violence, and is recommended for mature audiences. The event will have closed captioning available.
IF YOU WATCH
“This was a way for me to marry my two passions, honoring veterans and storytelling,” Bock said.
Like last year’s production, the second edition of the “Veterans’ Voices Project” pairs playwrights with veterans; after conversations with veterans, the writers — many of whom are connected with the Majestic’s playwriting group — had a month to create short plays based on the conversations. (Bock is the cowriter on three of the plays; the other writers are Cherie Gullerud, Ron Seymour, Dan Simmons, Cristina White, Sally Whittington and Scott Zeigler.)
Although conversations with the veterans formed the genesis of each play, only one of this year’s finished pieces is a monologue, Bock said. The playwrights are encouraged to think about creative ways to use their conversations, although they have to keep in mind one firm rule Bock lays down: “The playwrights are extremely cautious about honoring their veterans. … It’s OK to be creative, but don’t compromise.”
Bock then assembled the team of actors for the show, and what she was looking for (in addition to “just good actors”) was versatility, since each performer is called upon to perform a number of different roles. The cast includes Tom Martin, Bob Olin, Rob Otrembiak, Chris Tavernia and Michael Wren.
The COVID pandemic has forced some changes to how this year’s “Veterans’ Voices Project” came together: For starters, the playwrights this year had to conduct their conversations with the veterans via telephone. Auditions were done by Zoom, telephone, and other remote means.
And the show itself, of course, won’t be performed before a live audience. Instead, Bock said, it was filmed Thursday and Friday night at the Majestic with four separate cameras and will be edited by the theater’s technical crew for streaming Wednesday night and the following Wednesday, Nov. 18. (Both shows will be the same.)
The pandemic took its toll on the “Veterans’ Voices Project” in another way: Paul Wilson, one of the veterans whose story was featured in last year’s production, died earlier this year of COVID. Simmons, the playwright who created the play based on Wilson’s experiences for last year’s production, dusted off his notes from his interviews and wrote another play. (The identities of the other veterans interviewed are kept confidential to protect their privacy.)
Bock said Wilson “got such a kick out of being honored for his service.”
Bock’s thoughts likely will turn to another veteran as well during this year’s production. Her grandfather, Frank Callaway, served in World War II and was injured fighting in France. He was honored with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
He died in 1988, well before the first Honor Flight took flight in 2005. Bock took her first Honor Flight in May 2013, in part to honor her grandfather’s service.
As she listened to the stories those veterans told on those flights, her thoughts couldn’t help but drift back to her grandfather, and one regret followed:
“I never thought to thank him,” she said. “It never occurred to me.”
But every story told from the Majestic stage during the “Veterans’ Voices Project” gives Bock and her collaborators a chance to say “Thanks.”