'Black Watch' focuses on the grit of war
War is loud. It's ugly. It's unpredictable. This much we know.
But as most soldiers would probably tell you, no one can really know what war is like unless you've been there yourself.
To get a small window into the complex reality of war — with its aggression, blistering language and intense camaraderie — check out the National Theatre of Scotland's production of "Black Watch," which rolls into Austin on Wednesday for a six-show run at Bass Concert Hall, co-sponsored by Texas Performing Arts, Fusebox Festival and University of Texas' Department of Theatre and Dance.
Hailing back to the 18th century, the Black Watch is a legendary Scottish military regiment named after the dark tartan its members wore. Now a battalion within the Royal Regiment of Scotland, its soldiers have seen recent combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. "Black Watch" tells the story of one such group of Scottish soldiers who fought in Iraq.
The play didn't follow a typical process in which the director and actors start rehearsals with an already finished script.
Instead, it started with an idea to create a piece of theater based on Black Watch soldiers that was unlike anything the creative team at the National Theatre of Scotland had done before.
To gather material, playwright Gregory Burke — who will speak on a panel discussion on Thursday — interviewed Black Watch soldiers who had just come back from Iraq while director John Tiffany, who is currently a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University, worked on ideas for the production side.
Going into rehearsals, the company had the interview material and a few songs, but the entire cast worked together to flesh out the script. Tiffany called the rehearsal space an "e-rehearsal" room, with actors watching BBC News reports, reading newspapers and doing online research for new material. They put together a collage of scenes, interviews and reports that they tried out in different orders.
Unlike a lot of documentary-based theater, "Black Watch" is highly physical and visually dazzling. "A lot of the emotional life of the show is hard to communicate in words," Tiffany said. "When you would ask soldiers about their emotional response, they would just give you one-word answers."
So Tiffany (along with movement director Steven Hoggett) found unique ways to try to connect the audience with the inner emotional lives of the soldiers, such as a moving, almost dancelike scene where soldiers respond to receiving "blueys," airmail letters from home.
The dynamic show can be physically demanding on its young, all-male cast. Jack Lowden, who plays the central character Cammy, described weeks spent doing drills, circuit training, sit-ups and sprints. "We'd hobble home each night," he said. "But we needed to be fit." Every night before the performance, the cast does an hourlong group workout. "It rallies us together and fires us up," he said.
Kathy Panoff, director of Texas Performing Arts, saw "Black Watch" when it first toured to the U.S. in 2007 after an acclaimed premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival the previous year.
She found it difficult to talk after seeing the show and said it was the most amazing piece of theater she had seen in the past 25 years.
"Black Watch" doesn't try to glamorize war or gloss over its ugly parts. Lowden, who was inspired to become an actor after seeing "Black Watch" when he was in high school, called it "very gritty and very real." Panoff echoed his words, calling it "as close to being at war as you can get in a theater." To be immersed in the action, the audience will be seated onstage at Bass Concert Hall during the performance.
"It's loud, it's profane, it's scary," Panoff said. "But one of the purposes of theater is to hold a mirror up to society."
Because of the harsh language, the show is not recommended for people under 16, Panoff said.
The Austin community has embraced "Black Watch" as an occasion to have some tough conversations. UT's Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice is hosting its conference "Aftershocks: Legacies of Conflict" to coincide with the performance. In a separate series of events, Christine Leche of Austin Community College will host a 7 p.m. pre-performance lecture on the Thursday as well as reading from the writings of active U.S. soldiers on Saturday at 7 p.m. before the show.
Leche, who was embedded with soldiers in Afghanistan before teaching creative writing classes for veterans at ACC, believes anything that helps soldiers tell their stories or helps their stories be heard by a larger public is important because "we tend to abstract war," she said. "It's always somebody else who's fighting. Someone else's son or daughter."
"If we can be given a venue to hear their stories, I think those of us who don't go to war and endure combat are able to witness what they go through," Leche said.
Through telling the stories of one specific unit of soldiers, Tiffany thinks that "Black Watch" manages to tap into something larger, "to communicate something about the bigger story of the Middle East and modern warfare," he said.
"Black Watch" brings the war to the public.
What:National Theatre of Scotland
When:8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Feb. 19
Where:Bass Concert Hall, University of Texas campus, 23rd Street and Robert Dedman Drive
‘Aftershocks: Legacies of Conflict'
What: Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice conference, UT School of Law, 727 E. Dean Keeton St.
When:Thursday and Friday
Tickets:Free; registration encouraged