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Veteran turns war experiences into play

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Army veteran Johnny Meyer, above, has been coaching the actors in his play 'American Volunteers' on the correct way to hold a rifle, how to look like they are in combat and follow military protocol. At left, actors Elaine Wang, seated, and Ania Upstill rehearse a scene. The play will open Tuesday during FronteraFest, Austin's annual festival of new theater. Deborah Cannon american-statesman

Johnny Meyer is like many a young playwright getting ready for his first production.

Over coffee in a South Austin café, the University of Texas undergraduate trades theater insider quips with Allison Hammond, a fellow UT student directing Meyer's play "American Volunteers," which opens Tuesday as part of the FronteraFest annual festival of new theater. The two explain the script's mix of prose and iambic pentameter verse. They describe the bare-bones production style, the minimalist use of props and scenery. They fret about what the audience will think of their show and who will come to see it.

They also smile about moments shared this summer at UT's Shakespeare at Winedale intensive theater program. The fresh-faced, lanky young man with brown wavy hair describes himself as a Shakespeare nerd.

"I went to Winedale to learn about (Shakespeare's) language," he says. His summer with Shakespeare was "the best three months of my life so far," he says. "It showed me how there's good to be had. And I've seen the darker side of things. And I think knowing both the lighter and the darker side of things makes talking about the issues, doing this play more imperative."

When the conversation shifts to the content of "American Volunteers," Meyer's manner becomes a little more formal, a lot less carefree than the average college student. After all, his play is based on a not-so-carefree time in his life.

Meyer, 27, is a former Army Airborne Ranger and staff sergeant, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "American Volunteers," adapted from Meyer's unpublished novel of the same name, charts the personal and military lives of an isolated squad patrolling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Meyer focused the action on the three men responsible for leading the squad and the conflict that arises as each pursues the most basic of American values.

Meyer chooses his words carefully when talking about the war. And his tone darkens.

His play is not about his politics, he says, nor about politics in general nor even about his personal experience, though he did serve on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The urgency of combat exposes the basest of human reactions, he says, and that was where he found his story. And that story was about the inherent conflict that erupts when the goals of a foreign war clash with American values.

"What happens when soldiers, even though they are volunteers, try to live out certain very American values — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — above the orders they receive?" he asks. "There are questions, larger questions, there that are worth looking at, I think."

What happens to people, he thought, when their individualistic American ideals have to be sublimated to military hierarchy?

But he emphasizes that his is not a play about soldiers as unfortunate pawns.

"We were all volunteers," Meyer says. "It's what I chose to do. I signed up for the Army. And I'm not comfortable with the victimization that some people try to portray about the soldiers' experience."

As one of the characters in the play says: "What the hell does fair have to with it? This is the Army. It's not about fair. It's about carrying your weight; it's about doing what you have to do. It's not about fair."

Meyer was born in New Orleans and graduated from high school in Kansas. He entered the Army on Jan. 2, 2001, to get money for college. After completing Ranger training, Meyer was sent to Afghanistan. Patrolling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was a lonely, dangerous and isolating experience. Meyer says he grew up fast. "My unit got off very, very lucky," he says. "We basically got out without a scratch."

After his return, he moved to Austin and began attending UT. The adjustment to student life was hard. He felt a distance between himself and his civilian student peers. His everyday speech was littered with military slang and chock-full of obscenities, the way soldiers talk among themselves under the stress of combat. "I basically kept my mouth shut for a couple of weeks until I sounded like everyone else again," Meyer says.

But, making good on his ambition to be a writer, he started work on a novel. Like in the theatrical version of "American Volunteers," the novel shifts between prose and verse, a hallmark of Meyer's passion for the beauty of language.

Then in August of 2006, though he was on inactive reserve status, he was called back into the Army, this time for a 15-month tour in Baghdad. He dropped his classes at UT. And he took a draft of his novel with him.

Meyer also penned four essays about his experiences in Iraq for the American-Statesman in 2007 and 2008.

Over coffee, Meyer ponders the sudden timeliness of his play. He never imagined his play about Afghanistan would be so newsworthy in 2010, what with the recent escalation of U.S. troop deployments.

"When I told people (back in 2005) I was writing about Afghanistan, they wondered why I wasn't writing about Iraq, about where the war was as they understood it then," he says. "Now, suddenly everyone realizes what's been going on in Afghanistan."

Though it's yet to be published, Meyer's novel won UT's $3,000 Roy L. Crane Award in Literary Arts last year. He's using some of that money to mount the play, which he hopes will find its way to other stages after its four-show run at FronteraFest.

The cast of 12 includes many UT student actors. And though Meyer invited Hammond to direct, he's been coaching the actors on military specifics. Meyer taught them all how to hold a rifle, how to look like they were in combat, how to follow military protocol. He made a flow chart of the characters in his imagined 2nd Squad, 1st Platoon "Arapaho" Company.

Those are, after all, the things Meyer as a veteran could teach his theater peers.

"I don't pretend I now understand everything about (the experience of war)," says Hammond. "But I've gotten a glimpse of it, and that's a relief for me. I don't feel awkward talking about it or asking Johnny about it."

Actor David Boss, who plays the platoon sergeant, says that he is impressed with how Meyer's play reveals the interpersonal complexities of combat. "Whatever their preconceptions about the war are, I think people will have a better grasp of the day-to-day life in today's Army," says Boss. "The play doesn't take a decided stance on politics. Instead it asks questions about the personal experience of the soldiers in this war. And that's a subject that's not really been broached yet by (playwrights)."

With a double major in English and government, Meyer is set to graduate in May. He's applying to graduate programs in political science, hoping to get a doctorate and to eventually "help policymakers come up with solutions to end political conflicts without violence."

But he is quick to add: "I'll always write, no matter what else I do. There are stories that need to be told."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699