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The bold, the brave, The Bard: Five veterans turn to theater to tell their stories

"It's stuff that I've not dealt with, and thought I had," said Richard W. "Rick" Wirth, who served with an Army artillery unit in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970.

Sharon R. Preator of Crofton, who served as an Army linguist and is now an NSA project coordinator, said, "It has reawakened a part of me that I need to explore more."

Wirth, Preator and three other military veterans were using William Shakespeare's plays as inspiration to help relate their experiences in war and their return to civilian life during a rehearsal Saturday morning at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in downtown Baltimore.

The result of their work, "The Sharing," will be presented at the company's theater at Calvert and Redwood streets, at 7 p.m. next Sunday.

"The Sharing," grew out of a 10-week acting ensemble workshop, "Olive Branch and Laurel Crown: Peace and War Through Shakespeare's Text," a project created by the Studio at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in collaboration with Vet Arts Connect, a program of the nonprofit Institute for Integrative Health based in Baltimore.

Vet Arts Connect's director of veterans initiatives, JW Rone, of Bowie, who has been an actor, director and producer, served with the Army's Special Services Division during the Vietnam War. He said the project connects veterans with the arts and can have a "positive impact overall on their health and well-being."

"We're taking therapeutic art to the community," Rone said.

Ron Heneghan, a professional actor and director who is Chesapeake Shakespeare's director of community engagement, was joined by Alexandra Hewett, a psychotherapist who teaches theater at several venues, to work closely with the five veterans — none of them professional actors — in honing their skills at telling their stories, which they wrote themselves.

"It was an opportunity for them to find their voices, not be afraid of Shakespeare, to be themselves and tell their stories comfortably on stage," said Hewett, a Rodgers Forge resident.

"They have been willing and brave, and they have found ways to heal and connect as human beings. It helps them believe in themselves," Hewett said. "They have self-will and self-esteem, and we let the group be vulnerable and open. We're all supporting one another. Ron and I believe in them."

"After the first week, I was astounded. They really threw themselves into the work," said Heneghan, a Northeast Baltimore resident.

Preator used dialogue from "Julius Caesar" — when Brutus asks Cassius, "Remember March, the Ides of March remember. Did not great Julius bleed for justice's sake?" — as the inspiration for her piece, "Who Is The Best Soldier?" which she performed as Brutus with Zachary R. Fellers, who served in the Navy as a linguist from 2008 to 2014, playing Cassius.

By its conclusion, Preator, whose father was a career Army drill sergeant and whose brother, a young Army military policeman, became disabled while in the service after suffering a stroke, had tears streaming down her cheeks. She said her brother and his sacrifice had served as the inspiration for her offering.

"I think it's really cool exploring things from different perspectives," said Fellers, who used "Macbeth" in preparation for his own piece.

Wirth turned to "Richard II," and employed the dialogue between the dying John of Gaunt and the Duke of York — "This blessed spot, this earth, this realm, this England — for his recounting of a youthful soldier who is killed by "warm shrapnel" that rips open his chest.

"You get so deep into the military and the war, and it never really goes away. It's right below the surface. This helps bring it out and helps me deal with it," said the Federal Hill resident, who is a retired assistant executive director of a nonprofit. "I'm taking a horrible experience and making it positive."

Erik J. Feole said he had done some acting when he was a middle-school student but acknowledged he was intimidated by Shakespeare at first.

"I can now read it and do it, and because I suffer from anxiety, it has helped me with that," said the Bel Air social worker, who served with the infantry in Afghanistan.

As a Marine combat engineer from 1987 to 1993, David M. Hanauer, who served in Kuwait during the first Persian Gulf War and later Kosovo, said he saw "many horrible things." Working in the program had recently "triggered a whole lot of stuff," that he had tried to suppress — until now.

"The whole program has been a great way for us to display different emotions. We all had exposure to many of the same things which we are now able to see and express through the eyes and words of Shakespeare's characters," said Hanauer, a Towson resident who works as a regulations investigator for state government.

"We have evolved identically," he said. "We've done a lot of work and have come a long way in eight weeks."

frasmussen@baltsun.com

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