Tom Hanks is starring in a very special edition of “Henry IV” by legendary English playwright, William Shakespeare. The stage on which the production is being performed has been built by US military veterans who are going through rehab after suffering from mental health issues since returning home from war.
The production, presented by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, is running from June 8 – July 1 in partnership with the organization “Veterans in the Arts.”
“Guys and women who have served our country and are transitioning into whatever that next phase of their lives are, wouldn’t it be great if some of them went into this very line of work, the same one I’m in,” Hanks said in a video posted by The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles (SCLA). The team of war vets not only fashioned the entire theatre out of nothing, but they will also act as stage crew for the entire show – organizing costumes, handling audiovisual and ensuring that everything runs smoothly.
“I was in the US Marin Corps from 1985-1989,” said Ken, one of the veterans. “I learned about the West LA VA (Veterans in Art) through another veteran who was homeless when I was struggling with a drug addiction at the time.”
“The transition from military to civilian was kinda rough for me,” another military man, an Iraq war vet, added. “Shakespeare arts center was probably the best decision I’ve made in the last couple of years.”
“I was really down, really depressed and I had suicidal thoughts,” explained Army veteran Kevin. “Civilian life really kicked me pretty hard.”
“I suffer from PTSD,” another vet added. But all seem to agree on one crucial thing: the arts program is incredibly effective in improving their mental health.
“It calms me,” said Heather, a Navy vet who worked as a security guard at Guantanamo Bay.
“The veterans really felt like what they wanted was a job. A job that had meaning. A job that was associated with a mission. A job that would help them have a sense of identity and purpose” explained Ben Donenberg, artistic director for SCLA. “They learn how to set up staging, they learn how to do sound, they learn how to work on costumes, they learn how to work on makeup.”
So how did it all come about?
“It started, really, in 2008,” says Donenberg of the center’s current relationship with the VA, according to the Argonaut. “We had a couple of champions who really loved Shakespeare and loved veterans and understood the power of immersing veterans in an art project.”
Tom Hanks tells the heartwarming story of the Veterans in Art program, where a team of veterans builds a professional stage for Shakespeare's Henry IV.Presented by: Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.Get tickets to watch Henry IV at the Japanese Gardens on the West Los Angeles V.A. campus. The show runs from June 8 – July 1.Produced by: Mike Dowling, Marine Corps VeteranShot, Edited and Directed by: Robert Ham, Army VeteranSound: Robert LeonCreated by: HAMMR Productions
Posted by The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles on Wednesday, June 13, 2018
This program has helped me a lot. Like today I am working on sewing. Because I can calm my mind,” Heather explained.
“By working outdoors, I’ve felt a closeness with God,” Kevin added.
“All of us have broken a sweat, all of us have done an honest day’s work and earned an honest day’s pay,” said another vet.
They are extraordinary men and women who have a plethora of skills and experience.
“Do not underestimate veterans, ever,” said actor Ray Porter.
Tom Hanks himself said a “great thank you from all of us to all the veterans who have made this possible.”
“Trees have been moved, the earth has been altered, the stage has been assembled, the heater is actually here all because of you. Thanks so much for investing the time with us in order to make all this possible. Enjoy the show!”
By all accounts, the first few performances of the show have gone down very well indeed! “Worthy of applause all around,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, “… theatergoers seemed rapt by this Shakespearean vision, animated by acting royalty.”
Another incredible aspect of the program is that many of the veterans are being offered full-time employment as a result of their hard work.
Former Marines radio operator Shawn McKelvey came to L.A. to try marking it as an actor after being discharged and joining the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program.
“You had to take classes … and one of the things was acting classes. I was like, ‘This is crazy. You’re going to send me to L.A. to go take acting classes?” McKelvey told the Argonaut. “So I came to L.A. to be an actor, to be a movie star.”
Incredibly, McKelvey now desires to join a concert tour as a crew member.
“I’ve met guys here, specifically the rigging guys. They’re on the road with bands all the time, and I could actually get into the KISS tour starting next year for 18 months going around the world,” he said. “It sounds far-fetched, but the guy was like, ‘No, you can really do that.'”