Like the 21st-century military experience, “Basetrack Live” can’t be described in simplistic labels. It’s not photojournalism or solely a musical experience or theatrical endeavor or even spoken words. Those, by themselves, sometimes fall short.
“Basetrack Live,” produced by En Garde Arts, is a collaborative, multimedia and multidisciplinary work of contemporary theater, based on the real story of a Marine in Afghanistan, his wife’s experiences at home and his challenges with returning from war, said show director Seth Bockley, who helped adapt interviews with Marines into an integral part of the performance’s storytelling.
“What we have done is really to create a multimedia concert piece that uses music — and some spoken text — to explore the incredibly vibrant and vital and exciting photographic material,” Bockley said. “It sprang from that.”
Even before Bockley took on the theatrical endeavor, the project had evolved on its own.
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It was inspired by a 2010 online citizen journalism project that followed the First Battalion, Eighth Marines for the first five months of their deployment in Afghanistan. That project incorporated images from embedded photojournalists and interviews and also builds on project director Teru Kuwayama’s nine years of experience working as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan. The project was assembled by the nonprofit organization November Eleven and funded by a News Challenge grant from the Knight Foundation.
Creator Ed Bilous and composer Michelle DiBucci crafted a score, and Anne Hamburger, the executive producer of En Garde Arts, an award-winning theater company known for innovative productions, took the idea to to a new level. She decided to bring in theatrical minds, to marry traditional tools of storytelling and playwriting with a multi-media impulse and movement the music had played upon.
“Once I started speaking with the artists, it became clear that this was a really good match,” said Bockley, a Chicago-based director and playwright. “Part of the reason is that I have a background in collaborative art-making, theater in groups. A lot of theater artists define themselves exclusively as a director or a playwright, each with a very particular methodology. My track record is a lot more flexible, and I also have a background both as a writer and director. In addition, I have experience working in visual theater and technical, through my work with companies such as Chicago’s Redmoon Theater and other visual storytelling techniques.”
It started with the photography, then music, and then Jason Grote, the show’s primary adaptor, conducted a number of interviews with Marines from the First Battalion, Eighth Marines who were featured in the photography and had returned stateside.
“He talked to them about their experiences in their own words, and we were also hearing this new story: the experience of coming home,” Bockley said. “What happened was we had this incredible collection of interviews that were some really compelling material. It really became an editing job among me and Jason and Anne and Ed and Michelle. We all worked together to decide which of these stories we wanted to tell with live actors.”
To create a performance that could tour the nation, the group elected to stick with one story: A.J. and Melissa Czubai, who were married while A.J. was deployed.
“We chose them to be the backbone of the show, around which all this multimedia and music can occur,” Bockley said. “We used their text. We did further interviews with them. I did a couple of interviews. Then Anne did additional interviews with wives of the Marines from the (First Battalion, Eighth Marines) over Skype and created some additional content that way. Really, it was this kind of hugely collaborative and hugely intuitive editing process.”
Bockley won’t call the result a form of journalism or even documentary theater. Something closer might be what is called “verbatim theater” in England.
“Our approach to this material has been akin to what you might call creative nonfiction,” he said. “We are absolutely faithful to every single fact and not changing a word of the interviews we have done. In the editing and staging, of course you make creative choices. I prefer not to categorize it as documentary theater or journalism. I think it’s creative nonfiction or akin to some of the documentary films by creative documentary filmmakers like Errol Morris or someone similar.”
The concept is to show the truth in a new light, or many.
“We are absolutely faithful to the truth, and it has a documentarian use of the story because we are not imposing our own view, but we also create a more complicated experience for the audience with visual or tonal juxtaposition so that they see a number of different sides of a comment a character might make,” Bockley said. “This proposes a really different model where artists are working across forms. That’s what is underappreciated in our current theater culture is this is hybrid art form. It can combine music, acting, movement, visual arts. All too rarely, theater artists actually work across disciplines. This has inspired me to seek that out in the future, to work with multimedia musical artists like Ed and Michelle, who don’t define themselves as theater artists but who have incredible instincts for it. By working across disciplines, I think we have created something unique.”
When one element seemed too forced, Bockley said, the creators looked to another to keep the performance fluid.
“There were certain points where we felt stuck, that we were being very literal,” he said. “We were building around this monologue where it’s basic training. Then it was, ‘This is the monologue about them having a baby.’ We then took a step back and then said this all started with the music. Not every scene needs to have talking.”
One example is a series of photographs of Marine tattoos.
“We thought, ‘Let’s use this incredible piece of music that Michelle composed with images of tattoos in succession,’ ” Bockley said. “Then, you can see the actor looking at his own arms, also covered in tattoos. That in itself can tell a huge amount. We are not bound by every scene having to advance the story through actual dialogue. It actually fit best in that lyrical place of music and imagery.”
The goal of the project is to create awareness of the challenges veterans and their families face — and and to share the impact of war with people at home.
“Military and nonmilitary audiences can both find something to relate to in the story, and in doing that and insisting that we all are part of the same society, we all belong to the same culture, we show: This could be you or your son or daughter or your sister or brother,” Bockley said. “We are challenging what I think is a systemic separation in our country between those who serve and those who don’t. Because of the way our military is organized and how our culture works, there is this gulf. Regardless of the composition of the audience on any given night, I hope the show creates a challenge to have dialogue between the two groups and to acknowledge we do belong to the same culture and we are responsible to each other for these decisions that we make to go to war.”
The creators also hope to share a message specific to military veterans and families, he added.
“The other message I would want audiences to walk away with is one of hope,” he said. “The damage done by a trauma can and should be overcome, and veterans who have either PTSD or injuries or illnesses can seek help rather than giving up.”