2015 Best New Work Nominee: "The Draft" by Peter Snoad (Hibernian Hall)

Before we announce our 2015 ArtsImpulse Award Winners, we are proud to present our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series.

Note: If you are nominated for a 2015 ArtsImpulse Theatre Award, and you would like to participate in our Nominee Interview Series, please email us at brian@artsimpulse.com.

The Draft was a monumentally important new play for 2015, as our government and society explore some of the effects of the Vietnam War.  Onstage, The Draft explores and faces over 90 different characters, based on thirty collected stories of true life accounts, involved in the Vietnam War.  More importantly, the play illuminates the war's complexity, humanity, and far-reaching effects in a unique and dramatic way. The play's potential to reach history classrooms and new generations while bridging veterans and current soldiers create palpable effects for theatre's place in the twenty-first century.

Photo Credit: Carter Judkins

Photo Credit: Carter Judkins

In his Interview, Playwright Peter Snoad illuminates the writing process of The Draft, discusses the play and production's complexities, and lists some of his own top productions in 2015.  Read all the way to the end to find how The Draft's legacy is continuing and how you can be a part of it.

Hi, Peter, and thank you for joining us for our 2015 ArtsImpulse Nominee Interview Series. Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

I’m a transatlantic hybrid. My parents were British, and I was born and raised in the U.K. My East London birthplace technically makes me a Cockney (although I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never been able to do a decent Michael Caine imitation). I’ve lived in the U.S. for the last 39 years – nearly 30 of those years in Jamaica Plain.

I’m a recovering actor. I did a bunch of theater in Vermont and in Boston after I moved here, including a couple of shows at the old Lyric Stage on Charles Street (which really dates me!). I began writing plays because I had a crisis of confidence as an actor. I was having terrible difficulty retaining lines, and doing a play became more of an endurance test than a joy. (Although it was a great diet plan – I was shedding 5-7 pounds a show from sheer stress). So, I thought to myself: “I love the theater, but this sucks. What else can I do?” “Well, you’ve always made your living as a writer, so, duh, maybe you could write plays?”

And that’s what I did. I wrote my first play when I was 50 years old, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have my stuff produced throughout the U.S. and internationally. Have faith, people, it’s never too late.

What is The Draft?  How would you describe the play and the production at Hibernian Hall?

Nurse Penny Rock (Marge Dunn) cared for the wounded and dying in a military field hospital trauma unit in Vietnam. “They’re just young kids – that’s the thing. I’m only twenty-one myself. But after three weeks, I feel ancient. Part of the ancient earth.” (Photo Credit: Roberto Mighty).

Nurse Penny Rock (Marge Dunn) cared for the wounded and dying in a military field hospital trauma unit in Vietnam. “They’re just young kids – that’s the thing. I’m only twenty-one myself. But after three weeks, I feel ancient. Part of the ancient earth.” (Photo Credit: Roberto Mighty).

The Draft is an interweaving of the real-life stories of 10 young Americans – eight men and two women – and their experiences with the military draft during the Vietnam War. They variously fought in Vietnam, went to jail for draft resistance, organized against the war, won a medical exemption from the draft with a bogus X-ray, and chose self-exile in Canada.  One of the two women dreamed of being an opera singer, joined the army as a nurse for the economic security, and ended up working in a trauma unit in a field hospital in Vietnam.

We had an amazing cast and crew for this production, including our visionary director, Diego Arciniegas. From the get-go, Diego saw The Draft as a movement piece, and he came up with this simple and arresting design: a bare stage and a series of 12 fabric-covered mobile frames – garment racks on castors, actually – that the actors moved around and manipulated. These became props (an airplane wing, a table); they were flats, defining a room or a porch or a judge’s dais; and they served as screens for shadow puppetry. The spare nature of the staging put the focus on the actors and the powerful and moving stories their characters were telling.

Tell us more about what inspired The Draft. What else has or does inspire you to write?

The Draft was literally handed to me. My friend, Tom Gardner, gave me Tom Weiner’s wonderful book, Called To Serve: Stories of Men and Women Confronted by The Vietnam War Draft, as a holiday gift. Tom Gardner’s own story is one of the 30 stories in the book. He jokingly said to me: “Go on, then, make a play out of that.” Well, after being captivated by the incredibly rich and compelling material in the book, I told Tom, “You know what? I just might.”

One of the things that drew me in was the core issue of moral choice. You’re eighteen, nineteen years old, and you’re going to be sent halfway across the world to a country you’ve never heard of to kill people and maybe be killed. What do you do? There are no easy choices, and whatever choice you do make will change your life forever. From a dramatic standpoint, of course, this central dilemma and its associated conflicts are rich with possibility.

The subject matter also allowed me to illuminate the devastating impacts of war, including the racism and white supremacism at the heart of all war-making by the U.S. and other Western powers. Themes of race, culture and identity are present in all my plays, including the three other plays that Hibernian Hall generously produced during my tenure there as Visiting Playwright (Raising David Walker, Identity Crisis, and Guided Tour). 

What was challenging about writing this play?  What was most fulfilling?

I wanted to represent the full spectrum of people’s experience with the draft, as well as provide contextual information about the war and the movement to stop it. That meant a big cast: 12 actors play more than 90 characters between them. It was ridiculously ambitious, a real beast! Making it all work was, as they say, a process. We even made cuts and reworked the final scene in the last week of rehearsal. Somehow, it all came together. I was also determined to do justice to the real-life stories that had been entrusted to me, and for a while that was kind of paralyzing; I wouldn’t allow myself to follow my instincts as a dramatist. I also felt a particular burden of responsibility because 10 of the 11 principal characters whose stories are featured in the play are still alive. Nine of them came to see the show and got to meet the actors who had portrayed them on stage. It was quite emotional for all concerned. Lots of tears and hugs of mutual gratitude and appreciation.

Twelve actors play more than 90 roles between them in The Draft. The student protesters in this scene are portrayed (from left) by Stewart Evan Smith, Trinidad Ramkissoon, and Jacob Athyal. (Photo Credit: Roberto Mighty).

Twelve actors play more than 90 roles between them in The Draft. The student protesters in this scene are portrayed (from left) by Stewart Evan Smith, Trinidad Ramkissoon, and Jacob Athyal. (Photo Credit: Roberto Mighty).

Writing The Draft was at once inspiring and grueling. It was also incredibly satisfying because the play brings to life a divisive and defining period of our national history that many people would prefer to forget but is still extraordinarily relevant. And the play asks some provocative questions – for example, about the meaning of patriotism and the use of war as an instrument of foreign policy -- that continue to challenge us all today.    

What are some of the noteworthy performances that you saw in 2015?

Bedlam’s Saint Joan at Central Square Theatre tops my lists. Stellar acting, deft control of language, simple and ingenious use of space.

I also loved Appropriate at SpeakEasy Stage Company, the great ensemble work in Saturday Night/Sunday Morning at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, and the creative outdoor staging of Blood Wedding by Apollinaire. 

How do you fill your days?  What is something new that you will do in 2016?

I have a full-time job directing a grant-making program for a foundation. I’m also active with a project called “Abolition Acre” that aims to establish a commemorative and educational installation on City Hall Plaza honoring the abolitionist movement. Oh, and I’m working on Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Feel The Bern!

How do you think that the Greater Boston theatre community can improve in 2016?  What changes would you like to see?

There’s some vibrant new work being written and produced in Boston. I hope we see much more of that, and more diversity in every sphere of theatre-making through the intentional planning and actions of producers.

In that regard, I believe that bloggers and critics have an important educational and advocacy role to play. 

If you could rewrite any story, what would it be, and why?  What would you change or adapt?

Pass! After my experience with The Draft, I think I’ll stick with inventing my own stories. At least for now.     

What is one thing that most people do not know about you?

I had my first movie role at aged five in A Town Like Alice, starring Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch. It’s based on a Nevil Shute novel about a romance between an English nanny and an Australian prisoner-of-war in Japanese-occupied Malaya (Malaysia) during World War Two. I played an orphaned refugee.

Do you have any advice for young theatre artists and/or playwrights?

Every playwright has a different way of working. Personally, I’ve found Edward Albee’s advice especially useful:  “Don’t write until the last possible moment.” In other words, take the time to prepare.

For me, that means knowing as much as I can about why I’m writing this play and what I’m trying to say; who the characters are and their functions in the play; whose play it is (my protagonist) and how s/he will be changed; and the broad arc of the play from start to finish. I’ve also come to value the elements of surprise and silence. Surprise keeps the audience alert (and awake). Silence can speak volumes. See/read any Annie Baker play.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I plan to start work soon on a new (small cast!) play that’s been marinating in my brain for the past year. It’s set in Vermont and involves stargazing and musings on mortality. I think. I’m a long way from Albee’s last possible moment . . .

Do you have anything else to share with our ArtsImpulse readers?

Vietnamese-American student Trinh Nguyen (Helen Swanson) reads a poem by the Vietnamese poet Y Nhi. The play is structured around a fictional study tour of Vietnam by a group of contemporary U.S. college students. As part of their preparation for the trip, the students are given an assignment to interview people about their experiences with the Vietnam War draft. (Photo Credit: Roberto Mighty).

Vietnamese-American student Trinh Nguyen (Helen Swanson) reads a poem by the Vietnamese poet Y Nhi. The play is structured around a fictional study tour of Vietnam by a group of contemporary U.S. college students. As part of their preparation for the trip, the students are given an assignment to interview people about their experiences with the Vietnam War draft. (Photo Credit: Roberto Mighty).

My ambition for The Draft was that it could be more than a compelling piece of theater; that it could also be a useful educational tool on issues of war and militarism. To that end, some friends and I collaborated on a successful Indiegogo campaign. We raised enough money to finance a tour of the play after its Hibernian Hall premiere – with performances at Westfield State University in Westfield, MA, Northampton’s Academy of Music, and Trinity College in Hartford – and to hire a filmmaker to videotape a live performance of the play. The footage is now being edited.  We plan to combine the completed video with the script and a teacher’s guide and promote the package to colleges and high schools around the country. If you’d like to be on the mailing list, please let me know: psnoad@yahoo.com 

I asked a class of students at Westfield State University – who had read The Draft together before it was performed there – how many of them had learned about the Vietnam War in high school. Three out of twenty students raised their hands. The sad fact is that most young people in the U.S. today know next to nothing about the war because it is rarely covered in their history classes and their older family members with firsthand experience of the war are often reluctant to talk about it. Yet, many of the personal wounds the war inflicted have yet to heal, and its impact on our national psyche, not to mention our foreign policy, is still profound.

Witness the invocation of the “Vietnam Syndrome” – a reluctance to commit American ground troops to foreign wars based on the disastrous experience of quagmire and defeat in Vietnam – in the current debate about how to combat ISIS. I myself learned a lot in researching and writing The Draft.  And some of what I learned literally made me gasp. One example: While 58,000 Americans lost their lives in the war, between three and four million Vietnamese died. If our country had lost the same proportion of its population, we’d have over 17 million grieving families here in the United States.

I hope that The Draft can make a modest contribution to bridging the knowledge gap about the Vietnam War – or the American War as the Vietnamese call it – that exists among younger Americans.