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BWW Interviews: John Benitz Talks IF ALL THE SKY WERE PAPER, Presented at Kennedy Center in Honor of Memorial Day

As we head into Memorial Day, it's encouraging to see that one of our local arts institutions is presenting a theatre piece that honors the service members - and their loved ones - that have sacrificed so much at wartime. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will be presenting Andrew Carroll's play, based on actual wartime letters contained in his best-selling books War Letters and Behind the Lines, on Thursday, May 21 and Friday, May 22 in its intimate Terrace Theater space. The production is produced by Victoria Morris/Lexicat Arts in association with Chapman University, where the show premiered.

Featuring Jason Hall (Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of American Sniper), Michael Conner Humphreys (portrayed Young Forrest in the film Forrest Gump), and Scott Simon (award-winning host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday and best-selling author), If All the Sky Were Paper offers what's sure to be a unique and powerful glimpse at the experience of war through the sharing of personal letters.

Director John Benitz, who has been with the show since making its world premiere at Chapman University where he teaches, graciously answered a few questions over email about the project, and how it came to the Kennedy Center, what draws him to the material, and what experience the show will offer to Kennedy Center audiences. Here's what he said:

John Benitz (Courtesy of Kennedy Center Press Office)

You directed the world premiere of If All the Sky Were Paper at Chapman University as well subsequent productions around the country. How did you become involved in the project, what drew you to it, and what was the collaboration process with DC-based writer/historian Andrew Carroll like to bring it to life?

In 2007, I read about Andy Carroll in National Geographic when they did an article on his journey around the world collecting letters written during time of war. At the time, I was involved with a play called, What I Heard About Iraq by Simon Levy which was a "verbatim theatre," or "documentary theatre," piece about our involvement in Iraq under George Bush, Jr. It was a very political piece that I felt compelled to do because, like a lot of people, I was trying to figure it all out. I think, in some ways, I needed to bring If All the Sky Were Paper to life as a way to explore the war experience in a totally non-political way that honors service members.

Andy and I are both so passionate about this material. We have a great time as we travel around the country sharing this amazing play with new audiences. As far as the collaboration, it's a good one. Before making creative changes, we run things by each other and are very respectful of each other's opinions. It's a super adventure and he's a wonderful partner and friend. I introduced Victoria Morris, our producer, into the mix a year or so ago. I was immediately impressed with her love for this play, tireless energy, big heart and great laugh! In many ways she was exactly the person we needed to take this all to the next level. The producing job was getting too much for me to do alone when Victoria showed up and I am grateful beyond words for her. Also, with three of us, we tend to step in for each other when one of us starts to get crazy-and we've all been there! We're a great team.

If All the Sky Were Paper explores the wartime experience for troops and their loved ones through the sharing of personal letters contained in several of writer Andrew Carroll's best-selling books. Because the drama is based on true-life materials, I imagine there were a unique set of challenges, and opportunities for a director. Can you share a little bit about how you approached directing such a play?

Well, really the big challenge was to decide what riches to mine. At Chapman University, the Center for American War Letters houses 100,000 war letters that we had to choose from. And it was a challenge to find an engaging way to present the letters in a theatrical way. We didn't want folks to say, "why don't I just stay home and read these letters in Andy's books (War Letters and Behind the Lines); why go to the theatre?" I kept returning to the "Nat Geo" article that I had read about Andy and we felt that the missing piece of the puzzle was him! We needed a narrator, Andy's voice, to provide context to the letters-how he found them; what his experiences were; what motivated him; what he was going through personally as he traveled the world in search of these incredible documents. Also, what were his conclusions about the war experience? Andy's amazing insights and experiences help guide the audience through this journey in a way that wasn't previously possible.

The next step after that was to find a narrative arc, meaning a clear beginning, middle and end. We loosely broke the 85-minute play (with no intermission) into three pieces or acts-the run up to war; the conflict itself; and the aftermath or reconciliation. This seemed to provide the structure we needed to move ahead.

If All the Sky Were Paper is not the first play that you've directed which explores conflict-related issues. You've also directed Borderlands - a play about Bosnia - and What I Heard About Iraq. What draws you to this kind of subject matter - both personally and professionally?

Well, you caught me. It's true, it is a running theme! I suppose it's because the material is so inherently dramatic. The stakes are so high.

What I Heard About Iraq and If All the Sky Were Paper are both built on primary documents -first hand material. Sometimes I have thoughts that overwhelm me a bit while working on these letters; this powerful feeling that the ghosts of the letter writers are right there in the theatre with us, as actors bring them to life. It is an incredible feeling that it not equaled in material that was penned as fiction. This material connects me to my humanity in ways that I have never felt in such measure before, within the context of my art.

It may be that the lens of war heightens the human experience and seems to bring both the best and worst out of people. Or, that these letters remind me of the fragility of life or my need to connect with others in a more humane way. I'm still exploring it all. I think that has been the draw that has kept me engaged for so long-eight years?with this project. That's a record for me.

As an educator, you're no stranger to the Kennedy Center. You have, for example, a history of involvement in the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Can you tell us a little bit about how you've been involved in Kennedy Center programs; the opportunities they offer; and the significance of directing this production at the Kennedy Center?

The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival is a great opportunity for college level actors, designers and writers to have their work seen and evaluated by other professors and various professionals in their field. In 2012, we were chosen to perform If All the Sky Were Paper in a Los Angeles theatre as part of the festival. That led to being chosen as one of only a few plays considered for a production at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. We were very close! But alas, another very worthwhile show was selected. As fate would have it, Victoria Morris knew Max Woodward [Vice President for Theatre Programming] at the Kennedy Center and pitched the play to him. Over a period of time, the discussions got deeper until at last, here we are! I can't express how grateful we are to Max for helping us realize this dream of performing at our national theatre.

What should audiences expect from If All the Sky Were Paper?

Audiences can expect an experience that will move them to many tears and much laughter. It's amazing how many of the letters are unbelievably funny and heartwarming. We have always tried to give our audiences an experience that they don't expect. We can imagine that people are thinking, "oh my God, a play about war, no thanks." But over and over we hear from audiences that it was beautiful, moving and life-changing in a way they didn't expect. That feels pretty darn good to know we are making a difference like that.

If All the Sky Were Paper is being presented at the Kennedy Center in honor of Memorial Day. The Washington, DC Metro Area is also home to a sizable military population working at the Pentagon and several military bases within the city and the surrounding areas. All of them have their own stories about the wartime experience. What would you say to the encourage that group - as well as their loved ones - to come see this production, particularly as we head into Memorial Day weekend?

Our audiences are mostly non-military. When military come and we have chance to speak with them afterwards, it is very special. After a show at Chapman University, we had a Vietnam veteran in tears, thanking us for "telling his story." In the very first Los Angeles reading, there were these older guys sitting in the front row not saying a word for about 45 minutes of the post-show talk. All of a sudden, one of the guys spoke up in a way that sort of startled me and said, "when is this play going to be out so EVERYONE can see it?!" I asked him if he knew someone with the reading and he said he heard about it at the Veterans Administration. He and his buddies were Korean War veterans. Again, it confirmed that we had something very special.

For tickets and further information about IF ALL THE SKY WERE PAPER, visit the Kennedy Center website or call the box office at 202-467-4600. Specially priced $19 tickets are available for veterans and can be purchased over the phone or at the box office. Performances are Thursday, May 21 at 7:30 PM and Friday, May 22 at 7:30 PM.

Photo: Jason Hall in the Los Angeles Production of IF ALL THE SKY WERE PAPER; by Daniel G. Lam.

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From This Author Jennifer Perry