Reprinted from the FOREWORD of the playbook for “Welcome Home, Soldier” By Tony Savant, creator, co-author, and director
“Welcome Home, Soldier” is a special play. At the time of this publishing, those of us at Playhouse West who created it will be closing in on the beginning of our tenth year performing the play! This is quite an accomplishment for any production, and one we are very proud of. I, for one, never imagined that this play, which began as a simple class project at our acting studio, would have ever blossomed into what it has, let alone would still be playing to sold-out audiences at our little theater after this many years. Sometimes when I think about it, it’s staggering, as well as humbling.
The real genesis for the play began when Robert Carnegie, the Director of Playhouse West Acting School, where I was an advanced student and a part-time instructor at the time, gave me a book about how Vietnam Veterans were treated when they came home after the war. Robert asked me to see what kind of class improvisation I could come up with, based on this material, that maybe we could do as a presentation for the school. I told him I’d read the book and see what I could come up with.
It was December of 1990, and the United States, with hundreds of thousands of troops being sent to the Persian Gulf, appeared to be gearing up for an imminent war with Iraq. Here in Hollywood, hundreds of people were poised and ready to hit the streets to join in on war protests reminiscent of the Vietnam era, and many of the young people at our acting studio were talking about participating. I didn’t know this till later, but Robert’s intentions for this project he gave me were to help educate his students about the effects the war protests had on the soldiers in Vietnam. He knew that the moral of our troops during the Vietnam War were hurt by those protests and that they were subsequently not well received back into this country when they returned home. So, he wanted his students to understand the possible consequences of their actions if they were going to go out and actively participate in these anti-war demonstrations.
So, I read the book and was very touched and horrified by the treatment our soldiers received here in America during the Vietnam War. I was a child during those years, I had an uncle who served in Vietnam, but I really had no idea what had happened to our soldiers when they came home. Reading about this was my first encounter with hearing about soldiers being spit upon or being treated poorly. I certainly hadn’t learned any of this in school. In fact, I had never even heard any stories about vets being spit on in my entire life. It was shocking to me. Then, I began to look to other sources, mainly other books, to see what other information I could gather on this. I called and went to a few Vet Centers in the Los Angeles area, watched a few film strips they had on the subject of Vietnam, and began to see what rich, powerful and emotional material this could be for actors. Being an actor, my first instinct at the time was, “Wow, this would be great material to act.” I still had no idea who would truly be interested in seeing it, and was not privy to Robert Carnegie’s real intentions for the project as of yet. After my research, I ended up with an overwhelming amount of information. So much, in fact, that I didn’t know what to do with it all. Basically, what I had was a bunch of stories, told by either Vietnam Veterans or one of their family members. So, I began to play around with different situations which I thought would truthfully allow these kinds of stories to be expressed, though I really couldn’t call it a play. I didn’t know what to call it, really, because it had a structure unlike any play I had ever seen or read. It had a beginning, middle and end, and kind of a theme running through it about how Vietnam Vets were treated, basically taking the point of view that you shouldn’t spit on soldiers, regardless of what you think of the war.
Then, I got some of my classmates together at my house and I read the whole “play” out loud to them. I remember how nervous I was, not knowing how people were going to react to what I’d come with. But, as I read through the outline and the stories, most of the people in the room were moved to tears, as I was. Suddenly I felt like, “Hey, something must be okay here.”
We rehearsed this “class project” in my living room for several months, and, even though the Gulf War ended quickly, before we had it ready, we finally performed it one night in April for the students at the school. It went okay and the response was positive, but no one involved with it had any idea that what we did might be something special. However, Robert Carnegie seemed to see something in it that the rest of us did not.
So, under his supervision, we re-worked the play a little, with Robert writing in some new material, and in June of 1991, we performed it for the general public for the first time. That night in June was the first time that I, and any of us who were acting in it, had any idea that what we were doing was special. There was one Vietnam Veteran in the audience that night, a man named R.C. Cook, and afterward, he let us know exactly how special the play was. R.C. told us that it was the first time in twenty years that he felt good about being a Vietnam Vet, and also the first time he’d ever heard the truth told about what happened and how he felt when he came home from the war.
During the first year of doing the play, we continued to work on it and re-write it, almost on a weekly basis. We continued to do research, trying to make the play more and more authentic. As veterans would come and see the play and talk to us afterward, we would gain more and more insight into what we were talking about, and with their permission, would even incorporate some of the stories they would tell us into the play. As the word spread about the play, veterans began flocking to see it, many of whom would return to see it again and again. (Some veterans are still coming back, and have been attending the play regularly for years!) There were many evenings that first year when a veteran, attending the play for the first time, would get so caught up in the situation that they would actually stand up and tell their own personal story, forgetting that they were watching a play. The stories being related rang so true to them and hit so close to home that these veterans were moved to just spontaneously express what had been held deep inside them for so many years. These were some of the most compelling and moving nights of theater one could ever imagine.
In the fall of 1997, six years after beginning the play and five years after we finally settled on what we thought was a “final version,” Robert Carnegie came to me with what seemed like a ridiculous idea. “I think we can still improve the play,” he said. He wanted to re-work the second act of the play. My initial response was, “Why? It’s been working fine, hasn’t it? Why fix what doesn’t seem to be broke?” Well, I went to work on it, with our current cast at the time (we’ve had many over the years), and in the winter of 1998 we implemented the current version of the play that is published here. Like Robert has been on most other occasions, he was absolutely right. We did improve the play, and the veterans have responded overwhelmingly in favor of this latest (and I hope last) version of the play.
Over the years, we have been able to witness, first hand, the incredible impact the play has had on the lives of Vietnam Veterans and their families. Veterans have told us that after seeing the play it was the first time in twenty-five years that they felt welcomed in this country. Others have told us that years of therapy never did what our play did for them in one night. In addition to helping veterans to heal some of their deeper wounds, the ones not physically apparent, the play seems to give the veterans back their pride, a pride robbed from them when they returned to an ungrateful, and in many instances, a hostile nation, which took its anger and frustration toward the government out on the soldiers because they were the visible ones. We have received hundreds of letters, poems, gifts of thanks, and awards from vets and Veteran’s organizations in appreciation for our contribution to the healing process of the Vietnam Veterans.
The play has become more than just a play, it has become a public service, and an anthem for those who have suffered in silence for so many years. This play gives the Vietnam Veterans the voice they never had. We’ve seen veterans get their lives back together and go off drugs and alcohol for the first time in years, and begin functioning as productive citizens again. Others have been reunited with families who turned their backs on them years ago. The number of powerful stories of healing are remarkable and are what makes those of us responsible for creating “Welcome Home, Soldier” most proud.
Many times over the years, I have been asked by people if they could buy the script of the play somewhere, because they either wanted to read it or have it for posterity or something. Well, the truth is that I never really wrote out the play in a “play form” or “reading form.” All I ever had was just an outline with all the scenes and speeches in order. So, after many years and many requests, I finally decided to sit down and attempt to write out a reading version of the play, one that includes all the improvised and spontaneous moments that have evolved over the years and have become a regular part of the play. In all fairness, though, I believe it’s impossible to do justice to a reading version of the play, for it can never match the humanity and intensity of seeing the play live, with real people living out and expressing the stories with real human emotions. Any actors or theater group attempting to perform this play must have reality and true emotion to really pull it off. Also, so much of the play depends on the ability of the actors to improvise to fill in the reality of the situations. I tried to indicate where and what these improvisations should be about, but the reader must do their best to imagine these, with an understanding that from night to night, they may be, and should be, somewhat different.
In closing, I would like to add that in spite of some critics, who allege that the play has an obvious political agenda and is only one-sided in favor of the veterans, I say that this play is not about politics at all. It is really about how people should and should not treat one-another. It does not attempt to take any particular political stance on the war itself, or if anything, might even be somewhat critical of our government’s involvement in the Vietnam War. It certainly is not, and never was intended to be a “pro war” play. However, it most definitely, and unashamedly, stands up for the soldiers who are asked to fight our nations battles and emphatically takes the point of view that no matter what you think about the war, do not spit on your warriors. That is wrong, plain and simple.
The play also attempts to dispel the myths about the so-called “peace” protesters, many of whom were anything but peaceful. For how can anyone be preaching peace out of one side of their mouth while calling names or spitting on someone out of the other? We also don’t really attempt to show the protester’s side of things for one simple reason: it’s already been done so many times in literature, movies and television. We wanted to show the other side, from the soldier’s point of view, for the first time. It is also important to note, that everything in the play, everything that is written, was actually really said by someone and taken from a real source. We combined some of the speeches and stories, and changed some of the specifics so they did not bear a resemblance to any one particular individual; but make no mistake about it, everything that’s said in the play is truthful. Even the remarks in the second scene of the play by a character at the parade rally, which appear to be insensitive and far-fetched, were actually spoken by someone and were said in a serious context. So, regardless of your political leanings, regardless of your opinions of Vietnam, or any war, “Welcome Home, Soldier”, finally, is about how we should treat each other as human beings. I believe it’s a very timely and meaningful play, one that was long overdue, and I hope you enjoy, finally, having the opportunity to read it.
Tony Savant January, 2000
(Note from Author: The play is a living, ever-evolving thing. We continually strive to improve it. The second act of the play was revised in January of 2005, and another major revision was made again in July of 2013. Other minor changes have been made to Act I as well.)
Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances" ~ Sanford Meisner