“Out there with these natives it must be temptation to be God. ‘Cause there’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational, the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph.”
– General Corman (G. D. Spradlin), “Apocalypse Now” (1979)
A quarter century after the end of the Vietnam War, America is at war again. There is a new enemy this time, a new reason for war: terrorism. But for our generation, unlike past generations, this is an armchair war. It lacks the visceral experience that irrevocably connected our parents and grandparents to previous wars through which they suffered.
The Sherwood Players, an independent student-run theater group on campus, wants to hold up a mirror and force us to examine the human face of war.
The group’s latest production, which opens this Friday, takes a look at the Vietnam War through the eyes of men who were there. “Tracers” is a play conceived by John DiFusco and written by the original cast of Vietnam veterans who first performed the piece in 1980 at Los Angeles’ Odyssey Theater.
Ryan Foland, producer and director for the Sherwood Players’ version of “Tracers,” said that as soon as he read the script, several months ago, he knew it was a piece he wanted to work on – a vision he wished to build.
“Tracers'” Vietnam War theme is a seemingly unoriginal idea in the wake of the plethora of war-based movies that have entered our lexicon. What is there left to say – we’ve all seen “Platoon.” This play, however, is no rubber-stamped stage version of the bloody Vietnam War flick; it is, in fact, the inspiration for many of its more famous Hollywood progeny.
“[The play] was actually written before ‘Full Metal Jacket’ and ‘Apocalypse Now,'” Foland said. “It is interesting to see that some aspects, and even direct lines from the play, have been taken and carried directly over [to those films]. It is a pretty influential piece. It was a hard-hitter in its time and hopefully it will be now too.”
The relevance for today’s campus community is what makes Foland believe audiences will find “Tracers” a powerful performance.
“What happened with Vietnam, I think, is particularly similar to what is happening in Afghanistan now,” he said. “That is, we are not necessarily that informed, especially here at UCSB and in I.V. We seem to live in a bubble. … I think it is important to take a look back – listen to real stories accurately portrayed. Look outside the bubble and see what’s really going on, especially in a time when the United States is in such turmoil.”
“Tracers” has an eight-member cast, with the plotline focusing on six people in a squad, or core unit. It traces the men’s experiences from basic training, through their arrival in Vietnam and the combat they faced, to the hostile reception they received upon returning home.
“[The play] is a look at how these men dealt with death, dismembered body parts and the raw emotions created during battle,” Foland said. “As well as the effect that war had on their lives – all [these men] wanted to do was go home and then when they got home they found a whole new war going on.”
The Sherwood Players have always embraced the concept of “shock” theater – previous performances by the troupe have included onstage nudity and violent subject matter. Their content consistently pushes the limits of convention.
“[The Players] is not run through the Drama Dept. It is all independent; it is all our own work and it is above and beyond what we do [in school],” Foland said. “If I had to define the Sherwood Players, it would be a collective group of people with common interests and a passion to put up theater to affect the masses.”
This strongly independent spirit, and a somewhat flagrant disregard for regulations, has not always endeared the Players to university administrators. Last spring, the group was barred from performing on campus for the remainder of the year after exceeding the number of shows it was permitted. Clashes between the group’s founder, Matt Weinglass, and the Drama Dept. also plagued the Sherwood Players. Weinglass was eventually thrown out of the BFA program, although he remains associated with the Players, and the sailing appears smoother for the group this year.
“The conflicts and controversies in the past have been due to a couple of things,” Foland said. “A lot of the controversy that stemmed from the university was miscommunication between them and us. … I have been working very closely with the Office of Student Life this year. We have followed all their rules and regulations.”
The Players seem to have been duly compensated for their greater willingness to cooperate – “Tracers,” their first show this year, has received funding from Associated Students, the OSL and the Community Affairs Board. In addition, the Vietnam Veterans of America Association has supported the production and helped to promote the Dec. 9 performance at the Center Stage Theater in downtown Santa Barbara.
“We want to hit the community as well. We want to expose this material outside of UCSB,” Foland said.
He claims theater, unlike all other forms of media, has the advantage of presenting live people before an audience, creating unparalleled empathy with the characters. “Tracers” cast members, all undergraduate students, play soldiers the same age as themselves, striking a chilling chord with the crowd.
“I hope [after seeing the play] people gain a certain amount of respect for veterans in general and, more specifically, the Vietnam veterans,” Foland said. “We tend to glorify war, especially today when we are just dropping bombs everywhere. Life and death is not to be taken for granted. … Hopefully, ‘Tracers’ will leave people thinking more about the value of life.”