CONVERSATIONS with Ed Tracy

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Conversations featuring authors and influential leaders in the arts, media and business.

KIMBERLY SENIOR - Support Group for Men

With the “L” train rumbling by the Goodman Theatre and the rehearsal and summer program space overflowing with activity, it is a bit of a challenge to find a quiet, out-of-the-way location to have a conversation with Kimberly Senior, the extraordinarily gifted and much-in-demand director who is putting the final touches on the world premiere of Ellen Fairey’s Support Group for Men now in previews. Once we were safely tucked away in a corner of the actor's lounge, what came next was a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation about new play development, working with her long-time friend on the show and creating a collaborative atmosphere with top-tier actors and creative teams.

The cast of Support Group for Men includes Keith Kupferer, Ryan Kitley, Anthony Irons and Tommy Rivera-Vega whose characters are trying to sort out their lives. The comedy which began as a collaboration between Fairey and Senior in 2015, was presented as part of the New Stages development series at Goodman a year later. In keeping with a decision to remain current, the world premiere is set at a pivot point in 2017 between the Trump inauguration and the beginning of the #METOO movement. “It’s very much about how the world is changing faster than they’re able to keep up with it,” says Senior. And with support group names like Floating Squirrel, Running Buffalo, Sleeping Hawk and Silver Eagle, it sounds like it will be a rip-roaring Thursday night in Wrigleyville.

Kimberly Senior’s busy schedule includes the recent highly-acclaimed production of Buried Child at Writers Theatre, where she serves as resident director and an impressive roster of stage productions in Chicago at Goodman, Writers, Northlight, Steppenwolf, Next, Strawdog, Redtwist and in top regional theaters across the country. One of those new projects was Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced which originated in Chicago, moved on to Broadway and then several regional performances that were directed by Senior. Her work has been recognized by Columbia College for excellence in teaching, by TCG with the prestigious Alan Schneider Award and as a recipient of a Special Non-Equity Jeff Award for her Chicago career achievements as a trailblazer, champion and role model for emerging artists. She is most proud of her two kids and biggest fans, Noah and Delaney.

When asked what’s on the bucket list, it was not surprising that Kimberly Senior wants to go back to her roots and direct a musical – “… almost any musical.” She says, “Just sign me up!” Senior also would like to continue her foray into television, following the recent HBO debut of Chris Gethard's: Career Suicide which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.  

And then it all came back around to the other bucket she has been filling her entire career as a storyteller – plays that haven’t been written yet – and what it is at the center of a new project that clicks the creative spark for one of professional theater’s most sought-after directors. PODCAST

Finding the right project… “I've read many things that I think are wonderful, but that on some gut level is like metabolically, not maybe right for me. And so there is a click that happens. … I'm looking for work that is asking a question that it's trying to solve … actively wrestling with something that maybe I am also wrestling with. I'm less interested in doing things that I feel like I know everything about. So it's often the plays that I read that are most challenging and really mind-boggling and making me uncomfortable that I'm excited to dive in and collaborate with people on attempting to solve whatever is deep buried inside. There's like a little howl at the center of the play that I want to be able to unleash and then further share and solve that with the audience.”

What’s howling in Support Group for Men … “Well, what's howling at the center of Support Group for Men is the sense of loneliness and invisibility that we can often feel both in a world that's consumed with technology as people who are aging in a world that is rapidly changing from day to day, whether it is based on our current government or based on how so many social norms are changing. We're so divided in so many ways now in this fractured world. We are often feeling not seen by what is happening around us. And so Support Group For Men is attempting to wrestle with those feelings of invisibility."

It’s a comedy … “It's definitely a comedy and it's so much of a comedy … sometimes the way we deal with things that make us sad is by laughing. The experience of watching the play with the few audiences we've had so far and the deep belly laughs that are going on. It really opens you up to experience what is tender and poignant about the play in a way that you wouldn't if it was more of a drama. … It is very much about how the world is changing faster than they're able to keep up with it. … There are actually two young guys on the stage and they are also both wrestling with things … this is where we move into a conversation about masculinity and, we hear this phrase all the time now: ‘toxic masculinity’ and there is a real problem to solve in this world. We keep sort of blaming the way we are raising men, but we're not necessarily doing anything about it. This play is giving space for men to feel vulnerable, for men to talk about their feelings, for men to express their fears and concerns and to essentially abolish phrases like ‘Man Up’ which don’t seem to be helpful for anyone.”

Working with Ellen Fairey … “Ellen and I date back to the mid-90s knowing one another. This is actually the first time we are working together as a writer and director, but we've been friends for a very long time … so much of our friendship has been very centered on our love of Chicago and the zeitgeist that surrounds this fabulous town. In 2015, Ellen and I went out to the Ojai Playwrights Conference in gorgeous Ojai, California. We had a two-week workshop of the play. … thinking back to the summer of 2015, we were in a very different place then we are now in the summer of 2018. So, a lot of changes were made before we brought it to New Stages at the Goodman in 2016. And that process was fantastic because here we had four weeks of rehearsal and two weeks of performances and we really got the opportunity to dig deep into the characters who became much more richly evolved and complex. We were able to unearth their backstories and how they are connected. We were able to really make specific what it is that they are afraid of. We also were able to understand how their fears were being solved or taken care of and what does it really mean to support someone. … Moving to the production we have now, we've decided to set the play in 2017, six months after Donald Trump's inauguration and right before the #MeToo movement. So, it's in a very specific place and time and that's definitely affected a lot of the changes that we've worked on. We also have changed a couple of the characters pretty intensely and a lot based on who the actors are that are playing them. Ellen has an amazing ability to collaborate not only with me as her director but also with the actors. She really likes to hear their voices and she very much writes to them.”

Floating Squirrel and the rest of the Support Group … “(Keith Kupferer) is so fantastic and I’m just sitting here laughing thinking about his tremendous performance. Keith is a really big guy … thinking of him as a floating squirrel is just an automatically hilarious thing. … These are their support group names. They are an idealized version of oneself in many ways. And so the idea of being something that moves swiftly and lightly and maybe sees himself as someone kind of tiny is this idealized notion of who he could possibly be. Anthony Irons is playing Dell who is also known as Running Buffalo … who feels maybe a little held down in life and there's an unbridled, boundless joy to his idealized version of himself. Ryan Kitley is Sleeping Hawk who in his idealized version has a tremendous center of himself, a grandeur and an ability to see everything. Tommy Rivera-Vega plays Kev and his character's name is Silver Eagle … there is something that is shiny and American and slick about him. The newest member of the support group, played by Jeff Kurzy (Alex), is Falling Fox … ‘foxes have red hair’ … and he also has fallen down in the play.”

Developing projects at Goodman Theatre … “...there's a wonderful sense of being in the nest here, of being held, of being seen and acknowledged for the work that I'm doing and really the work - also, the play, but also the work - and that's a wonderful thing. It's so necessary for the future of American theater. I've now been doing this for a while, but I've had several shows where I've gotten to take more than one stab at it, more than one pass. And some of these decisions have in theaters over the past 30 years of the American regional theater, like rehearsal schedules growing shorter and the time to really live with a thing has not been really attended to. And I know a lot of that is financial and we could have a whole other podcast about that. But what's wonderful about the process here at the Goodman is that Ellen and I, obviously from our time before the Goodman, but even thinking about New Stages, we had a full eight months up until New Stages to work together on it. Then we had the New Stages experience. Then between New Stages and now we've been back here for readings, for conversations, for continued work on the script. So, we have immersed ourselves in this. We have been able to really bring something to audiences that is textured and nuanced … even though today we're about to go put in a couple of new lines, they are earned changes that really make sense and are responsive to the process that we've had, which has been so deep and so rich.  … every play needs something different and the Goodman really acknowledges that.”

The Bucket List … “I really want to direct a musical - whoever is listening!  My background was as a musical theater performer and it's so much of what has made me a human being in so many ways. I love the idea of all of those moving parts. I'm a huge collaborator nerd and would love to even get more people in the room to work with. I love sharing that. So, like really almost any musical. You just sign me up. I'll do it! That's definitely on my bucket list. I'm also interested in my foray into television. I directed an HBO special last year called Chris Gethard's: Career Suicide and that was a piece that started in development with Chris … we actually did do it on the stage and then eventually made it for television. And I'm really excited about what the lens provides, the director's role and having a little bit more control over what it is you see as an audience member. … and because so much of the work I'm doing is new work, it's plays that haven't been written yet."

Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
PHOTOS|Liz Lauren


GOODMAN THEATRE
presents the
WORLD PREMIERE
ELLEN FAIREY's
SUPPORT GROUP FOR MEN
DIRECTED BY KIMBERLY SENIOR

through July 29th
TICKETS
BOX OFFICE: 312.443.3800.

PODCAST available on iTunes, Libsyn and Stitcher
ARCHIVE DE USURIS BLOG EMAIL WEBSITE SUBSCRIBE

LEAH MORROW & JACKSON EVANS - Back on Avenue Q

There are some familiar furry friends in the Mercury Theater these days. And on June 21st, the three-time Tony Award-winning musical AVENUE Q opens a return engagement of the hit production that played for seven months at the Mercury in 2014.

Returning cast members include Leah Morrow and Jackson Evans in the roles of Kate Monster and Princeton who live in a neighborhood inhabited by puppets and humans, all facing real life situations. The terrific Robert Lopez/Jeff Marx score with book by Jeff Whitty is an adult-themed musical journey about love, relationships, sex, respect for others and finding your purpose in life. 

Apparently, you can get away with a lot of things when you have a puppet in your hand, or at least that’s what we found out when the conversation turned to an earlier promotional appearance on WGN when pretty much everything went off the rails. You will have to listen to our conversation to find out exactly what happened and all of the other charming moments we had with the talented duo whose friendship began when their puppet personas fell in love on Avenue Q. PODCAST

Back on Avenue Q… Jackson: “We can come back to it with four years of life experience, and yet, Princeton and Kate are in the exact same place. … Our amazing puppet coach, Rick Lyon, who was in the original cast, was telling us that literally Princeton and Kate have done nothing else. We as actors have done other shows. We have learned things. We have gone through breakups. Some of us have delivered children – a/k/a Leah - but Princeton and Kate literally have done nothing else. These adorable puppets just live only in this play. … it's been so great to come back … he’s been waiting for me and it's so delightful to be back and singing these songs. … Bobby Lopez, since then, has become an EGOT (recipient of the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards) … Frozen, Book of Mormon (Leah: “Finding Nemo”) … and yet we still get to sing some of his best songs that he wrote so long ago, so tuneful and great and funny and important. Leah: “Our first day of rehearsal, when we were singing through and reading through the show, it struck me more emotionally than I expected it to because it was like coming back to a really dear friend. And when Jackson started singing “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” I welled up with tears because it was so wonderful to be back in that world, to hear my wonderful friend do this lovely thing and say these words. Sing these notes. It just felt like getting back into an old tee shirt … we were really a family and it was also an experience that a lot of us had never really had before. This was a commercial run at this theater in Chicago …and we were together for seven months with rehearsal and our run. … it just fills you with such lovely nostalgia and encouragement.”

Open to surprises when passing the hat … Jackson: “We did a performance the last time when someone snuck an engagement ring into the hat and we stopped the play. I said, “Oh my gosh, an engagement ring. Whose could this be?” And the lovely couple came on stage and got engaged in the middle of our play. It was really beautiful. It was hard to get back to the play after they left… it sounds so cliche that it's different every night, but it truly is because it's so specific that the audience informs our performance so much with what they put in the hat. Feel free to bring weird things. It's an insider tip for those of you listening to this podcast. We're open to surprises.” Leah: Somebody once put in their paycheck. And they were like, “I need that back!” Jackson: and a wallet. A full wallet. Leah: And I'm like, “Did you really think you were going to get it back? Jackson: They really trust those puppets. Puppets are really easy to trust.”

Like Cirque du Soleil for the Mind… Leah: “We had two different coaches. For our first production, we had a puppet coach named Kevin Noonchester who was a part of the Las Vegas production after the show left New York in its original Broadway run and went to Las Vegas and he was part of that production where he learned from Rick Lyon, one of the original cast members who created the original Broadway puppets and he came in and coached with us. Our puppets for this production were designed and made by Russ Walko who worked at the Jim Henson creative shop. … the style of puppetry is akin to what you would see on 'Sesame Street' or say 'The Muppet Show', a la Jim Henson… think of it as is like supertitles at the opera or subtitles in a foreign film that at first you're like, 'Okay, how do I plug this all in?' It's like Cirque du Soleil for the mind. Jackson: Put that on a poster. Leah: AVENUE Q: Cirque du Soleil for the Mind! … As the event goes on, I'm inferring all the things that I need to at this moment and this puppet doesn't have eyelids, but, I'm seeing everything they're communicating because they're in sync with the puppeteer and you begin to kind of develop this understanding of the physical language and it just kind of goes together in your mind. Cirque du Soleil!” … Jackson: “There are some amazing human characters who you get to see an interesting relationship that is between human and puppet and how much deference they give to the puppet as if the puppeteer was not there. And it's as if the puppeteer is really only there for the audience. … to pick up some emotional cues that can't quite be delivered through a face that can't frown.”

A Fine Fine Line … Leah: “…there's this moment in the lives of Kate and Princeton on Avenue Q where things are not easy. Things are uncomfortable. Things are crunchy, just like in life. And she is left realizing that her heart has maybe just been broken and she is trying to figure out how to pick up those pieces. Kate is not the unrequited love ingénue type. So when she has her romantic hopes dashed, she is crushed, but she resolves to let that moment be something that propels her forward. And she really is struggling … in this emotional place when Princeton asks her before they break up to be his date for a wedding and she says “I always go to weddings alone. I don't know what I’d do if I went … (Jackson: ‘with a boyfriend?’) and you realize she's never had this experience. And it's one of those moments where you're like, “Oh my gosh! Things are really starting to get good. I never thought they would get so good, but things are really starting to get good!” And then, in the next scene, it's taken away from her and instead of falling into a puddle, which she does, she's also vowing to fight her way out of it. It's a really beautiful and vulnerable moment.”

Remembering Matthew Gunnels … Leah: “One big change, our assistant director, Matthew Gunnels, passed away the week before we closed in 2014. For those of us who were here before, his legacy with the show is still with us. That is a change, certainly. In light of the current political and social climate, this show does talk about and speaks to those things. And so yes, those notes kind of come out a little differently now and that is a change. …Jackson: “We're not rewriting the musical because you don't need to in order to make it feel like it's now. When they first did it, they thought they were going to call it ‘Avenue Q: A Show for "20 Somethings" and they realized very quickly that it's for “all” somethings. The concepts were universal then and they're universal now but they are in a different lens. … Some of the things that used to be really funny because they felt outdated are now not as outdated as we had hoped. And so now it's just an interesting sort of different lens to see it through.”

Comments have been edited for clarity and length.

PHOTOS|Brett A. Beiner

Mercury Theater Chicago
presents
AVENUE Q

June 21st through September 9th
3745 N Southport Avenue

WEBSITE
BOX OFFICE: 773 325-1700.

Special thanks to Regus Chicago, the market leader for office space, for their support of our program.

Read our PicksInSix performance reviews.
Visit: Theatre In Chicago

BURNHAM'S DREAM - THE WHITE CITY

If you would like to know about the early days of Daniel Burnham, the architect of the Plan of Chicago and Director of Works for the 1893 World’s Fair, also known as the Chicago Columbian Exposition, you need look no further than Burnham’s Dream: The White City, a new musical adaptation of Burnham’s life and career which will debut on June 2nd at Theater Wit on West Belmont Avenue in Chicago.

The producer and writer of the book and lyrics of Burnham’s Dream is Chicago playwright and documentary filmmaker June Finfer who has been collaborating on the music and lyrics with Elizabeth Doyle, a prominent Chicago vocalist, pianist, composer and musical director.

All of this is perfectly timed for the 125th Anniversary of the 1893 World’s Fair. The State of Illinois Bicentennial Committee has also officially endorsed this project.

Finfer and Doyle joined the conversation to talk about the development process behind the musical, what they have learned about the Burnham legacy and how this very Chicago story will translate to the musical stage. PODCAST

How it all began … (Finfer) "I was very interested in the architects. My late husband was an architect and urban planner. I've done several documentaries about architecture and architects. What fascinates me about architects is their vision, their persistence, and their ego. ... Other people may be writing about the exhibits at the Fair and the people who came and the symposia. I was very interested in 'How did they get it built?"

Daniel Burnham … (Finfer) "You've got to choose a central character and then see what he really wanted and what he had to sacrifice to achieve his goals. … this was really a dramatic story because there is love and loss, and struggles and challenges in order to get the Fair built. It's just amazing that it really was built and that it was so successful. … Burnham never studied architecture. He never went to college. He didn't pass the entrance exams. Root was a very scholarly, creative guy who studied at several universities. … (when they met) they were both working for another architectural firm. … Burnham was a very ambitious man … Root was more of a dreamer. He was a pianist, an artist. He was a sailor. He was not ambitious. Burnham had a lot to prove to himself and to the world, so he wanted to plan the Fair. According to what we believe, he had to kind of push Root to get involved in it because it was a big undertaking for several years."

IMG_6904.jpg

The cast of characters … (Finfer) "Daniel Burnham, who was about 45 years old… his partner, John Root, who was about five years younger… Louis Sullivan who also wanted to be instrumental in building the Fair and other architects in Chicago who were very put off because they weren't asked first, not only to be in charge but to build some of the major buildings." (Doyle) "We also deal with Burnham's marriage because it really suffered at times when he was hot upon a project. … one of our major characters is his wife Margaret Burnham. Another character that's quite interesting is Bertha Palmer because it was the time of the suffragette and women were starting to find their voice outside of the home. We also have Ida B. Wells who was trying to get more for African-Americans in society and in the Fair, in particular."

Early development … (Finfer) "It started off as a series of monologues of these historical characters … they had several concert performances … then I decided to write a play about it, and then the characters demanded to sing. Their emotions were strong and their desires were strong and the relationships were fascinating. So, I thought that music would add so much to it. I asked Elizabeth Doyle who I had known through several workshops and projects if she would be interested in the project. I'm very happy to say that she said 'Yes!'"  (Doyle) "I'm a big architecture buff and Chicago history buff, so it seemed like a really good fit. I generally like writing more contemporary music, but I thought of all the musical styles that were in existence in 1892-93, which is when our play takes place. It was the beginning of ragtime - Scott Joplin played at the Fair. John Philip Sousa with his big band played at the Fair every day. Paderewski, the wonderful pianist|composer performed. It was a time when opera and operettas were happening. What I tried to do was synthesize all of these different styles and put them in my own voice for the musical."

A world premiere … (Finfer) "This is a Chicago story. It's an architecture story. What better to have in the city. It's a regional and national story because everyone knows about 'The Devil in the White City' … we got rid of the murderer. He's not wanted in our show. He wasn't even known about until after the Fair closed. … It's a very rich textured set of something under construction. You'll see scaffolding and you'll see vistas. … I'm totally amazed at the creativity of this group."

Comments have been edited for length and clarity.

LOST AND FOUND PRODUCTIONS
presents

A WORLD PREMIERE
BURNHAM’S DREAM: THE WHITE CITY

A CHICAGO MUSICAL
Book and lyrics
June Finfer 
Music and Lyrics
Elizabeth Doyle
Directed by Erik Wagner
Music direction by Paul W. Thompson 
Choreography by Jessica Texidor.
June 2 – July 1, 2018

THEATER WIT
1229 W. Belmont Avenue


www.theaterwit.org

(773) 975-8150

June Finfer|WEBSITE
Elizabeth Doyle|WEBSITE
State of Illinois Bicentennial Committee|WEBSITE

PODCAST available on iTunes, Libsyn and Stitcher
ARCHIVE DE USURIS BLOG EMAIL WEBSITE SUBSCRIBE

A MEMORIAL DAY MESSAGE

Memorial Day is an opportunity to remember those individuals who have fought and died for the freedoms we so often as a nation take for granted. It is also a time to honor their loved ones who know all too well the sadness that loss on such a great emotional scale brings.

Every day is a day of memorial for these families. To say that we will never forget their sacrifice is important, but it is not enough. Over the course of the next several days, we will see and hear many tributes to our fallen and to the Gold Star family members who carry the weight of their sacrifice and loss. It is important to show our respect and to honor them. 

On Saturday, May 26, 2018, the City of Chicago will host the 2018 Memorial Day Wreath Laying Ceremony and Parade along State Street. This event is one of the largest of its kind in the nation, a testament to the commitment of the City of Chicago to honor the generations of families and friends from all wars, who have lost a loved one in military actions in the name of freedom.

The ceremony and parade are coordinated by a City of Chicago committee with 20 staff and volunteers who work in the months leading up to the parade to plan the event. Here you will find representatives from all branches of the military, the CPS JROTC, the Chicago Loop Alliance, USO and many others joining with the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to make it happen.

   Jim Frazier  A memorable 2016 program. 

Jim Frazier A memorable 2016 program. 

You will also find James Frazier. Jim’s son Jake was killed in Afghanistan on March 29, 2003. Today, his family is among over 270 other Gold Star families in Illinois who have lost loved ones in Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat actions. Jim has brought a strength of purpose to the table in his position as the Survivor Outreach Services Coordinator and continues to support the Gold Star Families of Illinois. You can listen to more of Jim Frazier's story in our 2016 podcast.

The Memorial Day Wreath Laying Ceremony begins at 11:00 a.m. at Daley Plaza. It is a moving and poignant program dedicated to the memory of those members of our armed forces who did not come home.

The Chicago Memorial Day Parade is like no other. In another time, newspapers published advance pull-out sections with the parade route, photographs and tributes to the fallen. Until only a few years ago, the parade itself was broadcast, first live, and then a shorter version on a tape-delayed basis the next day. Budgets being what they are, this is no longer possible. You will still see early morning features about the event on local television and broadcast news pool reports covering the ceremony.

Public awareness, of course, is not the point. The fact is less than one-half of one percent of the population today has a family member in active military service. Based on a 2011 Pew poll, 4 out of 5 aged 50 to 70 have a relative – perhaps even a direct relative – who has served in uniform. The numbers drop to 2 out of 5 for those aged 20 to 30. Although current statistics are slim, the younger generation may actually know someone who has or is currently serving. 

Events like the Chicago Memorial Day Wreath Laying Ceremony and Parade bring together over 8,000 participants and 100 organizations. Since there may be no other way that you could know, for example, there are over 5,000 Chicago JROTC cadets -- young men and women -- marching from programs throughout Chicagoland. Here are a few highlights:

Lincoln Park High School Army JROTC will be marching with a 76 member unit, a Color Guard and a 10 member Drum & Bugle Corps. Known as the “Lion’s Battalion” the unit is one of the original JROTC programs established in the city of Chicago in 1916 and today, is a premier International Baccalaureate School with Wall to Wall IB programs.

The Lane Tech College Prep JROTC was established in 1930. The school has over 250 alumni who sacrificed their lives in our nation's wars, and they have dedicated a Memorial Garden at Lane Tech in honor of those graduates. Never forget.

The Carl Schurz JROTC “Bulldog Battalion” with 280 cadets is one of the original Chicago JROTC programs, established in 1919. The “Bulldogs” participated in more than 100 school and community events and competitions this year including multiple veterans support events. Service over self.

Edwin G. Foreman College and Career Academy Army JROTC will be marching with 175 of the 415 cadets in their program led by a Color Guard and a 10 Member Drum & Bugle Corps. In case you did not know, Edwin G. Foreman is an outstanding Chicago banker and civic leader. The school first opened in October 1928, as a Junior High School and became a senior high school, graduating the first senior class in 1937. JROTC has been a fixture at Foreman since 1934.

There are dozens of other JROTC units represented in this year’s parade. They are marching alongside veteran’s groups, service organizations, military-themed floats, bands, mounted color guards and one of the largest contingents of antique military vehicles you will ever see. 

A personal favorite is the Triple Nickles. The esteemed veterans of this storied battalion known as "The Smokejumpers" will not be marching, but riding in a trolley, a ride they earned a long time ago.

If you are an early riser, you will see a few televised morning features about the ceremony and parade on local television. Jim Frazier may be among those individuals who will be telling you about it.

Jim will also tell you to ask about the son or daughter of a Gold Star family member when you meet them ... what was their name... what did they like to do ... what career path they were on.  Jim will ask you to then stop, take a moment, and listen to their story, feel their resolve, and recognize the unlimited strength of will of our Gold Star family members.

Only then will you begin to understand the true meaning of Memorial Day.

Ed Tracy
May 24, 2018

MEMORIAL DAY EVENTS

RISHI SHARMA: Preserving World War II Combat Stories, One Veteran at a Time

Rishi Sharma has logged a lot of hours on the road in recent years, connecting, meeting and filming interviews with combat veterans who served in World War II. To date, he has amassed a comprehensive archive of over 850 interviews – easily over 4,500 total hours and counting — all part of his ambitious plan to honor America’s World War II heroes and preserve their stories for generations to come.

It is a lofty goal and he is determined to press on until there are no stories left to tell. In a relatively short time, Sharma has generated impressive public exposure and private support for his project. He is patient, polite, responsive and well-prepared, treating each veteran he meets with respectful reverence for their service and sacrifice.

There is one more thing that Rishi Sharma brings with him whenever and wherever he is conducting his interviews: a youthful curiosity and enthusiasm that has no seeming limitations.

That’s because Rishi Sharma just turned 20 years old.

It is hard not to be inspired by Sharma or his vision for a perfect world where veterans of World War II never die. He is driven to do all he can every day to meet and thank veterans while recording video of their story. He wants more people to reach out to the veterans in their communities before it is too late, and has created a step-by-step guide with sample questions to make the process easier.

His mission has garnered local and national media attention. CBS Sunday Morning has profiled Sharma twice in recent years, helping to catapult the program that he started in high school by visiting local veterans homes and senior centers to a broad-based national campaign. He has established a not-for profit organization that has already raised over $180,000 through a successful GoFundMe campaign started in May 2016. That funding has allowed Sharma to travel greater distances for his interviews, typically conducting two or more per day depending on the location. He provides a copy of the finished product to each family and is exploring options now for a permanent home for the collection.

What moves you most about Sharma is his determination to inspire others. His hope is that his generation will mobilize and embrace these extraordinary veterans as mentors, thank them for their service and utilize all the technological resources to post their stories online as part of a national archive at: #ww2vets.

Rishi Sharma joined the conversation as he was travelling by car from Fond De Lac, Wisconsin — where he met with James ‘Maggie’ Megellas, the most decorated veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division, on the occasion of his 101st birthday — by way of an interview in Rockford, Illinois toward his final destination, a veteran meeting in Champaign, Illinois …  just another day in the life of a young man on a mission to preserve World War II combat stories, one veteran at a time. PODCAST

Rishi Sharma ...“Ever since I was a little kid, I've always been interested in World War II and I've always been fascinated talking to the older veterans. In high school. I visited a lot of nursing homes and I interviewed a lot of the World War II veterans there and I got hooked on it. I started calling up veterans who I'd read about in books with the idea that I could talk to like a real-life hero about what was written about them in a book and hear their side of what they went through.”

For future generations ...“I know that it means a lot to the families of the veterans I have interviewed to have that 4 to 5 hour filmed interview of their grandpa or their dad talking about what it was like going through hell. For future generations, that's going to mean a lot. They won't just get to know their grandfather's name, but they'll get to know what their great, great grandpa looked like, how he talked, how he laughed, how he cried and who he really was.”

Following their life journey ...“I prioritize combat World War II veterans and tend to focus on the infantry. My purpose is truly to highlight the sacrifices made in combat so that we could have a chance at life today, 75+ years later. … when I meet the veterans, basically the interviews follow a pattern. We talk about growing up in the great depression, what it was like as a kid, how they heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. And then we dive straight into following their life journey. It's a chronological interview. … how they ended up in the service, whether they enlisted or they were drafted, and then the focus is on the battles that they saw, what their role was, their friends who didn't make it, the things that they had to see, the things that they had to do, the struggles of the living conditions in combat, the fear of not knowing if you're going to make it another day.”

One-on-One ...You're talking to people who saw the worst of the worst and had to do the worst of the worst and now to bring back those memories after 70+ years, it takes a lot out of the person being interviewed but also out of the interviewer because it's a tough thing to talk about killing people and seeing your friends die. I'm in a very fortunate position because I have three major things going for me. … my age, I just turned 20 and I'm the same age as a lot of the veterans were when they were in combat. … I do a lot of research before our interviews. It's important to know the difference between a company and a platoon, a division or what a certain division did in a certain battle. … it's hard enough for the veterans to talk about the worst days of their life, but it's even harder when they have to talk about it and try to explain it in terms that a civilian would understand. … the most important thing that I have going for me is that I'm not related to any of these veterans, so there's no emotional attachment and these men can sit down one-on-one with me and just talk as if I'm one of the guys and they know that they won't be judged.”

#WW2VETS ...“A lot of people will come to me and say, “My grandpa never talks about it. He wouldn't talk about the war.”  “My father never talks about it.” … but in all honesty, it's really because people don't ask. If you don't ask, they won't bring it up on their own. … all you have to do is whip out your phone and instead of taking a selfie, why not actually contribute to history, take a photo of a World War II veteran, add a caption to it and post it online at #ww2vets. A hundred years from now, historians will be digging through the online archives and they will find a composite image of all these different social media posts and videos that people have made. It took them like two seconds to make, to take a short video or take a picture, but they've contributed to this big composite image of what it was like to be a World War II combat veteran and what they went through.”

Comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

PHOTO CREDIT: Rishi Sharma|Heroes of the Second World War

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Rishi Sharma's website(www.HeroesOfTheSecondWorldWar.org) offers detailed information about conducting interviews in your community, the World War II Veteran for A Day media initiative and how you can make a donation to support this initiative at: www.gofundme.com/ww2heroes.

Special thanks to Regus Chicago, the market leader for office space, for their support of our program.

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