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For William Massolia, Griffin Theatre Company's Founder and Artistic Director, the last ten years touring LETTERS HOME has been an extraordinary journey that has elevated his understanding of the commitment of our military and the family members who support them. That journey continues in April when LETTERS HOME returns for a run at The Den Theatre in rotating repertory with GHOSTS OF WAR, a new one-man show based on the book by Ryan Smithson. 

After viewing a documentary in 2004, Massolia made the decision to create a theatrical piece based on Iraq and Afghanistan letters. Following a successful 2007 Chicago run, LETTERS HOME went on the road and has been seen by an audience of over 100,000 in 100 cities across the country with the cast and production team participating in post-performance discussions with family members, students and veterans organizations.

Massolia’s new production, GHOSTS OF WAR, is based on the true story of Ryan Smithson, who joined the Army Reserve at 17 and was deployed to Iraq two years later as an Army Engineer. Smithson’s acclaimed 2010 memoir became a bestseller in Youth Adult Military and praised as an unforgettable story of the realities of war. Massolia worked with Smithson to develop the one-man show for its upcoming Chicago premiere at The Den Theatre.

William Massolia joined the conversation on March 23rd to talk about the development process and the profound impact of these real life stories of service and sacrifice. PODCAST

The human side … “I really thought that the letters exposed the real humanity that lies within the war as seen through the eyes of the men and women fighting it. And that's really what I wanted to tell in the play … to expose the human side of it.”

What the letters tell us … “Most of the letters touch on the fact that people would rather be home than fighting in a war. Very few of the letters that I've found, to be honest with you, touched on questioning the job at all. They knew they were there to do what they had to do and a lot of them enlisted after 911, so, they knew what they were getting in to. Some of the letters do comment on them knowing that people don't feel exactly comfortable with what they're doing there, but they have to sort of remove that because they can't let that cloud their judgment or cloud what their job is there because if they start to question it, then they could put themselves in harm's way or put somebody else in harm's way. So, it touches on that a little bit, but not too much because when people are writing letters home, they want to know about what's going on with the family. They want to tell people how much they miss them. They want to let them know that they're fine.”

A universal theme… “I'm not sure if any of the letters reflect them knowing there was an end in sight. I think they were more focused on what their job at hand was. It obviously would be hard for them to predict, if they were deployed in 2004, I don't think they could predict that we'd still be there in 2010. … a lot of the letters reflect wanting to help the Iraqi people. That a fairly universal theme throughout.”

About the cast … “There are 10 actors … nine of the actors portray servicemen and servicewomen. …each of those nine actors portray one individual and you will hear a series of the letters over the course of an entire deployment. … one actress portrays four different mothers and the letters are about four different issues that surround the war.”

A broad spectrum of individuals … “I have to be honest, when I first created the show, I didn't know anybody in the military, not a single person. I was moved by what I saw on the documentary and thought, ‘Oh, this is something I want to create.’ But at this point, 10 years later, after meeting hundreds of veterans, I feel I have a pretty good understanding of what, these men and women go through and what they expect from us. I don't think a lot of them really want the thanks so much as they just want people to understand who they are and why they chose that life. … I think the show sheds a light on that, whether you agree with it or not is certainly up to you. But I think that I've learned that the military is made up of a broad spectrum of individuals with a lot of different ideologies and mindsets. I think what binds them together is that they all have a strong love of this country and they wanted to do something that is probably bigger than just themselves.”

On the book “Ghosts of War” … Ryan (Smithson) wrote it after he came back from his deployment …enrolled in college … took a creative writing class and his professor told him he should write about his deployment. And he was like, ‘I don't want to talk about that or write about that.’ And, finally, he got up enough courage and wrote one piece and when he turned it in, his professor said, ‘Oh, well now you know, everybody's going to read their pieces out loud to everybody in the class.’ So, he had to go up in front of the class and read it out loud to everybody. He hadn't even told his wife this story and now he's going to read it to a bunch of strangers. But he did that and it became the basis for the book because with the encouragement of his professor, he started to write more pieces and then basically put the book together.”

About the stage version … “He's been quite involved in the production. …it follows his deployment and then coming home and readjusting to civilian life. … he talks a lot about the reasons he enlisted and what you have to go through in basic training … about loss … what's great about the book is he's not the Navy Seal and ‘Lone Survivor’. … he's just this regular guy doing his job.”

Presented in rotating repertory at the Den Theatre April 6th through May 6th … “Each show is performed three times a week …Thursday and Friday will be the alternating nights for the two shows. On Saturday and Sunday, the two shows are flipped.”

Commentary has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Photos Courtesy of Griffin Theatre Company


In Rotating Repertory
April 6th through May 6th

1331 N. Milwaukee Ave
Chicago, IL 60622
Box Office: 773-697-3830

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