All the War’s a Stage
Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, Jason Christopher Hartley is a member of the New York Army National Guard. After serving at Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks, Hartley was stationed in Iraq, where he maintained the controversial blog Just Another Soldier until he was forced to stop by his commander. He is the creator of "Surrender," a play based on his wartime experiences, as well as the author of the book "Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq."
Question: How did you develop a play based on your experience?
Jason Christopher Hartley: The play in a nutshell for me personally was a complete headfuck. It was a great experience. OK, let me back up. There is a guy that I worked with as a military advisor on a film. For his film he needed a bunch of actors to be trained to look like soldiers, so I did some basic training with these actors. I taught them some really plain vanilla, close-quarters, like urban warfare-type stuff. He loved the training and wanted to figure out a way to take the training and actually make it part of an audience participation play. This play got called “Surrender” and the way that it worked is we would have the audience members come in. We would issue them boots, uniform, and a replica rifle, and then for an hour and a half I would train them in the basics of weapons handling and close-quarters battles and then after the training was complete we had like a little complex we had built in the theater of like nine or ten rooms. They would go through and they would utilize all the training that I had just given them, which involved encountering civilians and sometimes bad guys, sometimes shooting, sometimes not shooting, people would die, sometimes their comrades would die, and then after that act was finished there would be kind of a more… There was like a surreal third act where we explored various issues that soldiers might deal with on the return from combat.
Question: How did acting out your real-life war feel?
For me it was strange because I wasn’t playing a character named, you know, Sergeant Joe Snuffy. I was Jason Christopher Hartley who was just simply training audience members when they came in. I’m not an actor and I didn’t see it as acting. I was just kind of doing what I do in the Army. The soldiers who I… The soldiers, the actors who I trained to be soldiers they were all actors. They were pretty good at what I had taught them to do, but they didn’t … They used pseudo-names, so they were Sergeant Smith. They were Sergeant Best, so it was kind of that line between what went on… Am I playing a character or am I playing myself was weird.
For me that was the headfuck because then I’m like, well, I’m basically acting in a way that I normally do in the Army except to its maximum. I mean I definitely can, at times, if I need to… I’m generally not really an authoritarian leader when it comes to my soldiers. I’m kind of laissez-faire and I’m only very strict and authoritarian when it’s absolutely necessary. That’s just not how I want to be, which sometimes makes my life miserable in the Army, but whatever. That’s a whole other issue. For this I was definitely turning up to ten my ability to be, you know, a very loud, very strict authoritarian leader, which is what was necessary for the experience to be good in my opinion for the audience members.
You know, I got very close to the cast and sometimes audience members who would come on a regular basis and they… It feels kind of weird talking about this, but I felt as though I was adored by so many people because I was such a tremendous asshole and that went completely against—and it’s kind of like all that, I feel as though I have issues with my father and I dislike him because he’s an authoritarian. Now what am I doing now? I’m like authority personified for an hour and a half in this play, but now everyone likes me, but it’s not really me because you know I’m kind of this laid-back nice guy who wants to model himself after Jeff Buckley, but now suddenly I’m getting love and respect I’ve never gotten the rest of my life and like the whole… It became tricky, the identity thing. Who am I? Am I acting? Is this me? Am I playing a character? I don’t know. I really still haven’t even come even remotely close to sort of reconciling this. I don’t know and then we’re supposed to do the play again in Germany in like in the summer and it’s, I don’t know.
Question: What was it like for the audience?
Jason Christopher Hartley: I put a lot of effort into trying to construct how the first… especially the first act and the second act of the play worked to try to get a person or maybe the average person to sort of experience that sense of disorientation, and it’s really not that difficult to construct that situation.
First off, constant pressure has to be applied to the person as they come in, so when an audience member comes in they don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. I automatically am kind of, you know, terse or loud, yelling at people, telling them this and that. The idea was to always keep the people at least a little bit off balance, so you always kind of have an elevated heart rate. Your motor skills kind of go to crap. When you’re the least bit stressed out making simple decisions can be incredibly difficult and -- but that is the whole experience, is having that pressure applied, putting a person in a very unfamiliar situation and then forcing them to make at least on a theoretical level extremely big decisions, the biggest one, of course, being like whether or not to kill. And granted we have like plastic rifles that don’t even, you know, go bang. It was still incredibly interesting to watch people who are under this small amount of pressure in what’s basically a very safe environment… We’re in a downtown theater. They know it’s not for real. There’s all these actors and to still see the way in which… the way… how they would make decisions. Who would shoot? Who would not shoot? People would come out of the second act crying for various reasons, like oh, I had no idea it was so easy to kill, and then I saw even like my girlfriend at the time, she came through. She like blasted everybody without hesitation. She’s a pastor, you know, so it was, from our side of things, you know, being part of the cast it was a lot of fun to watch, to see people, how they would respond under pressure and -- but that’s exactly the way that it kind of was for us, you know, granted it’s on a bigger scale, but also the thing that I really wanted to try to have happen with the play was the sense of disorientation that takes place once you’re finished doing that combat stuff. What I wanted to have happen was the audience members leave a room. They had just finished shooting somebody, whatever. They go into a room. It’s a cocktail party. Someone takes your rifle, hands you a martini and you’re like, “Hey, so what was the war like? Where you’re like, “Dude, I was just in combat like five seconds ago and you’re already asking me what was it like.” Like, “What kind of a fucking question is that?”
And so we’d try, and I think we succeeded relatively well, and we’d have… Everything is thrown at these people for like two, two and a half hours of training, the simulated combat in the rooms, and then suddenly they’re back. We take the rifle. We give them the beer. There’s music playing. There’s dancing. There’s like, you know, cabaret and burlesque and all this and that’s… we just so much wanted to create that sense of like, what the fuck just happened.
Jason Christopher Hartley on creating "Surrender," a play about his Army experience.
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