Lights, sound, stage: how Shakespeare is equipping veterans with work skills at the West LA VA

Donnie Williams, part of the Shakespeare Center of L.A. Veterans in Art crew working on the risers for the Japanese Garden stage at the West LA VA.
Donnie Williams, part of the Shakespeare Center of L.A. Veterans in Art crew working on the risers for the Japanese Garden stage at the West LA VA.
Libby Denkmann/KPCC

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In June, the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles (SCLA) is returning to the Japanese Garden on the West LA VA campus for a production of Henry IV. The program beginning June 5 marks a return to the campus after a four-year hiatus. But before Tom Hanks takes the stage as Sir John Falstaff, dozens of military veterans are training behind-the-scenes with technical theater experts to bring the show to life.

On Friday, a team of veterans was assembling metal scaffolding for stadium seating in the outdoor theater, preparing for 600 audience members to gather in this wooded area of the VA grounds. They’d already poured work into the garden itself, which needed some TLC after a few years of neglect.

Veterans in Arts program participants assemble stadium seating for the upcoming Henry IV production in the Japanese Garden on the West LA VA campus. Left-to-right: Kevin Lam, Bradley Wassil, Jeffrey Sonnenberg, Jonathan Willet.
Veterans in Arts program participants assemble stadium seating for the upcoming Henry IV production in the Japanese Garden on the West LA VA campus. Left-to-right: Kevin Lam, Bradley Wassil, Jeffrey Sonnenberg, Jonathan Willet.
Libby Denkmann/KPCC

“This place was overgrown, there was trash, it was a wreck,” said Marine Corps veteran Darrell Morrison. “We’ve done landscaping, laid a brick walkway, cleaned out the pond, built picnic tables, repainted the bridges, put up the truss system and the stage. Today we’re focused on seating.”

Morrison is one of 35 veterans learning industry skills on the job as part of the non-profit SCLA’s Veterans in Art program, which works with the Employment Services office at the West L.A. VA to recruit chronically unemployed vets and provide hands-on mentoring from theater pros. It's compensated work, and the vets can also enroll in technical theater courses at Southern California community colleges, paid for by the Shakespeare Center.

Left-to-right: Jonathan Willet, Shawn Mckelvey, Derek Magee, and Donnie Williams.
Left-to-right: Jonathan Willet, Shawn Mckelvey, Derek Magee, and Donnie Williams.
Libby Denkmann/KPCC

“They’re teaching us how to do everything from lights, sound, the stage, all of it. It’s awesome because it’s vets helping vets. You get that sense of camaraderie and unit cohesion,” he said.

Morrison served as an 0351 Infantry Assaultman stationed at Twentynine Palms, a job that involves making things blow up: basically “a guy who shoots a rocket launcher and also makes charges if they need to take out any kind of weapons caches,” he explained. But he was injured in the Marines, and then the prescription pain medication he was prescribed took over his life.

Andrew Mahoney is a formerly homeless Army veteran.
Andrew Mahoney is a formerly homeless Army veteran. "This is without a doubt the best therapy I've gotten through the VA," Mahoney said. "The hard work, the laughter, the feeling of breaking a sweat first thing in the morning. It really makes you feel alive. It's very gratifying, good for the self confidence, and it helps answer questions about what's next."
Libby Denkmann/KPCC

Now in recovery, the SCLA program appealed to Morrison because he used to write poetry, and once wanted to be an actor. Now he credits the theater tech job training with helping bolster his reintegration into civilian life.

“I’ve been in hell the last 5 years,” he said. “It’s helped me learn how to balance my life out and be productive again.”

Navy veteran Chad Rowlette started as a student in the program.

“I’m not an actor or anything like that, I’m just a builder,” he laughed. “But it feels good to have a hand in the production.”

Chad Rowlette is platoon leader at site supervisor for Henry IV production with Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles.
Chad Rowlette is platoon leader at site supervisor for Henry IV production with Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles.
Libby Denkmann/KPCC

He’s now the platoon leader and site supervisor for the Henry IV project at the Japanese Garden.

“I liked the job, and I stayed on with them. And they gave me the opportunity to hire more veterans for the program to get them in the transition back into civilian work,” Rowlette said.

The veterans come into the program fairly green, but “they are willing to learn. They’re very receptive for everything that’s going on and they’re very hungry to learn this industry,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.”

Donnie Williams (left) and Shawn Mckelvey working behind-the-scenes on Henry IV for the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles.
Donnie Williams (left) and Shawn Mckelvey working behind-the-scenes on Henry IV for the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles.
Libby Denkmann/KPCC

“There’s no shortage of veterans who are seeking employment,” said P.J. Stigers, program manager of Employment Services at the West L.A. VA Hospital. “The goal here is to transition skills they learn on the job site into the community to find full-time jobs.”

His office works with treatment teams at the VA hospital to match veterans with employment specialists who help develop jobs skills—things like targeting their search, practicing in mock interviews, and honing resumes.   

“If there are business owners in the community who would like to hire veterans, they should reach out to us to recruit,” Stigers said.

Ben Donenberg is the founder and artistic director of Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles.
Ben Donenberg is the founder and artistic director of Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles.
Libby Denkmann/KPCC

“Servicemembers are taught a lot of skills in the military. But when they come back there’s an opportunity to shift their mindset into a creative place,” said SCLA founder and artistic director Ben Donenberg. “I see this as an antidote to what they do in the armed services, to help them reunite with each other in a creative environment.”

Info on tickets to see Henry IV is available here.

The Japanese Garden at the West LA VA is getting a facelift ahead of the opening of Henry IV on June 5.
The Japanese Garden at the West LA VA is getting a facelift ahead of the opening of Henry IV on June 5.
Libby Denkmann/KPCC