Veterans' stories told through theater at Jamestown High School

"Everyone came to school today relatively free from fear, are able to speak our minds, and enjoy many freedoms

After Harvey Stone joined Jamestown High School's faculty to teach theater last year, he was surprised when Nov. 11 rolled around with no Veterans Day commemoration.

He decided to change that.

Working with English teacher Valerie Smith, he organized an event Friday in which students in his theater foundations class performed veteran-oriented skits for fellow Jamestown students. They created the acts based on interviews Smith's class conducted with local veterans.

Veterans Day is important to Stone. His father served in Vietnam, his uncle in the Gulf War and both of his grandfathers fought in World War II.

"Last year on Veterans Day, I asked students if they knew anyone who had served or was serving, and many of them had someone," Stone said. "I could tell that they enjoyed telling their stories last Veterans Day and I thought this would be a cool way to capitalize on that."

Smith's ninth grade English class conducted the interviews toward the beginning of the year and in October they got together with the theater students to write scripts.

"The story we put together is parceled out from all of the stories put together," Stone said. "The biggest theme that they identified was that veterans — we think of them as heroic, people to put up on a pedestal, but they have very normal parts of their lives, too."

Most of the narrative portrayed on the stage didn't include harrowing stories from combat, but rather memories from regular life that most people can relate to: imagining what to be when you grow up, graduating high school and leaving your family. Stone said the primary takeaway for many of the students was that veterans are normal people, too.

The four skits flowed together, telling stories of more than four veterans in a seamless 15 minutes.

The first was of a boy who knew he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and join the Army. The second tale featured a soldier joining out of high school. Students acted out the soldier's graduation, his girlfriend breaking up with him before deployment, and leaving his family.

Next was the experience of first entering flight school, then staying to serve 27 more years in the Army. Before the fourth story began, George W. Bush's voice boomed through the auditorium as audio played of him talking about 9/11. The skits culminated in a story about jumping out a plane for the first time into the darkness somewhere over Iraq.

"(Stone) kind of wanted us to go as through life, because in the first one, it's (a veteran) as a kid. The second one is him graduating high school and the third one is flight school and the fourth one is jumping out of a plane," said Zach Pennycuff, a senior who portrayed the soldier in the second skit. "They're all four separate stories but we connected all of them through their life."

Pennycuff said having the event was particularly important to him because his father is a veteran, and he feels there should be more appreciation for the day. John Salsman is also a senior and played a character on stage alongside Pennycuff.

Salsman noted that students don't get the day off from school, and he said without an event to mark the day, "no one really sees, like it's not really important, it just blows by."

After the skits finished, freshman Faith Marasigan took the stage. She asked those in the audience who knew someone currently serving in the military to stand, a few got up. Then she asked those who knew anyone who had ever served to stand — and nearly every person did.

Finally, she asked everyone to stand.

"Everyone standing enjoys the benefits of our democracy," Marasigan said. "Everyone came to school today relatively free from fear, are able to speak our minds, and enjoy many freedoms others around the world do not have. For that, we thank our veterans."

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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