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How Shakespeare Helps These Wisconsin Veterans Suffering From PTSD

Feast of Crispian

A little over a year ago, Feast of Crispian began holding weekend Shakespeare intensives at the Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee-based organization uses the characters and words of Shakespeare to work with veterans suffering from PTSD and other mental health and reintegration issues. The goal of the weekend intensives are to give veterans the experience of feeling an emotion, without requiring them to express it.

"We never ask the veterans to share their personal stories, we give them an ability to to express the largeness of whatever their personal stories are with the mask of character and this container of the words of Shakespeare," co-founder Nancy Smith-Watson says. "They don't have to use their own words, they don't even have to be themselves necessarily. They are playing a character and that gives them the ability to hide a little bit behind that, and yet at the same time, release a lot of pent up emotions and to express themselves."

Veterans come in on a Friday evening and can choose whether to stay the whole weekend. Most do, even those who were initially reluctant.

Credit Feast of Crispian
Scene partners having just completed a scene from Henry V.

"After the first Friday night, I was blown away by how quickly this group of people who really didn't know each other came together as a group. They would not have missed the rest of the weekend for anything," Shep Crumrine says. He's a creative arts therapist on staff at the Milwaukee VA and a key partner in making these weekends possible for the veterans.

Crumrine has worked with some of the veterans after they have participated in the weekend intensive and has seen them incorporate what they have learned into their overall recovery process. He says Feast of Crispian enables the vets to go a little bit further in their recovery.

Speaking the charged language of Shakespeare allows veterans to learn that they can have an intense experience and survive it, Crumrine says. They are okay afterwards and this makes it much more possible for them to go deeper into their own personal therapy.

Smith-Watson says research has shown that the use of rhyme and meter gets parts of the brain talking to each other that PTSD disrupts. The acting also requires the body. "I'm really interested in bringing their bodies into it. One of the ways that we protect ourselves and one of the things that PTSD does it cuts the body off," Smith-Watson says. "It keeps the veterans from being able to have any sensation, not just emotional sensation."

Shakespeare does that by working with the breath and the heartbeat. "It really gets straight into the body on a very tangible level,"Smith-Watson says. It disrupts the behavioral loop the veterans can themselves into because it is so different. They can imagine doing things differently because their pattern gets broken and opens up more possibilities, she adds.

Feast of Crispian is holding its sixth intensive at the Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee this weekend and plans to hold more in the future. This program is open to all veterans and their family members. If you are interested in participating, contact Feast of Crispian through their website.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.