The Drama of War Reporting
February 23, 2012 1:44 p.m.
Seema Sueko is director of “How I Got That Story”, and co-founder and executive artistic director of Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company.
Brian Bielawski is an actor, and plays the reporter in “How I Got That Story”.
Greg Watanabe is an actor, and plays “The Historical Event” in “How I Got That Story”.
Related Story: The Drama Of War Reporting
CAVANAUGH: It is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The news out of Syria this week has become increasingly disturbing and deadly. And some of the people at risk are the very ones bringing us that news. Four western journalists have died covering the uprising in Homs, one of them Marie Colvin. With this as a backdrop, the new play at Mo'olelo performing arts becomes almost eerily relevant. How I got this story focuses on an eager American reporter plunged into the confusion that passes for truth during war time. Seema Sueko is director and artist director and founder of Mo'olelo.
SUEKO: Thank you so much.
CAVANAUGH: And Brian Bielawski plays the reporter in how I got this story.
CAVANAUGH: And Greg Watanabe is another actor, and he prays the historical event. And we'll find out about that. Hi
CAVANAUGH: Now, Seema, in light of this recent news out of Syria, is this play going to help people learn more about the dangers that journalists face when they're covering wars?
SUEKO: Yes, in a way. Our reporter in the play goes through quite a few things as he's reporting in this fictional country on the fictional war. He experiences an ambush in which he takes some shrapnel in his body. He goes on a bomb run, and that plane crashes. He's then taken captive by the guerilla. So he does go through quite a few traumatic events. There are a couple of significant differences though. In our play, the reporter is there with PERB mission from the government. And with that permission also comes a compromise of his ability to report on the truth. So for example, in his very first day there, he reports on a monk who sets himself on fire in protest of the government. He said then summoned by the government leader who accuses him of bribing the monk to do that. And he's -- it's essentially made very clear to him that he cannot tell the whole truth. So in contrast to what happened in Syria where the journalists are not there with the permission of the government, you can see the jeopardy, the greater jeopardy that they're in.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Brian and Greg, I'd like briefly to get your take on this. When the news came over about journalists being killed, trying to cover a war situation in Syria, what did that do to the way you're looking at your role, prian?
BIELAWSKI: It's just -- it made me experience within the play more relevant. It feels like it's more important work now that's being done. And it creates for me a greater honor in being involved in presenting it to San Diego.
CAVANAUGH: And Greg?
WATANABE: Yeah, I reflect that also. I feel like it really brings home how important it is to tell these kinds of stories. Funny enough it's about people who are story tellers too, who are doing reporting on things. And how important it is to know that there is a lens through which everything is focused. And there are dangers involved, and what happens -- the things, the sacrifices that people like that need to make are one thing, but what they're sacrificing for is the information that we get, and how it enriches our lives or increases our understanding of the world.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Seema, as you alluded to, are with the idea of a monk burning, this was a play that was written and first performed in 1979, and it really was about -- based on the Vietnam war. Do you find this plot line actually is relevant? Does it go along with what we understand about recent wars as well?
SUEKO: Yes, I think so. I think there are several themes that are very relevant today that we find in this play. The first is sort of the experience that a veteran -- anybody who's experienced combat. When we send people who war, we cannot expect that they will come out of that unscathed or not transformed. And in this play, our reporter goes to this fictional country, and in the end he's quite lost and has lost his sense of home. So I think that's a theme about what happens when we send people to war. The other is the profiteering of war. In this play, we meet several characters who survive the confusion of war by finding a way to make money off of it. And the third is the lens through which we see a story. When I was prepping this play, we were withdrawing our troops from Iraq. And NPR did a story on a -- a retrospective on that. And Anne Garrels talked about the day that the Saddam Hussein statue came down. And she said in the for you saw, it looked very joyful. But she said for those of us who were there, there were only a few Iraqis trying to get the statue down. The Marines came in and did the heavy-lifting, and then she said if you opened the lens wider, you saw across the street a number of Iraqis just standing there thinking what happens next? And that really hit home to me with this play, that the story we get whether it's about a war or any event, it's all told through a filter. Is it this lens, is it the lens to your left, is it to your back? And that's a lot of what's in this play.
CAVANAUGH: Before we take a break, I do want to mention the fact that this strangely enough is a comedy, isn't it, Brian?
BIELAWSKI: Yeah, it is. And I was actually, when we got into the rehearsal room, I was surprised by how much comedy is in there. Just reading it, I knew it was funny, but I didn't realize how much. And I forget who said it, make them laugh, then when their mouths are open, pour in the castor oil. And I feel like we pretty much have in act one, that disarms the audience. I think people are almost coming in expecting to be confronted. So we're, like, no, let's have a sense of humor about this, which points out the absurdity of war which allows for the second act that goes to a darker place. And the audience has now been drawn in, and they're able to receive that instead of pushed away.
CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us briefly about what you think about the journalist that you play?
BIELAWSKI: I think that he is a very -- almost child like in his innocence. I was thinking about this the other night. Most guys who went over were younger. The soldiers were 18 and 20. And I was conceiving of the journalist as this older man. But no, he's probably around that same age. So he's got a real boyhood sense of excitement, which opens him up to fall when he's there.
CAVANAUGH: When we return, we'll hear a scene from the new Mo'olelo production of "How I Got That Story."
Welcome back. We're talking about the new production of Mo'olelo performing art, "How I Got That Story". It's a a dark comedy about how an unprepared reporter survives in a war zone. My guests are the play's director, Seema Sueko, and Brian billowski, and Greg Watanabe. Brian who plays the war correspondent in the fictional ambodollars land, has just been wounded in the field. His bureau chief visits him in the hospital. Here's that scene.
WATANABE: I guess you know you got off pretty easy.
BIELAWSKI: Yes, I guess I did
WATANABE: Good luck for you, bad luck for transpan global.
WATANABE: This thing has hit us in the middle of a gore gap. A little guy lost his esophagus last week. We haven't had an injury for five months! Outlets don't believe you're covering a war unless some blood flows with ink. On such and such a day, our correspondent Sallied forth to get the news. In the performance of his duty he was wounded! Where? Took a little shrapnel. Where? He took a little shrapnel in the ass! Not too impressive. Let me ask you something. Why should we accept that you were wounded where you were and let the whole of transpan global look like numb nuts. Are you with me? When half a foot from your perforated fanny is your spine!
BIELAWSKI: My spine?
WATANABE: We're going to say it lodged beneath your lower vertebrae.
BIELAWSKI: How short?
WATANABE: Three months
BIELAWSKI: Three months!
WATANABE: The spine is a very tricky area.
BIELAWSKI: Why do you assume I'll go along with this?
WATANABE: We brought you here.
WATANABE: To amboland
BIELAWSKI: That's supposed to make me grateful?
WATANABE: Don't you like it here?
BIELAWSKI: What makes you even possibly imagine that I like it here?
WATANABE: By this point in their tour, we found that most reporters have experienced imprintment a reporter goes to cover a country, and the country covers him.
BIELAWSKI: You think that amboland is covering me?
WATANABE: It's just a guess.
CAVANAUGH: That's a scene from the play, "How I Got That Story". It's the new production at Mo'olelo performing arts. Thank you so much for that. Greg, to put it mildly, you've got some multiple roles going on in this. How many parts do you play?
WATANABE: I think it's been counted out at 20. I haven't really counted it out, but I think that's what it is.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about a few of them. We just heard the bureau chief.
WATANABE: That's the bureau chief who employs the reporter, the hero of our story as it were. Some of the other characters are the leader of the country of amboland, who is something of a monarch. And so that's a really interesting character because she does Beijing opera. And that was fun too because I got some pointers on how to do Beijing opera.
CAVANAUGH: You never know when that's going to come in handy.
[ LAUGHTER ]
WATANABE: Exactly! And I get to play a photographer who's somewhat sociopathic, I guess you would say. And that's a really fun scene at the end of act one.
CAVANAUGH: Do these different roles require costume changes for you?
WATANABE: Tons, yes. I play a prostitute at one point so I have to put on a Cheongsam, which is a Vietnamese dress. And wigs and different things, hatses. And it's crazy.
CAVANAUGH: It sounds extremely challenging. It's so crucial in a play like this where there's lots of characters, limited number of actors, to have a rapport between your actors. What influenced your casting decisions?
SUEKO: I certainly would not have done this play if Greg and Brian didn't agree to it. They worked together in our production of yellow face in 2010, and were fantastic. When I read the play, I immediately thought of the two of them. I knew for the role of the historical event, I needed an actor who had great comic timing, who was a Camillian. And Greg works with an improv troupe called mighty mountain warriors. So I've seen a lot of their work. And for the role of the reporter, I needed someone who could take the full emotional arc of this journey and take us from beginning to end. And I knew that Brian had that talent and training. And it's been wonderful collaborating with them temperature feels like a true class action in the rehearsal room.
CAVANAUGH: One of the things I think is already remarkable about this production which debuts -- has its first preview tonight. You were eager to find out how people who were actually in war zones would react to this play. Why was that something you were interested in?
SUEKO: Well, for us at Mo'olelo, it's soming we do with every play. We deliberately pick plays that give us an opportunity to outreach to communities that don't traditionally attend the theatre. In this case, it was the veteran and military communities. And so then we go out of our way to meet them and ask them for their opinions on the play, to help us shape it and to give us a sense of authenticity. I have a friend who says every production of any play is informed by the time it was written, the time that you are producing it, where you are producing it, and the time that it takes place. And so certainly where and when you're producing the play will inform each production. So getting community voices was very important.
CAVANAUGH: Did you have a number of veterans who were eager to talk about this and silt in your rehearsals, right?
SUEKO: I think we had about four or five who came in over the course of the rehearsal period. Some came in and sat in on the very first readthrough where we then opened it up for them to share their very immediate thoughts. Others came in to help us stage the scene that takes place in the field. We didn't -- we needed to know what it was like to walk through the jungles of Vietnam.
CAVANAUGH: What was that like to have veterans at your rehearsals, maybe even your first readthrough?
BIELAWSKI: We did have them at the first readthrough. It was really incredible for me. It made the play real. I think without interacting with the veterans and hearing what they had to say, it would have existed for me as just a great piece of theatre, another job. Having them in there and sharing their story, I really got the gravity of war and their experience. With the reporters who were killed, it just became more of an honor for me to be able to do this work. It became way more important for me after hearing, gosh, just what a big deal this was and what a big deal it is for us to do the play at this time.
CAVANAUGH: And Seema, you've been collecting stories from local veterans and civilians. Who will they be used in the production?
SUEKO: We recognize that the play is a fiction. So we wanted real stories from real people who experienced and survived war. So we've posted these videos on our YouTube channel. And then every performance preshow, 30 minutes before the curtain of our show, we're playing a number of the videos in the theatre. And so we encourage people to get there a half-hour early to catch all of those.
CAVANAUGH: To see some real YouTube videos from veteran before they see the play. "How I Got That Story" begins previews tonight. It opens March 2nd. The play runs through March 18th at Mo'olelo performing arts at the 10th avenue theatre downtown. Thank you so much, all of you for coming in and sharing.
WATANABE: Thank you
BIELAWSKI: You're welcome.
SUEKO: Thank you.